net.wars: Trial by innocence

by Wendy M Grossman | posted on 21 May 2010

I don't think I ever chose a side on the subject of whether Floyd Landis was guilty or innocent.

Wendy M Grossman

I raised some legitimate issues about the anti-doping industry (as it's becoming). Given the considerable evidence that doping is endemic in cycling, it's hard to believe any winner in that sport is drug-free whether he's ever failed an anti-doping control or not. On the other hand, I really do believe in the presumption of innocence, and one must always allow for the possibility of technical, logistical, and personal errors. It would have been churlish to proclaim Landis's guilt before the tribunal hearing his case did. The blog Steroid Nation was always skeptical, but not condemning, of Landis's cries of innocence.

But I know how I'd feel if I'd believed in his innocence and contributed to the Floyd Fairness Fund that was set up to accept donation from fans to pay his legal fees: hella angry and betrayed. Of all the athletes who have protested their innocence down the years of anti-doping, Landis was the most vocal, the most insistent, and the most public. Landis even published a book, 2007's Positively False: The Real Story of How I Won the Tour de France that loudly proclaimed his innocence ("My case should never have happened"), laying out much the arguments and evidence (which he is accused of having by hacking the lab's computer system) he made on the Floyd Fairness Web site. It seems all but certain he'll "write" another, this one telling the blockbuster story of how he fooled family, fans, drug testers, and media for all those years.

I'll make sure to buy it used, so I don't help him profit from his crime.

By "crime" I don't mean his doping – although under the law it is in fact a crime, and it's an example of our cultural double-think on this issue that athletes are not prosecuted for doping the way crack, heroin, or even marijuana users are in most countries. I mean effectively defrauding his fans out of their hard-earned money to help him defend against charges that he now admits were true. If that's not a con trick, what is?

I also know how I'd feel if I were a non-doping athlete wrongfully accused – and however few of these there may be on the planet, the law of truly large numbers says there must be some somewhere. I would be absolutely enraged. High-profile cases like this – see also Marion Jones, Mark McGwire – make it impossible for any athlete to believed. And, as Agatha Christie wrote long ago in Ordeal by Innocence, "It's not the guilty who matter, it's the innocent." In her example, the innocent servant suffered the most when an expensive bit of jewelry was stolen from her employer's home. In sports, even if there are no false positives (which seems impossible), athletes suffer when they must regard all foods, supplements, and medical treatment with fear.

You may remember that late last year the tennis player Andre Agassi published Open, in which among other revelations (he wore a wig in the early 1990s, he hated tennis) he revealed that the Association of  Tennis Professionals had accepted his utterly meretricious explanation of how he came to test positive for crystal meth and let him off any punishment. This humane behavior, although utterly against the rules and deplored by Agassi's competitors, most notably Marat Safin, arguably saved Agassi's career.

Frightened out of his wits by his close brush with suspension and endorsement death, Agassi cleaned up his act, got to work, and over the next year or two raised his ranking from the depths of 140 to 1. Had the ATP followed the rules and suspended him, Agassi might now be in the record books as a huge but flaky talent that flamed out after three Slam wins and a gold medal. Instead, he's arguably the most versatile player in tennis history and member of a tiny, elite handful of players who won everything of significance in the game on every surface at least once.

Crystal meth, of course, was not a performance-enhancing drug; it was a performance-destroying drug. Agassi's ranking plummeted under its influence, and it's arguable that they had no business testing for it. But Safin's key point was that having successfully lied to the ATP, Agassi should now reward the ATP's confidence by keeping his mouth shut.

I'm not entirely sure I agree with that in Agassi's case; at least he produced a rare example of an athlete taking drugs and losing because of them. Also, the ATP is no longer in charge of the tennis tour's doping controls and the people who dealt with Agassi's positive test in 1997 have likely moved on.

But most of these cases, including Landis's, just keep repeating the same old lesson, and it's not the one the anti-doping authorities would like: winners dope. Then they lie about it for fame and glory. If and when they're caught, they lie some more. And then, when people are beginning to forget about them, they 'fess up and justify themselves by accusing their rivals and beginning the cycle anew. Something is badly broken here. Bring on undetectable gene doping.

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Wendy M. Grossman’s Web site has an extensive archive of her books, articles, and music, and an archive of all the earlier columns in this series. Readers are welcome to post here, at net.wars home, follow on Twitter or send email to netwars(at) skeptic.demon.co.uk (but please turn off HTML).