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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