A Curious List

May 14 2011

Browsing L'Equipe by inkyIs there anything that triggers an “OMG LEAK” response more effectively than a clandestine list? Nixon’s enemies, law firm layoffs, and of course, financial information.

But the UCI’s Index of Suspicion leaked a few days ago is especially curious because all we have is metadata—scores that the UCI has made up ostensibly based on actual measurements. But L’Equipe’s intrepid journalists failed both in nailing down the specific criteria used by the UCI, or the data that were fed into these criteria to arrive at a given doping suspicion index score.

Strangely, we do have a fairly extensive set of data on what an index score of 4 might look like —and we have Lance Armstrong to thank for it. There are some hopeful assumptions in this assessment (namely, that the UCI even has an objective set of criteria, and that Lance’s ’09 data informed his ’10 score), but it’s still the best (only?) set of actual numbers we have.

And to my layman’s eyes, 4 doesn’t seem like such a bad spot to put Armstrong’s numbers. They are not especially high, but do show a stubborn consistency—perhaps even the “too normal” values that prompted the bio passport experts to propose hiding values from riders for a few months. There was also the mid-Tour hematocrit increase, much-trumpeted by amateur Internet hematologists as evidence of a transfusion.

But in many other ways, the list makes the UCI (and some teams and national governing bodies) look bad. There’s the obvious criticisms: how could this list get out in the first place, and why weren’t the highest-rated riders the most heavily tested? But more damning is efficacy of enforcement. If Popovych was the most suspicious rider at the 2010 Tour, and he’s been tied up in at least one investigation since then, how is he still riding?

As someone pointed out on Twitter (my apologies for losing the link), Alessandro Ballan has been suspended twice for investigations, is now pretty solidly linked to several transfusions, but still only rated a 5 on the UCI’s list. As more-successful-than-not Ballan likely had money to burn on medical assistance, I’m inclined the chalk this up to the skills of a good doctor, though it could just as easily be cast as a judgement on the ineffectiveness of the bio passport system.

The riders, who seemed to react the most negatively and immediately to the list, will likely be the least affected in the end. Cycling may indeed be all politics, but for the vast majority of riders—those that block the wind, carry bottles, and mark breaks—the difference between a suspicion level of zero and four, in data over a year old, will have far less impact than a reliable record of performance and a few big names willing to vouch for you .

The higher levels of suspicion—a total of 20 riders ranked 7 and above—are populated almost exclusively by almost-there contenders, and super-domestiques with a few major wins to their credit. While I wouldn’t be surprised if a few of the older names had trouble landing a job in the future, the continued re-emergence of convicted dopers is a pretty straightforward indication that suspicion will never trump results.

So as pretty much everyone else has already pointed out, the damage from this list will fall most heavily on its creator, the UCI—just in time for them to decide that nah, one of the most historically effective national anti-doping agencies shouldn’t be allowed to operate independent testing at the Tour of California after all.

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