Boonen Coke Positive is the UCI's Ethical Failure

May 9 2009

(The UCI may not be specifically to blame as I’ve indicated here. The arguments that follow remain valid, and apply to all testing bodies.)

boonen fan club shirt by Flickr user InferisI’m furious that the first day of the Giro was ruined by another positive cocaine test from Tom Boonen. But my ire is not directed at the Belgian classics rider. Instead, it’s aimed at the authorities who senselessly soiled his name by announcing a positive test which violates no established protocol, and thus constitutes a clear violation of Article 11 of the UCI’s own internal ethical code [PDF].

Using cocaine in competition, is illegal; its potent stimulant and confidence-boosting powers would be ideal for bunch sprinters. But its use outside of competition is unregulated by anti-doping bodies. People immediately unfamiliar with the full range of its effects on users might say it could be used for weight management, but I assure you, Tom Boonen’s victories should be considered in spite of these positive tests, not because of them.

Beyond the anti-doping auspices of WADA, the UCI has been endowed with near-total authority over cycling. However, there’s nothing—other than a comically-stretched interpretation of the “investigation of facts” clause from Article IX—in the ProTour anti-doping or ethical protocols [PDF] that would be grounds for punishing Boonen, either.

NFL commish Roger Goodall by Flickr user ryan lejbakCertain sporting organizations, most notably the NFL and NBA, have extensive player behavior guidelines. As unfair—and arguably racist—as these policies might be, they are established in writing, and all athletes are aware of them from the moment they ink their contracts. But the ASO, organizer of the Tour de France, has no such guidelines in place, and paradoxically, this lack of regulation allows them to exclude any rider for any reason. If Boonen is once again blocked from riding this July, the ethical indiscretion will lie with the ASO’s if-we-feel-like-it enforcement, not Boonen’s recreational activities.

Even as a criminal case, this positive test is a non-starter. While I’m unfamiliar with penal codes in Europe, I’m also fairly certain that distribution and possession—not testing positive—are the offenses which carry penalties. Prosecutors would have to establish where Boonen was at the time he used the drug to press charges, and even then, it would be tough to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that he ingested them willingly without an eyewitness. If Boonen’s lawyers are feeling lackadaisical, this might result in a plea bargain for community service.

Dope testing is widely regarded as one of the most invasive and inconvenient processes a human being can endure—anyone who follows a cyclist on twitter or has read either of Lance Armstrong’s books can tell you that. But athletes comply with it nonetheless, to prove that their performances, and the races they compete in, are the result of skill, talent and hard work.

doping control by Flickr user gordonrBy releasing news of positive tests that are not prohibited under anti-doping codes, drug testers violate the tremendous trust athletes place in them every day. It is as unacceptable for testing bodies to announce an out-of-competition cocaine positive as it is for them snap a photo of an athlete’s genitals and broadcast it across the Internet.

No one argues that riders aren’t role models, and no one argues that they shouldn’t strive to be model citizens while in the public eye. But blocking Boonen from participation in the Tour de France to “protect the image of cycling” on evidence that he ingested a recreational drug—evidence that never should have been public in the first place—opens the door for his exclusion based on any behavior considered untoward. If Boonen were caught leaving a gay bathhouse on the cover of of Hello!, would it be fair to exclude him for that, too?

The personal decisions an athlete makes are just that—personal. Sometimes (as in this case) they aren’t the best choices, but so long as they don’t violate the codified rules of a sports regulatory body, they should have no impact on what events an athlete is—or is not—allowed to start. Credibility in cycling is a two-way street, and if organizers and enforcers can’t adhere to the rules they’ve set, the sport’s viability is lost all over again.

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18 Responses to “Boonen Coke Positive is the UCI's Ethical Failure”

  1. Thure 9 May 2009 at 5:07 pm #

    Really interesting point. But does it matter?

    Our case:

    UCI tests. They find something in a test (coke) and tell the offenders (Boonens) employer (Quickstep).

    The employer sack him because they dont want drug users on the payroll.

    I say: Thank you, UCI, for telling Boonens employer that he snorts cocain everytime he gets proper drunk.

    Whats the alternative: That UCI find coke, crack and heroine in an athletes blood … and doesnt say anything?

    I’ll take the first option and I wish Boonen a nice stay in rehab and hope he returns a better example for young hopefull athletes.

