A look at a recent competition ban.
This article was originally published in the March/April 2012 issue of Inside Triathlon magazine.
On November 29, 2011, triathlon experienced a “first.” A reigning world champion received a two-year competition ban from his national anti-doping agency.
The Austrian anti-doping agency, NADA, found 2011 Xterra world champion Michael “Michi” Weiss guilty of having blood drawn for enrichment at the Human Plasma blood lab in Vienna in 2005, an activity that is evidence of using blood-doping to enhance oxygen transport to the muscles. The infraction occurred a year after he represented Austria in the Athens Olympics mountain bike race.
Investigations first started in 2009, when former Tour de France cyclist and now convicted doper Bernard Kohl gave NADA a list of approximately 20 athletes who had used Human Plasma with him. Weiss was on that list. Word reached the triathlon community by the summer of 2010, when Weiss served a temporary suspension from competition while NADA investigated Kohl’s claim.
At the time, Weiss was acquitted because Kohl did not appear in person at the hearing to repeat his accusation. The NADA court documents state that, despite evidence that Weiss was indeed at the Human Plasma lab for blood drawing, the severity of the accusation required Kohl’s presence and restatement in court. Kohl didn’t show, Weiss’ license was reinstated and he raced to a 13th-place finish in Kona that year. Then a separate committee within NADA reviewed the case and found sufficient evidence of doping activities to issue Weiss’ Nov. 29 suspension.
Incidentally, that Kohl didn’t show at the original hearing should not necessarily affect the validity of his accusation. Exposing doping rings can be life-threatening in a Mafioso sort of way, as evidenced by the death-by-garage-door (seriously) of Spanish pro cyclist Xavier Tondo last May shortly after he exposed a doping ring.
How welcoming should triathlon be of infractions from other sports? Weiss was a cyclist in 2005, and his ban is for activities he participated in when he was a cyclist, not a triathlete. Should that make a difference?
It’s a complex question.
Looking at it from a purely physiological standpoint, whether an athlete competed in triathlon or cycling during a time of purported performance enhancement should not make a difference in our judgment of that athlete’s future accomplishments. Training is cumulative, with weeks building upon months upon years. Taller, previously unreachable building blocks facilitated by performance enhancements aren’t simply knocked down by two-year competition bans. In other words: Cycling or triathlon, it doesn’t matter, that athlete’s physiology received unfair assistance that doesn’t go away.
Looking at it from an ethical standpoint makes things a little muddier for two primary reasons. First is the evidentiary issue of testing protocols and their reliability. The current method is to use blood and urine sampling to create biological passports for athletes (which I discussed in more detail in the November/December 2010 edition of this column, “Cleaning Up the Sport”), but anti-doping protocols were less sophisticated in 2005.
In 2007 Weiss failed an anti-doping control prior to the mountain bike world championships with high hematocrit, but he did not test positive for EPO. This is a result consistent with an athlete who is blood doping, although it is not clear-cut proof of such. Another factor that is not in Weiss’ favor is that he was invoiced by Stefan Matschiner (the doping ringleader here, effectively) in the same way that Kohl and other convicted dopers were invoiced.
The second ethical issue is our democratic culture that values individual rights and freedoms. Such values would say that Weiss is innocent until proven guilty beyond the “circumstantial” evidence listed above. Such values would also say that people should be forgiven for prior transgressions once they have served their time. Cyclist Thomas Dekker was also on Kohl’s list and served two years for blood doping. He’ll resume his career in 2012 with the Garmin-Cervélo team, also home to previous doper David Millar. In Weiss’ case, he plans to serve out his two-year ban without an appeal then return to triathlon at the end of 2013.
Both the lack of complete information in anti-doping procedures from years past and our culture of individual freedoms combine to make it seem like Weiss should get a clean slate here in triathlon. This means he’ll be welcomed back after serving his suspension, and his triathlon accomplishments will still stand. Indeed, Xterra senior vice president Dave Nicholas likened the NADA proceedings to a witch hunt. To that I would say: If we can’t trust national federations with anti-doping enforcement per World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) regulations, things are pretty grim.
However, is a clean slate for athletes convicted of doping activities really the best thing for triathlon? Cycling’s example is not one to be lauded—doping scandals have chased away sponsorship dollars and crumbled athletic legitimacy. Weiss’ November suspension was mainstream news, reported on by ESPN, Sports Illustrated, The Washington Post and more.
It’s a crossroads of sorts. Triathlon has an opportunity to either take an accepting, individual rights mentality that favors human-interest stories and forgiving transgressions, or take a hard line on athletes suspended for doping in any sport, no matter their stature. It’s not about conducting witch hunts. It’s about elevating competition while adhering to the rules of fair competition.