Chasing down the cheats
The forecast for the Tour Down Under in South Australia next week is hot and getting hotter, but the fall-out from Lance Armstrong's doping confessions will do even more than the sun to raise temperatures at the first big event of the 2013 racing year.
What everyone in the international cycling fraternity now converging on Adelaide wants to know is, what happens if we all start singing like Armstrong? And will an amnesty for riders who 'fess up be the catalyst to smash the omerta, the code of silence which has protected and perpetuated the drug cheating which has brought the sport into such bitter disrepute?
Yes, yes, yes and yes, answered Armstrong to Oprah Winfrey's questions about whether he had taken performance-enhancing drugs, overturning years of denials. ''I view this situation as one big lie, repeated a lot of times.''
A TV confessional … Lance Armstrong confirms he has used performance-enhancing drugs to Oprah Winfrey. Photo: AP
Even before Armstrong delivered his long-awaited mea culpa on US television, the riders faced a vastly changed landscape in their sport. Since the October report of the United States Anti-Doping Agency declared Armstrong to have led ''the most sophisticated, professionalised and successful doping program sport has ever seen'', the one-time star has been stripped of his seven Tour de France wins and banned from sport for life. While USADA called for a ''truth and reconciliation process'', the scandal has widened to engulf international cycling at every level, with fans outraged, sponsors fleeing, riders betrayed or scared, lawyers preparing their briefs and calls for the sport's administrators to fall on their swords. The vice-president of the national body Cycling Australia, Stephen Hodge, and elite men's road national co-ordinator, Matt White, were the first Australian casualties after admitting to doping.
''It would be naive to not believe there has been an impact'' from the Armstrong scandal, said the president of Cycling Australia, Klaus Mueller.
''Clearly there has, particularly, I think, amongst some of the sponsors,'' he says. Yet the general public's interest in the sport is ''as great now as it has ever been'', and ''interest has continued to increase despite the hiccups''.
Pivotal moment ... Cadel Evans' 2011 Tour de France win. Photo: Getty Images
If it were a movie, the scene would now switch from men in lycra to men in suits. Apart from the Oprah show, the action this week has centred around London's International Cycling Union and the panel it has commissioned to look into its links with Armstrong.
USADA's October report raised allegations that the UCI had protected and collaborated with Armstrong during the years he dominated the Tour de France. UCI, in response, commissioned what it describes as independent panel of three - retired British judge Philip Otton, Paralympic great Tanni-Grey Thompson and Australian senior barrister Malcolm Holmes - to investigate.
They were asked to determine whether the UCI realised that Armstrong and the USPS Team were using performance-enhancing drugs and, if so, whether it failed to respond appropriately, or if not, whether it should have done so.
Hearings are scheduled for London in April, but critics fear it will be an empty process unless witnesses are granted amnesty from sanctions so they can say what they know without fear of prosecution. The UCI initially insisted its role was ''not to act as a doping confessional''.
But this week the World Anti-Doping Agency and USADA withdrew co-operation with the UCI review over the amnesty issue, saying riders and officials would not feel free to come forward without full or partial amnesties.
''An amnesty is necessary to break down the barriers to truth-telling,'' said Mike Ashenden, an adviser to WADA and former member of the UCI's expert blood passport panel.
He said the independent commission operating within the present framework would fail because the riders are too afraid to tell the truth.
''It's indisputable that there is still doping within the peloton, and its also indisputable that an omerta still exists which stops riders from telling the truth about what is happening to them,'' Dr Ashenden said.
An anti-doping consultant, Nicki Vance, who has been commissioned by the Australian Orica-GreenEDGE men's team to review its anti-doping procedures, said that young men seeking to pursue the sport at a high level previously had three choices: ''Whether they continue in the sport and not achieve what they hoped, or make a decision to take drugs, or leave the sport.''
Vance will be in Adelaide next week interviewing riders for her report. She said the GreenEDGE team owner Gerry Ryan had acknowledged that something less than a zero tolerance approach was needed, because ''it would have been crazy to run around talking to people, if the moment that they say something, they get sacked''. She added that of the team's ''current riders in general, I don't have concerns about them doping''.
According to Anne Gripper, a former anti-doping director of UCI and now the chief executive of Triathlon Australia, cycling's present problems are ''ghosts from the past that keep coming up to undermine the great things UCI has done since 2007''. She says stronger testing regimes and a commitment to anti-doping from prominent teams and sponsors have cleaned up the sport so that ''clean riders are able to win the grand tours'' and younger riders now believe they can win without doping. Cadel Evans's 2011 win in the Tour de France was a watershed for the sport, she said.
But now is the time ''to offer certainly lower sanctions for riders who come forward and are able to tell us about what happened in the past, to relieve themselves of the burden they have been carrying and also to make absolutely sure we don't enable a culture to develop to enable just going back to doping''.
All those who have confessed to date have indicated ''that it does make their life better to be able to talk about it'', Ms Gripper said.
Under the WADA code, an admission to doping is an automatic violation, leading to a ban from the sport, typically for two years. This can be reduced for providing information about others, says a sports and anti-doping consultant, Catherine Ordway. The WADA code is currently under revision, leaving scope for changes which could completely revoke rather than merely reduce sanctions, she says. But such an amnesty ''doesn't send a good message to the [athlete] who is clean, when they see an athlete who has been doping and cheating their way to prize money and sponsorships''.
''Who an amnesty applies to needs to be carefully discussed,'' Dr Ashenden said. ''My personal opinion is that it would automatically apply to any rider who used drugs only to enhance their performance. It should not apply to an outside doctor who ran a doping network for their own profit. In between there are grey areas, and exactly where a line is drawn would need to be considered and discussed very carefully to ensure it met everyone's needs.''
But it would be a ''travesty'' if riders spoke out but nothing changed. ''So after the amnesty the onus would shift to authorities to make sure that the changes were ushered in to fix the environment.
''Cycling has become a basket case under the watch of [Hein] Verbruggen and [Pat] McQuaid,'' Dr Ashenden said, reforming to the former and current presidents of UCI.
''When a company runs off the rails, you don't blame the guy on the factory floor - you hold the leader responsible.''
After the independent panel stated publicly this week that an amnesty ''would be in the interests not only of the inquiry, but also of professional cycling as a whole'', the UCI said it would be prepared to offer one, provided the process was consistent with WADA rules.
LANCE ARMSTRONG -TIMELINE
1971: Born in Plano, Texas
1990: First rode for Subaru-Montgomery amateur team
1991: US national team
1992: Begins professional career with Motorola team
1993: Wins gold at Oslo world championships
1996: Diagnosed with testicular cancer
1999: First of seven consecutive Tour de France wins (stripped)
2000: Wins bronze at Sydney Olympics (stripped)
2005: Retires, temporarily
2009: Makes a comeback to cycling
2011: Retires from cycling
2012: Banned by USADA for having used performance enhancing drugs. He does not appeal
2013: Confesses on a chat show