    /thure,
    Denmark, Europe

  2. bobgade 9 May 2009 at 5:19 pm #

    Well said Cosmo. Good to have someone articulate making the case for reason.

  3. erikv 9 May 2009 at 5:21 pm #

    That’s right – UCI tests, doesn’t find anything on their list, should be case closed.

    If Quickstep wants to test their athletes for such substances, it’s up to them.

    None of our business.

  4. cosmo 9 May 2009 at 5:25 pm #

    Thure: I like the way you’ve broken it down. But I think I can paint a couple of shades of gray into that black-and-white scenario.

    1) Why is the UCI testing out of competition tests for substances that are not prohibited in out of competition tests?

    2) Can the UCI really be tested as an impartial testing body

    3) If the UCI gives Quick.Step the license to ride, and carries out the tests, isn’t there tremendous pressure on Quick.Step to fire a rider once the UCI knows they’re positive.

    I know that if I’m an employer, and my star employee has a coke positive, I’m going to try and quietly get him the help he needs, rather than fire him and announce the positive to the whole world.

    Like erikv says, I think the best result comes from in-house testing.

  5. andrew 9 May 2009 at 5:44 pm #

    You assume there are two tests run by the testing authorities. One for in and one for out of competition. Testing labs have blind samples so they just run the tests. And coke is prohibited in comp so a “non negative” must be declared.

    I agree the loss of Boonen is a nightmare for the average cycling fan.

    But this hoopla wasn’t because the UCI or the labs leaked it – rather that he has very publicly broken the law of his land. The story leaked because he was hauled in for a police interview – and if you’re Tom Boonen, you cant get away with that in Belgium

  6. Anonymous 9 May 2009 at 5:52 pm #

    derrdumkunt, sorry I don’t know the Flemish for …. (I wont say it).
    after I reading this news last night after watching my home rugby team loose it’s top of the table Super 14 Clash, i couldn’t figure out which grieved me more.
    needless to say I did stay up and watch the Giro TTT. And that’s it Cosmo you’ve smashed the hammer on my head. The old the UCI are devoid of any under standing of cycling. The are the modern day equalivant of the Sadducees to the wonder hippy called Jesus. They don’t get it. They make all the laws and get their Levi, McIrish to apply them and pass comment, But they don’ get what’s good for cycling in the big picture.
    Its about time the UCI and rule makers pruned from cycling, epically the technical committee, what a complete bunch of Boone heads.
    Tom made a pathetic second infraction, and wont get put on the unemployed scrap heap. (I cant believe you mentioned that Cosmo, there’d be a bigger fight for him than a particular UCI team licence that’s coming up for grabs). The UCI have miss managed this like the SANZARubgy board have taken a great sporting product and commercially ruined it and distanced it form its adoring public. Boonen’s case disappoints me but it is more of an indicator case of the bad habit’s of the sports governing body

  7. Jon Shea 9 May 2009 at 5:53 pm #

    Do athlete’s have an expectation of privacy with regard to the blood samples they give to sports governing body? Where do we draw the line?

    What if the UCI’s test showed Boonen had an STD, could they report that?

    What if the tests showed that Boonen took non-prohibited drugs to treat an STD, could they report that?

    What if the tests showed that Boonen took ritalin, asthma stimulants, or other drugs that are prohibited in-competition, but that he might legitimately have a need and prescription for in the off season? Could they report that?

  8. Justin 9 May 2009 at 8:12 pm #

    Fantastic points cosmo.

    Let them test for coke, but if it’s out of competition, shuttup about it. It’s none of the UCI’s business. I’m all in favor of nailing the cheaters, but Boonen didn’t cheat this time.

  9. frans 10 May 2009 at 3:32 am #

    Great article, you are on the right track, but there are a few “mistakes” in the article. Don’t blame the UCI; they have nothing to do with what happened. This was a test by the Flemish Community: they have a Law against doping in Belgium, so it is a penal thing, rather than a “sports rule . That is the reason that they tested for cocaine out-of-competition: cocaine use is forbidden in Belgium, so the lab has to report it to the (non-sports) authorities.

  10. Josh 11 May 2009 at 8:13 am #

    Leaking of ‘positive’ tests for substances not yet banned is a big problem. See probenecid, Delgado, 1988 Tour de France.

  11. contikki 11 May 2009 at 8:24 am #

    “…but so long as they don’t violate the codified rules of a sports regulatory body, they should have no impact on what events an athlete is—or is not—allowed to start.”

