Why Baseball Looks (and may soon be) Cleaner Than Cycling

Dec 13 2007

Forget the weak dollar, foreign wars, and the past two presidential elections – America is still the greatest country in the world. You know why? The Mitchell Report [PDF; short version here]. No tabloid B.S., no codenames, no rumor, and no innuendo. Just the facts: a man on the inside, receipts, confessions, testimony and positive tests.

The Mitchell Report’s most impressive aspect, however, is its restraint in laying blame. For the past 20 years, professional baseball has arguably been the most drug infested, money gobbling sport in the world. Yet the entire context of today’s revelation focused on correcting the sport for the future, instead of punishing the crimes of the past. During his 30-minute presentation, George Mitchell avoided mentioning the name of even a single player, while one of the best pitchers in baseball history sat squarely in his gun sights. Do you think the UCI would have extended such a courtesy to Lance Armstrong?

This objective approach has an obvious ripple effect. The press, rather than piling unabashedly on (as they’re currently doing in a German country I could name), has mirrored the sober approach, refusing to speculate on names before the advent of the report, unless specific sources could verify them. Even as the report was being presented, ESPN.com offered informed dissent. It will be no surprise to me if the public opinion of baseball remains largely unchanged.

The lesson here that cycling needs to learn is approach to the doping problem is everything. Cycling may be the most tightly-tested sport in the world, but its anti-doping efforts have always smacked of witch-hunt. When Festina broke in 1998, there followed a domino string of assumptions, half-baked accusations, and outright invasions of privacy. Everyone wanted the next big headline, the next trophy. Same with Operacion Puerto, the ’07 Tour, and any allegation you can name involving Lance Armstrong. WADA and the UCI’s assumption that there’s always another guilty man has yielded a very predictable result.

Contrast this with baseball’s approach: when BALCO emerged, and baseball’s long infatuation with chemical enhancement became too obvious to ignore, MLB set up a commission that meticulously and objectively outlined the proliferation of doping in the sport. They moved slowly, without striving to “make an example” of high profile dopers, and without carrying any self-righteous pretensions of justice. Baseball aimed simply to find the extent of the problem, and identify some solutions.

While the lasting results of the Mitchell Report remain to be seen, with people continuing to mortgage their houses for season tickets at Fenway, it’s safe to say that no one sees MLB as a corrupt circus of dopers, no matter how many years behind their testing program is. Conversely, cycling can continue to be the best tested sport in the world, yet always been seen as doped to the gills. And as Rasmussen, Vino, Sinkowitz, Moreni, Kessler, Gonchar, and Kashechkin showed us last year, when this perception that you can, or even have to dope, enters a rider’s mind, it overrides the inescapable logic that if you dope, eventually, you will get caught.

Regardless of what Vino says, cycling can blame only its own anti-dope campaign, and the organizations charged with managing it, for the sport’s dirty reputation. Baseball withstood, and continues to withstand, allegations of drug use by acting carefully and fairly in its investigation and prosecution. While one can easily fault Major League Baseball for its previous inaction, because of its non-judgemental, fact-based approach, its perceived integrity as a sport is, and will remain, more solid than cycling’s. And if cycling fails to address the notion that riders must be doped to win, this perceived integrity gap may soon become reality.

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