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The Explainer: Motive, intent and punishment

  • By Charles Pelkey
  • Published Nov. 12, 2008
  • Updated Aug. 15, 2010 at 7:57 PM EST
Tammy Thomas at the height of her career.

Photo: Casey B. Gibson

Dear Explainer,
Is there an instance in which a rider returning from a two-year ban has been caught doping again? It seems to me that a two-year ban is deeply sobering — enough to prompt a self-imposed “lifetime ban” on those daft enough to have doped in the first place. For example, look at the fruitful repentance of David Millar of Garmin-Chipotle. However, a caveat — where there is something to gain there will always be a degree of corruption. The riders and the team managers who hire them are signed primarily based upon their performance not their moral fiber. It takes a lot more than a blood sample to test for that.
Freddie
London, United Kingdom

Dear Freddie,
As sad to say as it is, there is an example of a suspended rider coming back to the sport, only to get another — now permanent — suspension.

First off, the whole idea of two-year bans becoming the standard really originated with the formation of the World Anti-Doping Agency in 1999. The idea was embraced, in concept, at the first World Conference on Doping in Sport in Lausanne, Switzerland, in February of that year. However, it was quite some time before all signatory governing bodies actually bought into the idea, with international soccer (“football” to most humans) and (drum roll) cycling being the last two to adopt the World Anti-Doping Code.

So, with the code in place, it was a cyclist — an American cyclist to be precise — who was subjected to the first lifetime ban. The story, in our opinion, remains one of the saddest in sports.

By now you may have guessed that it was track cyclist Tammy Thomas, a specialist in the sprint and the 500-meter time trial, who received her first suspension in 2000, while trying for an Olympic selection. She tested positive for elevated levels of testosterone that year and was banned from the sport for a year. She disputed the charge, saying that there was no solid evidence that the testosterone was from external sources.

Thomas returned to cycling and picked up where she left off in 2000, riding to impressive performances, earning a silver medal in the sprint at the world championships in 2001.

The following year, Thomas tested positive for an unusual anabolic steroid, norbolethone, something that had been pulled from clinical trials in the 1970s because of its toxicity. Unfortunately, while the case was under review, she was still allowed to compete, earning 43 points for the U.S. in World Cup competition — more than enough to beat Germany in the year-long series. The record books still show that the U.S. “won” that now-tainted distinction.

In August of 2002, a three-member arbitration panel found that Thomas had, indeed, doped again and imposed a lifetime ban from all sports that have signed onto the code.

It would have been sad enough had the story stopped right there, but Thomas’ troubles were only beginning. In 2003, she was called before the recently empanelled federal grand jury looking into the growing BALCO scandal. Thomas was asked about her steroid use and, while under oath, she denied ever having used banned substances.

After toying with the idea of entering competition in the non-Olympic sport of power lifting, Thomas enrolled in law school. Unfortunately, in the fall semester of her second year, her BALCO testimony came back to haunt her and she was indicted on five counts of perjury and obstruction of justice in December of 2006.

Thomas on trial in San Francisco in 2008.

Photo: VeloNews file photo

Thomas was found guilty of all charges in April of this year and is awaiting sentencing. The case will probably result in another lifetime ban for Thomas, in that admission to the practice of law in every state requires a so-called “character and fitness” review and felony convictions — particularly for perjury — are an almost insurmountable barrier.

So yeah, Freddie, it has happened, and it’s happened with some seriously bad consequences. What’s weirdest in this case goes directly to your second observation, that “where there is something to gain there will always be a degree of corruption.” Tammy Thomas was competing in the 500-meter and the sprint on the velodrome. While difficult and impressive events, even at the Olympic level, they’re not exactly lucrative. Indeed, when you compare what she could have made in her first couple of years as a young attorney, it would have probably far outstripped everything she made as a cyclist. Who knows why people do this stuff?

Even “The Explainer” can’t explain that one.


“The Explainer” will be a regular feature on VeloNews.com. If you have a question related to the sport of cycling that our editors might be able to answer, feel free to send your query to WebLetters@CompetitorGroup.com and we’ll take a stab at answering. Not all letters will be published and some questions may be combined with those of other readers. Please include your full name and hometown.

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