No official case of wrongdoing has been proven against Froome yet, and no sanctions delivered. But the court of public opinion has already delivered its jaded verdict. In the minds of many, Froome is a doper regardless of the official outcome on his salbutamol case – we have the history of cycling, and Lance Armstrong, to thank for that.
I’m a firm believer in strict anti-doping measures in cycling, and the importance of meaningful penalties for those who breach the rules. I have written about this in cycling and general outlets and the academic literature arguing for harsher penalties and stronger more consistent responses from cycling bodies.
But this time around, in the absence of a clear official decision on the Froome salbutamol saga, I think all the public speculation is pointless. Worse still, it is harmful to cycling.
Froome clearly isn’t going anywhere. At this stage, absent any official sanction, it seems he is headed for the 105th Tour de France this July to defend his 2017 title. At one level you have to admire his resilience amidst all the negativity surrounding him. But then again, you have to wonder at what point the costs outweigh the benefits.
Unfortunately, if Froome does ride the 2018 Tour this whole salbutamol story will be regurgitated again, and everything he does in the race will be viewed suspiciously. The pursuit of Froome will certainly be a distraction from all the positive stories in the 105th Tour. Beyond selling newspapers and online reader time, what does that achieve?
Presumably, for most people, the intense scrutiny of Chris Froome is justified by the assumed gains for doping prevention. You might think that taking out big targets sends the right messages.
But the truth is calling out high profile individuals one at a time actually doesn’t deliver better anti-doping results in cycling. That’s akin to thinking you can rid a house of termites by picking out single insects one-by-one and leaving the nest undisturbed.
We saw that with Lance Armstrong. Taking him down didn’t rid cycling of doping and other cheating – we still see doping cases, TUE system abuse, drafting or holding on to team vehicles, ‘sticky’ bottles, selling races and other collusion, the use of motors and so on. Cheating is arguably still evolving in cycling.
An excessive focus on individuals suspected or confirmed of doping or other rule violations doesn’t work because today’s sporting cheats are produced by the culture that surrounds them. Doping and other cheating is a product of a weak culture that resides in the foundations of the sport – in the social structures, traditions, formal and informal rules, and day-to-day practices.
Doping prevention, therefore, requires a focus and effort beyond the individual, to examine the wider traditions and practices within the sport. That’s why I think the relentless pursuit of Froome in the absence of a proven adverse analytic finding or anti-doping rule violation is problematic for cycling.
The myopic focus on Chris Froome (the reaction to his “shock and awe” performance on stage 10 of the 2015 Tour de France, the adverse salbutamol finding, the reaction to his #Giro101 stage 19 ride) is a problem because it diverts attention away from where the doping prevention effort should be.
Consider for a moment the long list of well-known riders who have tested positive or confessed to doping and the influence many still have today:
- Working in cycling (as DS’s, team support staff, in cycling media, or in other capacities in the industry);
- Still competing in the World’s biggest races;
- Enjoying public attention and profits from their books, or cycling related businesses;
- Performing official promotional roles around major cycling events and races.
I’d argue this example of weak culture is the most significant problem for cycling today, and yet the issue gets very little attention. If we care about doping prevention in this sport, we should be questioning the impact of these practices in cycling. We should also reflect on the extent to which we are complicit in perpetuating this cycle, as fans, as media, as cycling officials, as current riders.
Do the above examples show a sport that rightly accepts and forgives human mistakes and is building towards a better future? Or, does the continued presence of confirmed dopers in cycling send a message to aspiring professionals that they may as well dope because the system rarely delivers severe penalties, and the sport quickly forgets?
Continued speculation about topical high-profile cases of alleged doping might sell newspapers and guarantee online clicks and reader time. Such a focus is a necessary part of cycling news and a key issue in the wider doping prevention story.
But taking that line while ignoring the continued influence on cycling of confirmed dopers still in the sport misses an important opportunity to push for positive cultural change. That change will only come for cycling when the costs truly outweigh the benefits of doping.
And that outcome will only be possible if enough people can tell the truth about what is happening day to day in this sport.
Craig Fry is a freelance cycling writer cycling historian and public health academic based in Melbourne. His writing has appeared in CyclingTips, Cyclist Aus/NZ magazine, Cycling Weekly, SBS Cycling Central, The Conversation, and The Age.