Q&A: Travis Tygart on CIRC and the Geert Leinders case

Although some were disappointed that the Cycling Independent Reform Commission report did not deliver the so-called “Truth and Reconciliation Commission” that had been floated as a catch-all solution to the sport’s problems two years ago, it document did outline critical failings in the UCI’s governance and its management of anti-doping efforts over the past two decades.

In a statement released on Monday, USADA CEO Travis Tygart welcomed the publication of the CIRC report as “a strong first step in moving past the failures of the past.” Later in the week, he spoke to Cyclingnews in more detail about his thoughts on the dossier, including the damning picture it paints of the UCI’s influence on the supposedly independent “Vrijman Report” into accusations that Lance Armstrong had used EPO at the 1999 Tour de France.

During the discussion, Tygart revisited the case of Geert Leinders, who was recently handed a lifetime ban for his activities as Rabobank doctor following USADA’s collaboration with the Dutch and Danish anti-doping agencies, and explained why USADA is still open to the prospect of talks with Armstrong.

Cyclingnews: Reaction from within cycling to the CIRC report seemed quite mixed, with many disappointed that it didn't turn out to be a sort of truth and reconciliation commission. Was it what you expected it to be?

Travis Tygart: We obviously commend Brian Cookson and his team for tackling it. It’s a complex process and the focus obviously became on the UCI’s leadership, or lack thereof, in an attempt to really tackle the culture, and to tackle those who participated in doping in the past and hold them accountable, whether by simply exposing them or by giving them sanctions. That’s an ongoing effort. I think the Leinders case is a perfect example and there are more in progress.

Hopefully in the relatively near future we can fulfil the promise that we started with our investigation. The Reasoned Decision was solely focused on Armstrong because that was the case at the time, but we’ve had close to 27 cases resolved in total. Where there’s any other evidence that CIRC has obtained and handed to the UCI, we’re going to be working with them to move forward and try to hold all of those accountable. Whether it’s simply exposure or appropriate sanctions, we want to ensure that all of those who participated in the culture – especially the team doctors, directors, trainers – are held accountable to the fullest extent.

CN: In the statement you released on Monday, your comments on CIRC’s investigation of the Vrijman report stood out: “USADA will work with the current UCI leadership to obtain the evidence of this sordid incident to ensure that all anti-doping rule violations related to this conduct are fully investigated and prosecuted, where possible.” Armstrong is already serving a life ban for doping, so can we take it that your comment was referring to Hein Verbruggen, Pat McQuaid and the UCI’s role in influencing the composition of the report?

TT: I want to be cautious because we have asked for the evidence and we’re working with the UCI. Where there’s evidence, whether it’s US sports agents or attorneys or athletes under our jurisdiction, we’re obviously interested in that evidence so we can hold them accountable. And we certainly want to help the UCI if there are others under their jurisdiction, to ensure that they can be held accountable.

Maybe there was a misconception of what the CIRC were actually going to do, which is maybe why there’s some frustration, but I think what’s important – and the Geert Leinders case is a perfect example of it – is that the responsibility of national anti-doping organisations remains. We have been committed and have cases like Leinders and others that arose from our initial investigation, and if there is new evidence that CIRC has acquired and it’s shared, we will continue to move forward and hold accountable those people who were a part of the doping at the time.

We appreciate and we’re realistic enough to know that while 27 people have been held accountable there are more who I think everyone believes committed anti-doping rule violations in addition to those 27. [USADA has since clarified that this figure includes individuals for whom the statute of limitations for formal sanction had expired. The full list is reproduced below - ed.]* But the obvious challenge is that we have to have the evidence to prove that, and we’re committed to following that evidence as best we possibly can to hold those people similarly accountable, because [at the moment] it’s imperfect justice, which we don’t settle for. We have to continue to ensure that the others during that time period are held accountable also.

CN: The redacted names from the USADA Reasoned Decision have attracted a lot of interest and speculation – the so-called Rider 15, in particular. Are these redacted names among the people you are still actively trying to bring to account? And how much has that progressed since the Reasoned Decision was published in October 2012?

TT: Certainly any riders or athlete support personnel – and Leinders is a good example – against whom the evidence we have reaches a point where we’re able to prove it to the necessary legal standard, we will bring those cases with the appropriate authorities. And that includes all of the redacted names and any other names that other national anti-doping organisations have investigated or that CIRC has uncovered. We have been working collaboratively with the UCI to ensure as best we possibly can that they all get sanctioned or exposed – and based on the evidence, which is the really important hook here, because you can’t just say: “We know they all did it.” You have to have evidence that proves it to the necessary legal standard.

We want to do it as quickly as we can but in fairness we have to take our time and hold all of those accountable to the extent that we can, based on what the evidence is. That’s an effort we’ve been working on really since June 2012 when the investigation first started to culminate into actionable evidence and cases.

