Today’s Telegraph online edition features an interview with Dick Pound, on the eve of his passing the leadership of the World Anti-Doping Agency to John Fahey of Australia. Pound, ever the controversial quotemeister (as Lance Armstrong once called him) pulls no punches in his comments to Simon Hart. The out-going leader of WADA is unrepentant about his confrontational approach to the job.
“It’s a matter of confronting cheating when you see it,” [Pound] says. “There is organised cheating going on and it’s not going to go away if we all hold hands and say ‘ummmm’. These are people who know the rules and in 99.9 per cent of cases they don’t give a shit about them. They’re destroying sport and taking rewards away from fellow athletes.
“If you’re not being confrontational, you’re not doing your job. Being confrontational, you’re going to attract some static. It’s like when you’re fighting. The most dangerous time for any boxer is when he’s just scored a very good punch. It’s the retaliation you’ve got to look out for. I’m happy to be known by my enemies. Nobody who is playing fair is mad at me.”
It’s one thing to be confrontational when dealing with confirmed cheats. If someone has been accused, been through his or her appeals, and is found to have been cheating, then criticizing that person might be justifiable. When you don’t have firm proof, or when a case has not reached its conclusion, it behooves someone interested in fairness to remain rather circumspect in his comments. (And isn’t that what the anti-doping is supposed to be fighting for — fairness and a level playing field for all?)
But Pound has often lobbed verbal clusterbombs before a case has reached its conclusion. He has, at times, even done so before an accused athlete has even been fully informed as to the evidence against him. Case in point: Floyd Landis. Here’s what Pound had to say about the Landis case to the Telegraph’s Hart:
Denial is also the standard response of the innocent and Pound has, his critics complain, been far too quick to stick the boot into accused athletes, like when he pre-empted this year’s arbitration hearing of 2006 Tour de France winner Floyd Landis by commenting that the American had so much testosterone in his system “you’d think he’d be violating every virgin within 100 miles. How does he even get on his bicycle?”
But Pound rejects the charge that his skill as a “quotemeister”, as he was once branded by Lance Armstrong, who never failed a dope test, has often been at the expense of legal fairness.
“I don’t pre-judge cases,” he insists. “I’m enough of a lawyer to know that there’s a process. What I do react to is when you get all kinds of shit attacking the methods and saying that the system is biased against athletes. All those sorts of things were coming out of the Landis camp. I don’t sit back and turn the other cheek again and again and again. I say they’re talking bullshit and here’s why.”
The way Pound has presented things here (or perhaps it’s just the way the reporter wrote the story), you’d think that Landis’ defense team had been attacking the lab and the system when he made that quip about all the virgins within 100 miles. That, however, is not the case. Pound made that comment much earlier on, as Michael Sokolove reported in his New York Times Magazine piece, The Scold, back in January.
As it happened, the news that the cyclist Floyd Landis had failed a drug test at the Tour de France broke in July, in the midst of a series of interviews I had with Pound in Montreal, where he runs WADA and also holds down more big jobs and positions than would seem humanly possible: partner at a top law firm, chancellor of McGill University, member of the I.O.C. and editor of something called Pound’s Tax Case Notes. He belongs, as well, to that bizarre subset of people who write long books as a hobby, eight of them so far. (One that I picked up in an anteroom of his office, a history of his law firm, ran to a door-stopping 559 pages.)
On this particular day, Pound, who is 64, looked tired. His broad face was drawn, his complexion pasty. He had just returned from China, and his back hurt. Thinking about Landis seemed to enliven him. He spoke of the cyclist as if he were some sleazy perp just collared by the vice squad. “He was 11 minutes behind or something, and all of the sudden there’s this Herculean effort, where he’s going up mountains like he’s on a goddamn Harley,” he said. In the 2006 tour, Landis raced in pain while awaiting a hip replacement, went out to an early lead, lost it, then seemed to miraculously regain it. “It’s a great story,” Pound said. “Wonderful. But if it seems too good to be true, it probably is.”
Pound took something like a schoolboy’s delight in talking about Landis’s lab result, which supposedly showed his testosterone level to be grotesquely above what is typical for most men. Landis has denied taking a prohibited substance and is fighting what could be a two-year ban from cycling. “I mean, it was 11 to 1!” Pound said, referring to Landis’s reported testosterone-to-epitestosterone ratio, a measure used to identify doping. “You’d think he’d be violating every virgin within 100 miles. How does he even get on his bicycle?”
