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Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Floyd Landis, spoof emails and the cycling comedy carousel

Landis, the UCI and spoof emails - but look beyond the joking as the spotlight is turned on the UCI

Floyd Landis may well already have gone down in history as one of sport's most polarizing figures.  A year ago, he was merely a disgraced Tour champion, the first man to have the Tour title officially stripped as a result of a positive doping test.

Then a series of leaked emails, a Wall Street Journal report, a federal investigation and an almost daily doping story later, Landis is one of the central characters in arguably cycling's most dramatic year, the latest saga being the "proposal" for suspension and then exoneration of its 2010 Tour champion Alberto Contador.

Landis' catch-22 and

The problem for Landis, of course, was always going to be credibility.  Having spent millions of dollars and much time crafting his passionate defence, his admission of doping undermined his own argument, and the easiest response for everyone concerned - Armstrong, Bruyneel, the UCI included - was to dismiss him as bitter, vengeful and lacking morality.  Pat McQuaid's own words show this: "Unfortunately my initial reaction to someone like that is to discredit them..." (note that there was no desire to discredit the allegations or the content of Landis' emails, rather the person)

It also doesn't make it easy that Landis brings news that people don't really want to hear - finding out that their heroes have feet of clay, or the inevitable negativity that resonates through Landis' allegations would make any messenger unpopular.  The fact that it was Landis, a self-confessed doper who found himself in the impossible Catch 22 of revealing himself as a liar by claiming to tell the truth, made it even easier to resort to the all too common defence of "leave cycling alone".

Landis goes public - the UCI threaten to sue and Landis turns the spotlight on them

Landis' latest series of allegations and the background to his story were then laid out in full in an interview with Paul Kimmage which was published in full by NY Velocity about two weeks ago.

Now, in the latest 'episode' of Landis vs the UCI, Landis has resorted to humor to further make his points.  By way of background, the UCI threatened to sue Landis for the comments he made in November 2010 suggesting that the UCI protects certain cyclists in the fight against doping, and is corrupt.

The UCI could not have picked a worse time to take this step - it happened at the same time as Alberto Contador was being exonerated by the Spanish Cycling Federation.  And while the UCI were not involved in that decision, the whole management of the Contador case, from the delay in announcing the lab finding to the hearing, had already given cause to others to suggest much the same as Landis was doing in November.  Not that Landis was limiting his allegation to Contador - there is also the matter of bribes, payments, and alleged cover-ups.

Landis' response to this legal challenge was to set up a fake website, create a fictional law firm (Grey Manrod Associates), lawyer (Chade O Grey) and then produce a series of emails that he decided to make public through NY Velocity.  You can read the entire exchange here.

A tricky tightrope to walk

Landis' approach is likely to be met with polarized views.  His emails, all of which were sent to the UCI (Mcquaid and Hein Verbruggen) are creative and cleverly constructed.  Landis probably has a future as a lawyer.  Or a successful documentary film maker/script writer.

I suspect his detractors will disagree, and Landis may be marginalizing himself even further by making that email exchange available on the net for everyone to see (already a few people have either misunderstood his humor or criticized his cheek).  If he could be accused of not having cycling's interests at heart before, he'll now be dismissed as being actively anti-cycling by making the fight so public.  Not that he will care a great deal, I suspect, and short of bringing his views to the media, he may feel few would listen anyway - quiet diplomacy doesn't seem likely from either side.

Then again, his supporters are loving every second of it, and he is growing his "fan base" for his brazen attitude towards an organization that is having to defend itself more and more frequently. His approach and candor are refreshing, and have invigorated the anti-doping fight.  It's difficult to see that his allegations are merely those of a twisted and bitter man (Sure, he is upset but people seem to miss the point that one can still tell the truth when you're upset).  Landis has brought more to the anti-doping table than anyone in many years, and those who were already hungry to take on the UCI for their part in the doping problem will find his outspokenness (and attitude) appropriate and long overdue.