CN: The evidence you amassed against Leinders amounts to a hefty rap sheet and shows what was happening on the Rabobank team at that time. Do you still feel that US Postal’s was the most sophisticated doping programme sport has ever seen, as it was described at the time of the Reasoned Decision?

TT: I think it’s ‘tomayto’/‘tomahto.’ And be cautious on what our press release said, because it said it was the most sophisticated, professional and successful doping conspiracy sport has seen. So obviously that’s up to that time period, but that’s not what’s important. Certainly they [US Postal] were more successful, but Leinders and Rabobank show what others in the peloton were doing at the time to try to compete. There’s only so many ways you can do it – blood transfusions, testosterone, human growth hormones, micro-dosing – to get the maximum performance advantage.

What’s important now is ensuring all those who participated in that drug culture are held accountable and most importantly to ensure as much as we can – and I mean based on actionable evidence, not on speculation – that any athletes or support personnel who participated in the doping at that time and might still be in the sport are held accountable or at a minimum exposed, because that will increase the likelihood that they will play by the rules going forward. And that’s what’s important, because people who cheated in the past, were successful and got away with it are more likely to cheat today believing that they can get away with it.

I think Rabobank’s a good example with Leinders, I think US Postal to a certain extent is a good example. If you’ve got the knowledge and the know-how and the infrastructure, even though the testing is much better than it was, it’s still limited. So for a period at least, the athletes with the infrastructure and the financial resources are willing to take that risk, so we feel it’s really important to hold those accountable where the evidence demands that they be held accountable.

CN: Leinders remains a live issue even now, because subsequent to Rabobank he spent a year and a half working for the most successful team of today, Team Sky. The evidence you published against him all relates to his time at Rabobank but did you make any effort to investigate his time at Team Sky?

TT: We moved forward on the case that we had and that was the evidence we were able to obtain and we presented it all to the panel.

CN: Even from a single year of his activities at Rabobank, you already had enough evidence to have him banned, but did you make any attempt to decipher precisely what his role was subsequent to Rabobank, when he was at Team Sky? Or was it just not possible to do so?

TT: I don’t think we received any evidence. If we received or obtained any evidence from Sky or any other team of his doping after the evidence that we presented, we would have presented that.

CN: But did you seek that evidence?

TT: I’ll have to talk to our investigative team exactly if we contacted Sky to obtain it or not. We were collaborating with the Dutch and Danes and it felt like we had exhausted the avenues of potential evidence, but I just don’t know if we specifically asked Sky for any information that they had.

CN: USADA drew up a proposal for a truth and reconciliation commission two years ago, which would have offered riders a firm amnesty if they came forward and confessed to doping. One of the striking things from the CIRC inquiry is that so few active riders spoke to them and no rider made a confession aside from those who had already been sanctioned and were seeking reduced bans. Do you feel that there wasn’t enough of an incentive for riders to come and speak to CIRC?

TT: From our investigations over the years, we know that people won’t come in and admit to doping if there’s no risk of them being held accountable otherwise. So we think it’s a combination of appropriate carrots and sticks, so to speak. You have to have the threat of prosecution based on the evidence. Certainly in our investigations, our decision was to give every athlete who only doped as an athlete the chance to come in and get the lowest sanction possible under the rules. We were pushing for full amnesty, quite honestly, because we felt that the evidence we had only touched the surface of what was really going on in the sport during that time period. We needed more evidence, and the best evidence of competing in a fraudulent culture comes from the athletes themselves, so we were fully prepared to allow the athletes the lowest sanctions we could.

A lot of the athletes aren’t going to come in and voluntarily do that and be associated with a doping culture unless there’s also a threat that they’re going to actually get prosecuted, and that’s the stick. So it’s using the stick to grant mercy to ensure as broadly you can that the riders who only doped as riders provide information to hold those in the system accountable. And I think Leinders and the Bruyneel, Ferrari, Celaya and Del Moral cases are perfect examples – the people in the system aren’t in the testing programme, so the only way you’re going to get evidence of their doping violations is through their own admissions, through documents or through the testimony of the athletes they provided the drugs to.

From our view, while you have to hold the athletes accountable, the more important strategy is to ensure that these doctors, team owners, directors, soigneurs – whoever it may be in the system – are held accountable and removed from the system because they’re the guardians of it. They were supposed to be protecting the athletes but instead they turned a blind eye to their obligation to protect and became manipulators of these performance-enhancing drugs to make money. So we decided early on that we were going to strategically have the athletes come in as best we possibly can and use their information and evidence. Truthful and full cooperation allowed them a reduction where it was possible under the rules.

