“Don’t stop calling me an ex-doper. We should not forget the past. I made mistakes. I am an ex-doper and now I’m clean” David Millar, July 13th 2012.
On the face of it, I shouldn’t like David Millar, but I do. He was a doper who never tested positive, he cheated the fans who cheered him on, then he got banned. Plus, from reading his book, it sounds like he was a bit of a dick. It’s a depressingly common tale in cycling, except Millar is different.
Unlike other riders who served 2 year doping bans and rejoined the ranks of professional cycling, Millar came back a changed man. He was a vocal doping critic and eventually he formed a team, in the shape of Garmin-Slipstream with Jonathan Vaughters, which emphasised clean racing and zero tolerance of doping as its core principles. Millar was a doper, yes, but now he’s helping to make the sport cleaner and eradicate the sort of environments where young riders feel they have no choice but to dope. That’s why I like him.
This might be stunning naivety on my part, but David Millar’s ride today in the 226km Stage 13 of the Tour de France was one of those rare moments in cycling where you know for sure that the winner is clean. So, when he crossed the line and didn’t straighten his upper body and raise his arms to make sure the sponsors logo got prime coverage on TV, but instead punched the air and roared with joy, I thought it was pretty awesome and I struggled to think of a rider more deserving of a stage win.
It also means that if a rider like Millar can win an intense stage like the one today than maybe there is hope for professional cycling moving towards a cleaner future.
My favourite personal memory of David Millar riding a bike is from 2010. I was stood on the Muur van Gerardsbergen, an iconic cobbled climb in the Tour of Flanders. Fabian Cancellara and Tom Boonen had already gone past, side-by-side, battling it out for the victory, then came Bjorn Leukemens and Phillipe Gilbert. Then, just behind them, came the lanky figure of David Millar in the argyle-patterned Garmin jersey, standing up on the pedals and hauling himself up the cobblestones.
Later we found out that Millar, not usually a rider you’d associate with strong performances in cobbled Belgian Classics, had attacked the chasing group and tried to bridge the gap over to Boonen and Cancellara, later joined by Leukemans and Gilbert, which is where we saw him on the Muur. He couldn’t hold onto a top-5 place in the end, eventually finishing 32nd, but the exhilaration and shock of seeing Millar riding with the best Classics riders in the world on one of the most iconic climbs will stay with me forever. As, probably, will today’s stage win.
Here’s an interesting look at how cycling’s governing body (the UCI) uses its drug testing programme.
This list was leaked, presumably from someone in the UCI, to the French sports daily L’equipe who published it this morning. It’s basically a “suspicion list”, for want of a better term, that doctors gave to the UCI before the start of the Tour de France 2010 showing which riders they think displayed signs of possibly doping.
(credit to Bobby Lightspeed)
According to L’equipe, riders in the 4-10 categories are the ones testers should take notice of. Don’t draw too many conclusions from this, it’s certainly not a list of who is and who isn’t doping, more just a guide for who to test.
All of this is based on rider’s biological passports – a collection of data based on blood samples taken at different times which can be looked at collectively. If a rider’s blood levels differ from one test to another, or there are any other anomalies, then this may be evidence that they are doping and should be examined closer. They can highlight things like fluctuating hematocrit levels and haemoglobin levels, which could indicate the use of doping products to aid recovery and create red blood cells to produce more oxygen.
The biological passport is something I believe FIFA should implement worldwide. The logistics are obviously tricky – there are far more professional footballers in the world than there are professional cyclists – but if it could be brought in initially for, say, every player in England and Spain’s top divisions then it would be a really worthwhile project and show FIFA were serious about their anti-doping message. It’s something they have “considered” in the past but, to my knowledge, have yet to do anything about.
For this to happen there, of course, needs to be more blood testing done. I’ve read various FA pdf files that outline their approach to anti-doping and a real roadblock seems to be the fact blood testing is expensive. In a game which is so awash with money at the top level this really shouldn’t be a problem. Sponsors could be encouraged to put money into an anti-doping pool that could be used effectively or, alternatively, FIFA could channel more of its revenue into this area of the game.
People might ask: why address a problem that doesn’t exist? Surely the only reason cycling is so far ahead of football in blood testing and the biological passport is because it is a dirtier sport? Well, for a start we don’t know that football is cleaner than cycling. I’ve written about examples in the past where top footballers have been found using exactly the same doping products as cyclists (namely EPO) but, for whatever reason, not much has been made of it. In addition to this, anti-doping rules shouldn’t be reactionary measures, they should be preventive. Why wait until you have a doping problem before doing anything about it? Isn’t it best to act early to prevent doping ever becoming an issue?
In the wake of even more FIFA corruption allegations this week Sepp Blatter could really clean up his imagine by taking anti-doping seriously. For a man who says he wants to “take a step ahead in the fight against doping” he’s been very inactive thus far. In a medical report on FIFA’s website in August 2007 it was revealed that no blood testing took place at the 2006 World Cup whatsoever, despite having taken place at the 2002 World Cup. The reason given for this was:
Laboratory experts advised against taking blood tests, since given current levels of medical advancement, they would not be able to provide any further information. The blood tests taken at the 2002 FIFA World Cup did not throw up any abnormal results.
I find this baffling. Blood tests are more effective than urine tests, that’s been shown in sports like cycling and athletics for years. I’m sure that WADA (World Anti-Doping Agency) would argue FIFA’s suggestion that blood tests couldn’t provide any more information than urine tests, and the logic that there weren’t any “abnormal results” four years previously so testing is now unnecessary is perverse, to say the least.
In my opinion, despite the obvious flaws in cycling’s “suspicion list” (and, remember, the list was never meant to be published), football could still take a few cues here and move towards being more responsible. Blood testing is needed in the sport on a far more regular basis than currently happens. Then, through the biological passport, governing bodies can get a more accurate picture of who to test and whether or not players are clean.