I recently sent a letter to Velonews, taking issue with the test used to justify Tyler Hamilton's cycling ban. The most common response I got was "why are you defending Tyler, you know he;s guilty. They all dope".
To clarify, I think there are 2 issues. One is whether Tyler doped. I have no idea if he did or not. The second is how we choose to deal with doping in general. So let's talk about that, using Tyler only as an example rather then the subject of the discussion.
First, let's lay out the facts of how these bans are working.
The approaches: The UCI has historically taken the position that a rider can only be banned if there is proof beyond a reasonable doubt that the rider is in fact guilty. The practical implication is that very few riders have actually been banned from cycling and those that have had pretty strong evidence against them. WADA (and the USADA) have both taken the *stated* position that a rider can be banned based on preponderance of the evidence. This means that there only needs to be a 51% probability in the eyes of WADA or USADA for a rider to be banned. The practical implication is that it is very easy for a rider suspected of doping to be punished because the burden of proof is effectively on the rider to prove he did not dope and it is very, very hard to prove a negative.
The tests: I have taken a lot of crap from people for saying this, but the test being used by WADA for blood doping is junk. That's not an opinion, it's a fact. It is important that people understand that the scientific method is not an abstract concept. In order for a test to be considered valid it must meet scientific standards. Studies must be done on valid sample sizes. Controls must be established. It must be replicated. The list goes on. Here's the bottom line for this test: it had no control group, the sample size was not valid, and it hasn't been replicated. In fact my understanding is that WADA won't even allow the study to be fully available for independent review. Wanting the test to be valid doesn't make it valid. WADA has claimed that the test is reliable because it is based on proven technology. That is an absolutely false statement. There is no transitive property of science. We use proven tests and technologies and facts as a basis for trying to develop new theories. But we still have to conduct studies and validate before those theories become accepted facts.
Definitions: Whether the test is valid is an important point. If you are accused of blood doping and the test is validated then it is accepted that either you did not actually dope and the test failed (false positive) or you did dope (either knowingly or unknowingly). In Tyler's specific case many people pointed out that his reason for a positive test (the vanishing twin) had little evidence and he didn't provide any evidence that the test was a "false positive". However, the problem for Tyler's defence is that the test was not validated and therefore they had no way to show how the test may have returned a false positive for blood doping if he in fact did not dope. All they have is factors that can explain why his blood was doped. To go further, they have no way of knowing if he in fact did effectively have doped blood (if untentionally) because the test is not validated. The only scenario they could explain would be intentional doping not because the test proved it but because Tyler would know he did it.
Keep in mind if you read USADA's ruling that the 2 "guilty" votes refused to question the validity of the test. They were reviewing the case strictly from a legal point of view, not a scientific one. The burden of proof is 51% probability.
What does this mean? I don't know. I will fully admit that in the "old days" it frustrated me that the UCI didn't do anything. Riders who we "knew" were doped would never get caught. Those that did seemed to get caught by the police. To make matters worse the political agenda of the UCI didn't seem to be "cover-up" not "clean-up". And when USADA cracked down on certain track and field athletes we all knew were doped to the gills based on preponderance of the evidence well I admit to applauding. But as more athletes got caught and the level of proof got closer to that 51% I started to get worried. Finally, when WADA started using tests that were unvalidated to get their 51% I started to get worried.
The reality seems to be that if we require proof positive then doping will always prevail because testing is always a step behind development. But what's the point of stopping doping? To me it's to reward riders who are clean. But a burden of proof of 51% doesn't really do that; in fact it makes it (in my mind) only slightly less likely you'll get banned if you are clean than if not. And frankly, this blood test seems to me (and this is opinion) more of a test designed to provide that extra umph in convicting riders WADA thinks is guilty than actually, really proving anything. And that worries me. Even if Tyler is guilty, I don't know that the ends justify the means. To me that's the real debate.