Did you catch when Pound made those comments? If not, go back and take a second look. Although it’s true that Sokolove’s story wasn’t published until January 7th of this year, Pound made these comments during the early days of the scandal, in July or early August 2006. What’s also interesting to note is that the Times was the first paper, or one of the first, to report Landis’ alleged T/E ratio of 11-1. As we now know, that was just one of a series of test results on Landis’ A sample, and it was the worst of the lot. The other T/E ratios were in the 5-1 range on the A sample. The Times’ source for the report on Landis’ T/E ratio has never been identified publicly, but given the timing of the WADA president’s comments to a Times reporter, one has to wonder if Pound might have been the person who let that particular bit of information out into the wild.
And given his comments to Sokolove, it was quite clear (regardless of Pound’s status as an attorney) that he’d pre-judged the case. Not only that, he took some sort of perverse delight in the subject. To be somewhat fair to the man, he has been right about some of those he’s accused. One of those people would be Marion Jones, who admitted recently that she had, in fact, used banned substances during her career. Sometimes, you’ve got to give the devil his due. And that would be one of the times.
That said, Pound has, by his own actions, drawn the fairness of the anti-doping system into question. It is, of course, not just Pound’s opinions that happen to be problematic, it’s the way the system has been rigged in favor of the anti-doping agencies. Seems to me, if you want to protect fair play, you have to demostrate that you play fair. The current anti-doping system doesn’t play fair, it all but ensures that an accused athlete — regardless of the truth of his or her guilt or innocence — will be found guilty. It doesn’t take a genius to figure out that someday, an innocent athlete will have his or her career destroyed based on a wrong accusation. It’s the hallmark of a well-conceived system that such an eventuality would be taken into account, and procedures would be implemented that would seek to minimize that possibility. That can’t be said of the current system, however.
Pound, through his outspoken and often outrageous comments, has certainly made doping a visible topic, as the Telegraph’s Hart concludes:
But if Pound’s outspokenness has achieved one thing, it has been to raise the issue of doping to the top of the sporting and governmental agenda.
“Seven or eight years ago we probably wouldn’t be having this conversation because doping was not on the radar screens, whereas now it is,” says Pound.
“There are an increasing number of people – decision-makers, athletes, parents of athletes and the general public – who are focusing on this issue.
“Governments are concerned from a health perspective and parents are concerned that their child has to become a chemical stockpile to do sport. That has been a very rewarding offshoot to all the work we’ve done.”
As with his comments about the Landis case, noted above, Pound’s memory seems to be a bit dim on the events leading up to the creation of WADA. Doping was definitely on the radar screens, as he would say, back then. If it hadn’t been, there would have been no great pressure to create an organization like WADA. The truth is that the seemingly never-ending doping scandals in the latter half of 1997 and throughout 1998, culminating with the Festina scandal at the 1998 Tour de France, were what provided the impetus for the creation of the agency. So was a certain ethics investigation, led by none other than Pound, himself.
That investigation centered around allegations of what amount to extortion and bribery in the selection of Salt Lake City as the venue for the 2002 Winter Games. In 1998, the credibility of the IOC, as well as the Olympics, was under attack just as a large number of doping scandals were showing how ineffective the anti-doping efforts had been up to that point. The IOC needed to restore their credibility, not only when in came to their selection methods, but also in terms of organizing and governing the international sports movements. Doping was as widely written about, and widely discussed topic seven or eight years ago, as it is today.
Dick Pound may be a part of the reason that doping is much discussed by sports journalists, fans and bloggers, but he is only a small part. But the biggest reason that doping is discussed so much is that so many more scandals are reported these days, rather than quietly covered up or brushed aside.
Much needs to be done to fight the scourge of doping in sports. Not just to ensure fair play, but also for the sake of the athletes’ long-term health. One merely needs to read Steven Ungerleider’s book, Faust’s Gold, to get a glimpse into the heavy price that a number of East German athletes wound up paying because of the systematic doping forced upon them by sports officials hell-bent on creating an athletic powerhouse by hook or by crook.
Given the growing feeling that the anti-doping system, itself, doesn’t play fair when confronting athletes accused of using performance-enhancing drugs, the new WADA president will certainly have his work cut out for him. Time will tell whether he chooses to follow in the footsteps of the agency’s first president, or whether he charts a new course to refine, overhaul, and improve on the system that currently exists.
Let’s hope that Mr. Fahey will have the gumption to change what needs to be changed, improve what needs to be improved, and that when he hands over the reigns to his successor at some point in the future, the agency and the whole anti-doping system will be better than that which he is going to inherit on the 17th.