Ancient methods for modern times: Team suspensions in cycling

Looking back on history we find many examples of group punishment whereby an entire community could be held responsible for an infraction by one of its members. Though this seems patently unjust to modern tastes, there was a logic behind it: if the keepers of the peace are limited in their capacity to detect and/or punish crimes, group punishment incentivizes the other members of a potential offender’s community to deter breaches of the peace before they happen. After all, they are close to the potential offender and have much more influence on his behavior than a distant peacekeeping entity. I am not suggesting, of course, that this is always a good policy. Punishing a community for one member’s rebellion against a tyrant is unjust all around. But inter-community murders and another genuine crimes had to be prevented somehow, and with limited law enforcement resources group punishment was often the most efficient method. Thanks to the growth of technology and civilization it is no longer common practice, and I am glad for it, but I don’t condemn the tool for all the ways in which it was used.
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There are instances in which it may still make sense, and one of these was announced today by the Union Cycliste International, the global governing body of competitive cycling. Even people who are not fans of the sport are aware that cycling had, and possibly continues to have, a serious doping problem. (Note: this is not unique to cycling, but it was certainly a more serious problem in cycling than in most sports as far as we know, with former riders from the 1990s claiming that 60-70% of the peloton was doping in major races.)
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I should say first that even though at first I refused to believe Lance Armstrong was doping, eventually the scales fell from my eyes and I have a much more realistic view of the subject now. I recognize that it is still an issue, although I think the UCI has made great strides in reversing the decay of its product. As evidence we no longer have large, musclebound riders with time trial physiques like—to use a completely random example, alleging nothing, I assure you—Miguel Indurain absolutely crushing riders whose body types are better suited to climbs on major climbs. The record on Mont Ventoux, a legendary climb in the Tour de France, was set in the suspicious year of 2004 and has not even been approached since.

Now with the obligatory defensive stuff out of the way I can get to the meat of the post. The UCI announced many changes to its doping procedures, but the one that caught my eye the most was this:

Team Suspension

The UCI has adopted new measures relating to teams and their responsibilities:

Team Suspension
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If two riders within a team have an ADRV [= anti-doping rule violation – RFM3], the team shall be suspended from participation in any international event for a period determined by the UCI Disciplinary Commission. The suspension will be between 15 days and 45 days.

If there is a third ADRV, the team shall be suspended for between 15 days and 12 months.

Fine for UCI WorldTeams and Pro Continental Teams

In addition to the suspension above, UCI WorldTeams and Pro Continental Teams shall pay a fine if two of their riders have ADRVs within a twelve-month period. The fine will be 5% of the annual Team budget.

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For much of the golden age of doping the process was a team effort. Occasionally individual riders would dope on the sly, but to use the most famous example Lance Armstrong’s US Postal team was said to have an organized team doping effort involving not only the riders themselves but the management and support staff as well, and the overall pattern of violations and confessions confirms that they were not alone.

The standard procedure when a rider flew too close to the sun and got burned in doping controls was for the rest of the team to deny they had any knowledge of it and to say it was the rider’s own poor individual decision. As we have learned, this was usually a bold-faced lie. But the value of group punishment holds even if it had normally been the truth. The fact is that doping can be very hard to detect. The reason it became so widespread was that the doping technology was several years ahead of the testing technology. Even today smarter dopers can minimize their risk with well-known methods.
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The UCI has been slowly ramping up the punishments for doping but so far they have all applied only to the riders themselves, although certainly teams do not like the negative publicity they get when the media and fans rightly assume that the incident is probably not isolated. It has had some success (as evidenced by the above link to Mont Ventoux times) but it is not quite enough. There were several cases in the 2014 season that did further damage to the image of the sport.
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Given that it was rare after the early or mid-1990s for doping to be an isolated event on a team, and that teams were all to often incentivized not only to shield their riders but to actively promote doping, as they suffered no severe penalties as an organization for doing so and often won great accolades and bigger sponsorships, this should have been implemented many years ago. Teams are in a much better position to deter doping than the limited amount of doping controls the various agencies that govern the sport nationally and internationally are able to perform. To use this capacity for a result that the consumers of the product prefer is a wise move. It is much more efficient for teams that are already constantly in contact with riders to monitor them at almost no extra cost than for the UCI to do so with far less success and at much greater cost. Sure, it was fun to see record after record broken twenty and fifteen and ten years ago, but the consumers (i.e. fans) of cycling have generally come to a consensus about the product they demand, and it does not include doping.

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