CN: The CIRC report identified some of the doping practices in the peloton today and the section on the abuse of Therapeutic Use Exemptions made for very interesting reading. The use of cortisone in particular is something that we already were aware was something of a problem, and the Movement for Credible Cycling carries out additional testing to counteract its use. Is the MPCC’s cortisol screening something you’d like to see added to the WADA code or are there other options for counteracting the abuse of TUEs?

TT: I don’t think CIRC told us anything we didn’t already know on that but it shows why it’s so important that WADA’s TUE process is implemented in a robust manner. In our minds, it’s best if that process is implemented by the national anti-doping organisation, because one thing the CIRC report showed was the conflict [of interests] in the sport and in the leaders of the sport, like you saw in the decision-making of Hein Verbruggen and Pat McQuaid: they were more interested in profit and power than in the fair enforcement of the rules. Integrity and ethics and clean sport sometimes run counter to the profit of the sport, so having independent anti-doping agencies making decisions on TUEs, like we do for our athletes in the United States, is the way to solve that problem.

CN: It’s a problem we’ve seen under Brian Cookson’s presidency as well, with Chris Froome’s TUE at the Tour de Romandie last year, when questions were raised about whether the correct protocol had been followed. So clearly it’s something you’d like to see taken out of the UCI’s hands completely…

TT: All TUEs now for international-level athletes are supposed to be notified to WADA, who has an appeal right. If it’s done robustly by a national anti-doping agency or a separate entity like the UCI has now set up – where it’s decided by independent experts and not internal medical people – and then copied to WADA, then it’s a process that should allow athletes legitimate things that they need for their health and safety, but also doesn’t allow athletes who attempt to abuse that to get a licence to dope. Obviously, the leaders of the sport have to make sure that they create a culture where those rules are followed to a T and they robustly implement them.

CN: The CIRC report points out that the biological passport has tightened the parameters on blood doping and means that the gains are maybe not what they were ten years ago. But on the other hand, it seems as if the doping game has moved on towards extreme weight loss, whether it’s through the use of cortisone or AICAR – or even questionable diagnosis of hypothyroidism, which wasn’t mentioned in the CIRC report but has been flagged as an issue in athletics. What can be done to counteract this approach? Are existing regulations and testing sufficient?

TT: The nature of the win at all costs culture is that athletes are going to look for any and every advantage, so anti-doping authorities have to have a broad strategy to address that. It includes obviously education, saving samples for re-testing and biological passport analysis for blood and urine. But maybe the most important thing from a deterrent and a protection stand-point is the ability to obtain information from whistle-blowers and law enforcement investigations to ensure that if an athlete takes the risk, then they take the risk that they’re going to get caught.

Hopefully it’s immediately but I can tell you that if they have cheated, for ten years they’re going to be looking over their shoulders and they’re not going to be sleeping very well at night because it’s awfully difficult to do this in such a way to defeat the testing and not create a whole host of documents and witnesses. And I think the Postal Service case and the Leinders case demonstrate that even if you are successful for a short period of time and you use tactics to keep it quiet, eventually the truth always comes out.

CN: In an interview Brian Cookson gave to the Telegraph this week he said that he had been asked by CIRC to broker talks between USADA and Lance Armstrong. Is that true?

TT: I haven’t heard anything. I obviously read that but I haven’t seen anything formal. But our position hasn’t changed at all. We’d love for Lance Armstrong to come in and we look forward to the day that happens. Hopefully it will help to move the effort forward for current athletes and for the next generation as well if he decides to come in and be full and truthful with us. We’ll remain hopeful.

CN: Is there a potential carrot for him in terms of a reduction of his lifetime ban?

TT: It’s way too premature to even speculate on that. I think the rules technically allow for it under certain conditions but we’re just hopeful for the overall effort regardless of that question. We remain hopeful, and we’re obviously glad that he talked to CIRC.

* Documentation from USADA states: “12 cyclists and former cyclists have been sanctioned as well as 4 team doctors, a team trainer and a team director. 9 other people have either admitted or otherwise been exposed, but were outside the statute of limitations for a case to be brought.

Sanctioned or Otherwise Admitted/Exposed: Andreas Klier, George Hincapie, Tom Danielson, Levi Leipheimer, Christian Vande Velde, David Zabriskie, Michael Barry, Lance Armstrong, Dr. Michele Ferrari, Dr. Pedro Celaya, Dr. Luis Garcia del Moral, Jose “Pepe” Marti, Johan Bruyneel, Tyler Hamilton, Floyd Landis, Dr. Geert Leinders, Steffen Kjaergaard, Bobby Julich, Rick Crawford, Michael Boogerd, Ryder Hesjedal, Stephen Swart, Jonathan Vaughters, Frankie Andreu, Kevin Livingston.”


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