Lance Armstrong’s Heritage: Extreme Bans?

A little less than two weeks ago, the USADA published its report on Lance Armstrong and the U.S. Postal cycling team. The report demolishes Lance Armstrong’s reputation and, as was confirmed by Pat McQuaid of the ‘Union Cycliste Internationale’ (UCI), took away his 7 Tour de France titles.

Lance “The Boss” Armstrong

It is a truly sad observation that a witch hunt using massive amounts of taxpayers’ money was necessary to reveal the scale of the doping practices in the cycling world. Apparently, ‘objective’ journalists and (European and International) anti-doping agencies were not willing able to do so. Some argue that an ‘independent committee of outsiders’ has to be established that investigates the objectivity and effectiveness of doping tests. Right.

That said, USADA’s role has been questionable for a variety of reasons. A massive focus on Lance Armstrong is present in their report, and, as Pat McQuaid rightly pointed out, the report cannot really be called objective. This may be justified if the report is right in that Mr Armstrong was not merely using doping but actively forcing other cyclists to do so as well. But proving this is difficult, and still begs the question whether the extremely varying punishments are justified. For instance, Tom Danielson, Christian Vande Velde and David Zabriskie accepted bans for a mere six months, starting in September 2012 and thus allowing them not to miss a single one of the upcoming ‘Big Three’ (Vuelta Ciclista a España, Tour de France, and Giro D’Italia). This is a clear deal. And deals traditionally do not result in the most reliable evidence, because of clear incentives on the part of the confessors.

Many emphasise that ‘we should now focus on the future again’, sometimes followed by an alarming ‘by further cleaning up the sport’, especially now the Rabobank pulled the plug on the team it had supported for 16 years. Most are disappointed, and voice outrage. The reaction of current cyclists is predictable: “they did it and we are punished for it”. Perhaps they are right. They exclaim that the sport is clean(er) now and that the Rabobank made a wrong decision. Tom Boonen voiced his anger with the Rabobank for destroying the future of many young riders. Bradley Wiggins, perhaps most tellingly, stated that

It always is (frustrating answering questions about drugs cheats). It is not something which sits easily. Everyone knows where we stand on that, it is about looking forward.

See also the outcries of David Millar and, again, Bradley Wiggins. The craziest new moral knight, concerning himself with the future of cycling, seems to be former cyclist, and more importantly, recidivist doping user, Tyler Hamilton.

Although the role of Rabobank officials in past years must not be overlooked, their point is perfectly clear: we don’t trust you (the cyclists) anymore. I must agree. In past years and with my brother, I watched the Tour de France with a lot of passion, only to be disappointed by (post-Tour) positive doping tests of (potentially) winning cyclists. During the last Tours, we were speculating on who would be caught using dope this year. The (public’s) outrage has to do with that the use of doping has been so incredibly widespread.  Just have a look the picture below that I retrieved from here.

An incredible share of the top three riders of past Tour de Frances are known doping users.

And this is only what we know of! Even of the cyclists that did not get caught, one may suspect that ‘they beat the system’, if only because many have explained that ‘if you didn’t use, you didn’t win’. Why could it have been so widespread? Why did so many cyclists use doping? Because it paid off.

From a value or utility or fame (or whatever) maximising perspective the actions of doping using cyclists are perfectly understandable. On the one hand, they could get the glory and the prizes that come with winning major cycling races by trying to ‘out-dope’ the competitor. On the other hand, even if you got caught, fines and bans were not even that harsh. If you accept that you could not win if you did not use, the choice is as follows. Either you will not be remembered anyway, or you take a gamble, and you might achieve that fame (and money) you dream of, knowing that even if you did get caught, you would get another chance in a year or two (or, in the case of those testifying against Mr Armstrong, in a few months) anyway, and that you would be able to afford the fine.

In a game theoretic framework the pay-offs are thus:

Expected Pay-offs Getting caught Not getting caught
Use doping FINE Maybe PRIZE, no FINE
Do not use doping No prize, no fine; 0 pay-off

Assume that there is a chance p that a cyclist will get caught after using doping, and a chance q that he will win a major prize. Then, doping results in an expected pay-off of (1-p)*PRIZE*q – p*FINE, and not doping in a pay-off of 0. Thus, whether or not to dope depends on whether or not (1-p)*q*PRIZE > p*FINE. This can be rewritten into q*(1-p)/p > FINE/PRIZE.

According to the USADA report the p was not assumed to be so large; the cyclists and their doctors managed to keep ahead of the anti-doping agencies most of the time. This means that the fine of being caught should be kept large relative to the prize one may win. Let us focus on those who have the talent to win, and thus assume that equals 1 (replacing this with 0.8 or even 0.5 does not change the conclusions much). Now, if the p is assumed to equal 50%, then the fine of using doping should be at least as high as the prize a cyclist may win. If the p is smaller than 50%, then the fine should be larger as well. Although it is difficult to quantify, we may agree that this has not been the case. The insight: it is ‘rational’ to use doping – the upside (PRIZE) is massive, and the downside (FINE) is capped.

Even now, when the cycling world supposedly has become cleaner, we cannot know whether this is true for sure. All the time, cyclists and their doctors stayed ahead of anti-doping tests and officials. How can we possibly know that they are not ahead of them now as well?

Naturally, increasing p is a good way to attack the issue. Improving tests, and storing and re-testing blood samples are all desirable; increasing whereabouts rules, as Tom Boonen proposes, perhaps a little less. In any case, as is clear in the case of Mr Armstrong and the USADA, increasing p can be costly, with the bill going to taxpayers.

I would like to highlight one other option as well: increasing the fine. All the cyclists that so loudly proclaim that they are not using doping and that ‘others’ have destroyed or are destroying their sport should agree with and endorse (or even propose) significantly increased fines. Did you use doping? You never work in the sport again, and are thus banned for life, as a cyclist or otherwise. Did you supply doping? You never work in any sport again. In addition, the delinquents should not only be stripped of their prizes, but should also be required to pay any prize money and received salary back in full. One should bear in mind that using doping is fully intentional; it is not an impulse, but an organised, calculated, well thought-through attempt to beat the competition.

Of course necessary precautions should be taken against false positives (no ‘death penalties’ for innocent people). The rationale, however, is clear. Cyclists want to be trusted again, but they need to earn this trust. One way is to credibly commit to not ever use doping again – no-one believes the ‘I-didn’t-use-oh-sorry-maybe-I-did-use-but-I-will-never-do-it-again’ speeches anymore. A powerful way is to propose massive punishments to realign incentives. What do they have to fear, or to lose? It is the only way they will ever get me to watch the Tour again.

Update October 29:

Some seem to draw similar conclusions.

One comment on “Lance Armstrong’s Heritage: Extreme Bans?

  1. […] is all very worrying for me. As I mentioned before, I was, let’s say, quite mad when I found out that Armstrong actually doped, given that I […]

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