Sunday, July 01, 2007

Fear and Loathing at Pepperdine

Meanwhile, back at the Batcave, we still don't know for sure who won last year's Tour.

That's because the title is in limbo, pending the decision of the arbitration panel that heard the Landis case in early May, at Pepperdine University in California.

They have about two months, give or take, to render a decision. I don't envy them their job. This decision could swing either way, and truthfully, you could defend their decision either way. It's not that I don't care, although I don't have much emotional investment one way or the other. The evidence is sufficiently convoluted that it's damn hard to figure out what's what.

The process goes something like this: At the outset, the accused enjoys a presumption of innocence. That is, until the USADA presents evidence of cheating from an internationally-certified laboratory. Then, the burden of proof shifts to the defense, who has to prove somehow or other that the results are tainted. If they can do that, the burden shifs back to the accusers, who then have to prove the validity of their results.

Grounds for doubt were shown, I think, in two key areas: chain of custody, and laboratory procedures.

I worked part of my way through college as a credit clerk, processing credit applications for a national chain of jewelry stores. We maintained an airtight custody chain for those applications. When we got one in over the fax, it was timestamped and logged. When an operator got it, he/she noted the time they began to work on it. When a supervisor approved or declined the application, the time was also noted. You had a cradle-to-grave hand-to-hand chain, and you could tell by looking exactly who had it at which time, and what they were doing with it. Where I work now, we also deal with sensitive information. These items also have a cradle-to-grave custody chain. By glance, you can tell from the log exactly where it was and who was responsible for it, 24/7/365, no questions about it.

The French lab has an appallingly lax chain of custody. There were hours -- hours -- when the only evidence you could present about the location and custody of a sample was the tech's say-so. Unacceptable. Completely unacceptable.

Second, laboratory procedure. Adherence to process is vital. For me, at my job, our processes are the key to repeatable success. We know what works, we know the steps to take to achieve success at every step in the development process. Deviation from the process in not acceptable, without project-specific tailoring approved in writing. Execute to plan, and routine success is very likely.

The French idea of process adherence is also appallingly lax. They didn't even have the freaking manual for the machine they were using to run the tests! How in the name of God can you testify to the results, when you can't even know for sure that you're using the machine right? Basically, every time they bring a new tech in, they're playing "telephone". You remember that old campfire game, where one guy thinks of a sentence, and whispers it to the guy on his right. The process is repeated, until you work your way around the campfire. What usually happens is that the original sentence mutates beyond recognition, and everyone has a good laugh. Except that this is scarcely a laughing matter.

So: I can completely understand if they decide to throw the results out as invalid. This lab has some serious issues that need to be addressed before they can regain any shadow of credibility. It's particularly telling that the French Open elected to have their compliance samples sent to a lab in Montreal, rather than use the lab in Paris.

But on the other hand...

Cheating is endemic in cycling. Let's look at the record:

Bjarne Riis, Jan Ullrich, Marco Pantani, and Floyd Landis have all either been implicated in, or have outright admitted to cheating. Even Lance Armstrong, who has never failed any test, remains under suspicion in some circles. These five men comprise every winner of the Tour de France since 1996. As the podium goes, so goes the rest of the peloton, if they desire to be competitive. It's open knowledge among cycling fans that just about everyone does it.

If that's to change, some big names have to go down.

To an extent, that's happening. Jan Ullrich was forced into retirement. Ivan Basso, a favorite for this year's Tour, admitted his role in Operacion Puerto, and has drawn a two-year ban. Bjarne Riis admitted to doping in the 1996 Tour, and is giving back his jersey.

This is a good start.

So, while there's enough reson to doubt the lab results that I won't be very upset if Floyd wins vindication, I will have no sympathy for him whatsoever if the panel rules against him. If he cheated and got caught, he deserves to pay for his poor judgement.

And maybe, just maybe, we can look forward to a good, clean race this year.

They start rolling again next Saturday, July 7, in London. It's anyone's race again this year, and I'll be watching to see how it turns out on the road.

May the best man win!

4 comments:

tbv@trustbut.com said...

Hi,

linked this into the daily roundup at trust but verify

While the CoC and procedure errors are problematic, I think you've missed the key point in the defense: they don't know what they were measuring. The documented procedures don't properly identify the substances that they claim to be getting values from in ways that leave large opportunities for error. Some of the inconsistencies in the measures (the 5a vs 5b being further apart than normal, even for dopers) suggest they were measuring the wrong things.

TBV

Tim McGaha said...

A good point, and indeed an expected result of a sufficiently shoddy process. Without the right process and controls, the tests are no more scientific than reading tea leaves.

One hopes that they will use a proper lab for this year's Tour. We'll see.

Ken (EnvironmentalChemistry.com) said...

Good post. You did a good job of explaining the chain of custody and procedural issues issue. As TBV pointed out, there are lots of other issues with the testing, but good job on the parts you did choose to address.

Tim McGaha said...

Update: minor edits for spelling and phrasing.