Column: Fairness should trump Olympic doping bans
When French police carted away world champion cyclist David Millar in 2004 for doping, locking him in a cell that he says smelled of urine and disinfectant, I had zero sympathy. Let him rot, I thought.
The year before, I had covered the Tour de France and Millar's victory in the final time trial. I could, and maybe should, have stayed home with my newly born son that summer, instead of crisscrossing France chasing dishonest cyclists. So when police unmasked Millar as a fraud 11 months later, seizing used syringes of the blood-booster EPO in his home, I felt personally cheated and angry that he had wasted my time that could have been better spent with my new family.
But I would like to see Millar compete at the 2012 Olympic Games.
So what changed?
The idea that Millar, more than most, deserves a second chance is among the many reasons why I hope that the Court of Arbitration for Sport does the right thing on Thursday. The sport world's highest court should strike down an International Olympic Committee regulation that doesn't make allowances for human errors or frailties, doesn't offer those who learn from their mistakes a chance at redemption and, as such, is a very inhuman rule.
The IOC's rule bars athletes who receive doping suspensions lasting more than six months from competing in the next summer or winter games. In other words, it makes them pay twice. That is unfair.
The rule also makes no consideration for individual circumstances. Intentional drug cheats and careless athletes like LaShawn Merritt are treated with the same rigidity. Such willful blindness is wrong.
Merritt isn't a drug cheat, he is a young man who wanted to have better sex. Merritt bought and took pills that promise male sexual enhancement. Seemed a bit sheepish about it, too. Leslie James, the 7-Eleven convenience store worker who testified at his hearing last year, said she found it funny that the Olympic 400-meter champion typically would first buy a lottery ticket and jungle juice, then leave and come back to buy condoms and the over-the-counter pills.
Had Merritt read the fine print, which he said he didn't, he would have seen that the pills contain dehydroepiandrosterone, or DHEA. Merritt testified that even if he had looked, he still wouldn't have known that DHEA is on the World Anti-Doping Agency's list of steroids prohibited for use by athletes. So he was both negligent and ill-informed and, as a consequence, was banned for 21 months.
Ignorance and foolishness shouldn't prevent Merritt from defending his Olympic title next year. Hopefully, CAS will see that.
And, hopefully, the CAS ruling will make the British Olympic Association rethink its rule that bans drug offenders for life from the Olympics. Again, that rule is too severe, especially for first offenses. It goes way beyond what the world anti-doping code requires. It does have an appeals process but not one that would give a second chance to someone like Millar.
Unlike Merritt, Millar was a drug cheat. But he isn't now - at least I don't think so. After serving a two-year ban, and stripped of the world time-trial title he won in 2003, Millar returned to cycling a transformed man.
He still carries the somewhat haunted air he had before the police caught him. But with a convert's zeal, he has set about trying to prove to everyone that this time, he is doing things right. More importantly, he has sought to show other riders that they don't need to dope to win. The two of us spoke at the 2006 Tour, sitting on a dry patch of grass. I came away convinced that he was clean and a little stunned that he was so open and honest about his past.
Time and again, in multiple interviews and his biography, he has detailed the process that led him to take drugs, how the pressures of wanting to ride well and the poisoned advice of those around him gradually steered him in the wrong direction. Millar's story, his willingness to tell it, to have others learn from it and to not make his mistakes, now make him an asset to sport and efforts to clean it up.
WADA, clearly, thinks so. It appointed him to its committee that speaks for and represents athletes at the world anti-doping body.
And at Garmin-Cervelo, the pro squad Millar rides for, manager Jonathan Vaughters calls him ''one of the biggest preventative measures we could have possibly done to prevent doping from ever occurring on the team.''
Vaughters says Millar ''very much pushed'' the team to forbid its riders from using any medical injections or drips to recuperate, a ''no needle'' policy subsequently adopted by cycling's governing body and one that the IOC plans to enforce at the 2012 London Olympics, too.
Millar also acts as a mentor, his mere presence a sobering reminder to others what the price of cheating can be.
''The young guys say, 'Wow, you know, this guy went through a lot and he's happy to share the stories with them and happy to be completely honest,'' Vaughters said in a phone interview. ''He showed other athletes in the world of sport that you can come out the other side, and have a successful career racing clean, and you do that by being honest.''
I, for one, have forgiven Millar for cheating me in 2003, because he has since helped me understand why some athletes dope and also understand that people do not have to be defined forever by their mistakes if they, themselves, accept and learn from them.
They can move on. They can better themselves. They can try to better others.
For those reasons, Millar should ride in London.
John Leicester is an international sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at jleicester(at)ap.org or follow him at twitter.com/johnleicester