    But his actions were dealing with an illegal substance, violating the codified rules (ie. laws) of society. So yeah, breaking the law probably will impact Boonen’s event starts. Or it might not…it is Belgium after all….

  12. cosmo 11 May 2009 at 9:22 am #

    contikki, I agree that a criminal case discovered through actual cocain possession would be grounds for suspension, but I have a problem with the idea that drug tests for performance enhancement would be used to enforce laws unrelated to performance enhancing drugs.

    It’s unclear to me whether the Flemish Community mentioned is a local body for cycling or sport (like USA Cycling or USADA) or a local law enforcement body.

    Either way, it seems like an awfully exploitable situation for the authorities to have civic police bodies testing athletes performance enhancing drugs, or to have sporting bodies enforcing civic laws.

  13. My name is Nobody 11 May 2009 at 10:04 am #

    Tom tested positive for an illegal substance not once but twice. An employer, in the states at least, would require rehab for the first offense in order to keep one’s job. Second offense, you’re usually screwed.

    The second offense has also violated his probation; that’s not so good either.

    Many employers institute random drug testing; the UCI is basically doing it for them.

    If Tom want to keep his job, he needs to get help. I do wish him Godspeed in his recovery.

  14. b 11 May 2009 at 8:42 pm #

    Just think about the incredible life that a pro leads for a minute: Boonen, and all pro riders, get paid very good money for doing what we dream of doing. We have to sneak in a quick ride before work: they ride and it *is* work. We take time out from our families to get some training done – for them just turning up to work is doing more miles than we can dream of. We budget and spend our hard earned dollars/euro/yen on bikes and parts – and that money goes into building beautiful racing machines that are *given* to the pros.

    So yes, I think it’s reasonable for us, the fans, to expect them, the pros, to behave perfectly. In competition, and out of competition. Cycling has a massive drug problem – so that means there is no acceptable illegal drug use for a pro cyclist. There is no shade of grey there.

    If a pro, such as Boonen, can’t handle that pressure, then by all means sack them, suspend them, ban them – whatever. There are literally millions of cyclists around the world that would happily step into their shoes at any opportunity.

  15. cosmo 11 May 2009 at 9:15 pm #

    Forgive me if I’m reading you wrong, but do you really think fan envy is a reason to make riders “behave perfectly”? Who else do you envy besides cyclists? Do you think they deserve to have their personal problems broadcast to the world, too?

    As for your “no acceptable illegal drug use” statement: there’s all kinds of “illegal” drug use—what if Boonen had taken a drug that is completely legal, but banned during competition, like Sudafed?

    What if he had taken a drug that is legal by prescription, non-performance enhancing, for it’s intended medical use, but after the prescription had expired?

    What if he had taken a drug that is legal in one country, and then got caught peeing it out in another?

    The reason the UCI and WADA have codified rules is to prevent these questions from coming up. In each case, there are no sanctions enforceable by either organization because they’ve determine that their mission is not advanced by penalizing riders in these cases.

  16. Anonymous 12 May 2009 at 6:54 am #

    I have some sympathy as Tom is not the only person in the world to get drunk and do stupid things.

    However he’s a role model for thousands of young people and needs to behave like a role model or face the consequences. This was clearly spelled out after his first misdemeanour. It should be no surprise to anyone when the book is thrown at him.

    Why are the sport’s governing bodies taking this all so seriously?

    a) Because the sport’s image is at stake – tabloid newspapers will be reporting that ‘another cyclist takes drugs’ without discussing all the nuances above.

    b) Because the UCI, olympics and others have woken up that they need to stamp out drug abuse in sport before the credibility of their franchise is lost forever

    c) Because it’s the right thing to do – How many times does this have to happen before cyclists realise that taking drugs is not something which is compatible with being a professional sportsperson.

  17. metropolitan 13 May 2009 at 6:07 pm #

    @ My name is nobody,

    Tom Boonen tested positive for the third time.
    The first time was kept quiet in typical Belgian fashion.
    It seems he has a problem that should be taken care of.

    Any athleet that is amongst the best has to live with publicity even if this publicity limits his or hers freedom in matters that are considered as private.

  18. Anti Doping 22 May 2009 at 4:46 pm #

    I have been using supplements from Top Form nutrition, would not even remotely consider that doping. Im sure getting tired of hearing about my favorite riders and heros getting their careers and reputations destroyed for life!
    STOP DOPING !!!

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