Not that the UCI helps itself in any way.  Former President Hein Verbruggen this week criticized the media for giving too much focus to doping coverage.  His view seems to be that doping in cycling is only "1 or 2%" of the sport, yet it gets 50% of the coverage.  Presumably Verbruggen hasn't seen lists of his own sport's former champions, at least 50% of whom are tainted by failed tests, doping admissions and allegations.  Go back on the Top 3 of every Tour since about 1992 and see how many convicted or confessed dopers there are - it certainly isn't 2%!  In fact, the entire podium in some years is questionable at best, or entirely composed of dopers at worst.

Verbruggen seems to think that the perception of cycling is created by the media, rather than by cycling.  He'd do well to remember that the media reflect, they don't create, and his denial (handed down to McQuaid) is symptomatic of cycling's problem.  I've said before, and I stand by it 100%, if it were not for media coverage, cycling would still be deluding us all that its champions are clean.

Looking beyond the humor - what is Landis actually saying?

Back to Landis though, I will admit that I find the emails to be incredibly funny, and intelligent.  Beneath the humor and obvious sarcasm, he has systematically managed to turn the spotlight around and ask some pointed questions of the UCI.

If you jump ahead in the email exchange, the emails dated February 17th, 19th and particularly the 20th, ask some important questions of the UCI.  They raise this article, where Pat McQuaid says that he would not be surprised if there was doping on the US Postal Team, and that "a lot" of what Landis has alleged is "probably true".

Landis brings this up, along with numerous other links, also worth reading, emphasizes the contradictions of the UCI and asks them to back up their own allegations.  Many will never even consider Landis' argument, as he is appealing to such a "niche" market.  It's easy for the mainstream to ignore what are actually very good questions (the email dated February 20 asks the best of these questions).  If Landis' six points were made in an anonymous blog on any other website, they'd be deserving of some serious answers.  Hopefully the fact that they are Floyd Landis, in the guise of Chade O. Grey, won't change that.

All in all, you may view Landis as one of the sport's least honest characters, or you may see him as one of the best things to happen to it in years.  But what would be a pity is to not engage in the debate and ask WHAT is being said, simply because of WHO is saying it.  Landis has revealed what Prof Michael Ashenden has said is "a key piece of the puzzle" in the anti-doping fight.  He has provided more detail and more allegation than anyone before him.  He has provided enough content for hours of debate, and corroborating even half of the allegations will take the fight to fix the sport forward immeasurably.

Are spoof emails the way to get that message across?  For a small, niche market, yes, but hopefully a larger audience will read the links, and be led to question the apparent inconsistencies that Landis has pointed out.  The UCI is already under pressure (deservedly) and the approach of Landis, like it or not, brings more to the argument than most have done.

In one non-Landis related example, McQuaid is quoted as defending the long delay between Contador's lab result and the announcement of the positive test as "protocol".  This delay (which was not longer thanks mostly to media allegation), led to obvious suggestion of an attempted cover up.  McQuaid says he was following protocol.  Fair enough.  But then what should be asked is why Li Fuyu and countless other cyclists have had their test results announced before a B-sample is even tested.  Why "protocol" is so important for one cyclist but not others?  All in all, the UCI have a lot to answer for.  Hopefully Floyd Landis' teasing and goading compels answers.

As always your thoughts and views welcome!

Coming soon - doping fatigue, athletics and road running back on the map

Looking ahead to the next few weeks, the indoor track season is underway, the marathon season is approaching and so we'll look at some other sports soon.  The coverage of doping does, I must confess, cause "doping fatigue", and so it will be good to discuss another aspect of science in sport soon.  First, however, there is one other big story that needs to be discussed, and that is the global picture of anti-doping, in the light of Contador's case, and more recently, that of Diana Taurasi, an American basketball star, who was also exonerated of doping after a lab in Turkey retracted its initial positive finding for the stimulant modafinil. 

This raises all kinds of questions for doping control, and that also needs discussion, another time.  But then hopefully I will leave doping behind - there is more to the Science of Sport than just drugs, after all!