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On the Trail of the Dopers: Cycling and Drugs

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Tim Franks | 13:14 UK time, Tuesday, 17 May 2011

Part one of a two part blog. The second part will be posted on Thursday. You can listen to the full report aired on The Today Programme here.

Joe Papp is a 35 year old man who hopes his life has not been destroyed.

Papp lives in a quiet, well-heeled suburb of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. In July, he may be sentenced to 10 years in prison. His story, of the professional cyclist who became a doper and then a dealer, is extreme. But its power lies in what he and many others say is its reflection of a deeply entrenched culture of drug-taking in road-racing.

Cycling is one of the world's major sports and, perhaps more than any other, it has always had its doping scandals. But now it has reached a critical point. Last year's winner of the biggest race - the Tour de France - is the Spaniard Alberto Contador. He is planning to race again this year but that depends on the result of an arbitration hearing into his positive test in the 2010 edition.

In the States, the most famous cyclist of them all - and one of the biggest sporting celebrities in the world - Lance Armstrong, is being investigated by the federal authorities over allegations of doping. Cycling's governing body says it is now leading the fight against drugs. Others on the inside say the sport is in a state of denial and risking collapse. So who is right?

Joe Papp faces up to 10 years in jail for supplying drugs

Joe Papp faces up to 10 years in jail for supplying drugs

Amid his personal turmoil, Joe Papp still tries to keep to a routine, and takes one of his four bikes out for a spin each day. "I just push off, and roll down the hill," he says, standing in his front garden. "It's the same hill I've been riding down since I was 14."

That was when Papp's uncle bought him his first multi-gear bike. Papp turned pro at 19. He started doping at 26. When I ask him why, he exhales deeply.

"Honestly and genuinely, it was just because I wanted to continue competing at the level that I had been competing at. It wasn't about earning extra money. It was simply a desire to remain competitive against other riders who appeared to me and my team-mates to be artificially enhancing their performance."

It was a team-mate and his wife who introduced Papp to his first doping doctor. Papp said he was pulled in two directions. "I knew deep down it was unethical and unsporting. I was also terrified about becoming a drug addict: I didn't take cough medicine, or aspirin, or vitamin supplements up to that point. At the same time, it was a glowing orb of possibility, and a solution to remaining competitive. I succeeded for quite a few years in thinking about it only as a professional necessity. Just another tool."

And he says he was not alone. From the start of the decade, up to 2006, when he tested positive, "almost to a T, every one of my team-mates doped." He says there were several exceptions. But they were just that: exceptions. The fact that he was not at the pinnacle of his sport (although for a time he was, on International Cycling Union (UCI) points, the leading US rider in three regions) makes him believe that doping was pervasive throughout cycling, "the modus operandi for a significant number of athletes."

From nervous beginner, Papp ended up ingesting and injecting a baroque cocktail of drugs. He experimented widely. His staple involved EPO, HGH, testosterone, steroids and amphetamines. He was able to rider "harder, faster, for longer, day after day."

He insists it was easy to evade the testers. When he was caught, in 2006, it was "ironically for something I never knowingly took." One reason that the testing regime was weak, he claims, was "the official subversion of the anti-doping process, to protect the image of the race, the athlete, the team. People who were representative of the international level of cycling were involved in that." It was a process, he said, that he participated in at least half a dozen times.

When he did, finally, test positive, Papp decided to fold rather than fight. He says that many of his fellow riders saw that as the crime - "spitting in the soup", they call it in cycling. Most of his former team-mates and friends in the sport disowned him.

But even as he began to co-operate with sport's anti-doping agency, he also started dealing in performance-enhancing drugs. He supplied, in total, about 200 athletes. After a year, he was busted by the police.

After a number of delays, Papp is due to be sentenced, in court, in July. He could face up to 10 years in jail. His hope is that testimony from the US Anti-Doping Agency, which describes Papp's subsequent help in a "significant number of cases" as "very, very helpful", will be used in mitigation.

Papp readily concedes that his actions were stupid and destructive - but he also says it was easy because of the culture of doping in the sport. It is a culture which, he says, has yet to be eradicated.

The only solution, he argues, is for the matter to be seen less as a sporting problem, and more as criminal one.

"We've seen over and over again that the athletes can't be trusted to do the right thing; administrators and officials are always going to be subject to undue influence, being corrupted, and the criminal element is entrenched. The only ultimate answer is to dissuade people by threatening their freedom."

What gives Papp's prescription power is that imprisonment is a prospect he himself faces, come July. And he is candid about that prospect.

"I am utterly terrified, and fearful to a degree I've never experienced in my life. It's primordial, what I feel almost every waking minute. I understand that I violated the laws of my country, and the rules of my sport, and I need to be held accountable for that, to dissuade others. I just hope that the process of doing that isn't one that ultimately sees me done in."


  • Comment number 1.

    Really interesting article and I look forward to part two. However, I don't see the point of putting this as a blog. Whenever there is a blog about doping in cycling and people express their views on Armstrong and Contador, they inevitably get moderated even if the posts are in no way potentially libellous and people get frustrated. The moderators work overtime, the BBC gets nervous about litigation and us readers get annoyed. It isn't worth the trouble I don't think. Good effort though.

  • Comment number 2.

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the house rules. Explain.

  • Comment number 3.

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the house rules. Explain.

  • Comment number 4.

    Hi all, just a reminder that posting about the sentencing of any named individual or speculating on the extent of their guilt is, potentially, in contempt of court.

    We do not want to remove posts but may have to. Please be mindful.

    Apologies in advance for any frustration caused by this.


  • Comment number 5.

    Apologies, again, that should be "potentially, libellous or defamatory".

    Again, please do be mindful. Thanks.

  • Comment number 6.

    I used to love cycling. I remember running up the stairs at home in Madrid to watch the end of the stage of the Vuelta after school (those days it took place in April-May) and look forward the Tour every summer. Then I wanted to read about riders I had not seen, Merckx, Anquetil, Poulidor, Bahamontes, etc, and between them you find Simpson and his death at Mount Ventoux, full of drugs. Maybe different drugs, as Fignon admitted before passing away this year, but drugs in any case. Many Dutch rides died in their sleep in their early thirties as a consequence of the drugs they took to perform better, and recently Marco Pantani and Jose Maria Jimenez died after severe problems with drugs and depresion. Thierry Claveyrolat, a former King of the Mountains in the 90s, hung himself as well....

    It is not just the cheating, the taking the glory off a colleague that should be on the top of that podium, the price money, the pictures and the headlines, which is bad enough. It is they do not realise how severe the consequences of the drugs they take. They talk about security, helmets, how fast race directors make the cyclist go downhill after a climb... but they forget the drugs they take have a more certain effect on their health than a fall.

    I still like cycling, I cannot help it. It's ben 30 years of following it... but now I tend to be cynical. Take it as a film. The goodies and the baddies are simply actors and what happens in the film is just pretending. It's nearly as the American Wrestling. I do not know how many rides are clean; I presume a small percent. I cannot understand why they trust directors and doctors that have been involved in doping cases (Riis admitted to have taken drugs to win his Tour, yet Contador is happy to ride for him) or why these directors and "doctors" still hold a license to be part of the sport.

    Looking at the Tour de France top-3 in the last few years (and I mean about 15 to 20 years) you could not put your hand on fire for any of them. Several have been involved in doping cases already. Would you believe a clean cyclist could beat a field containing the very best in the world aided by drugs?

    I am sorry for Papp, but he deserves punishment. Not only taking drugs but selling them. This has to end, if only because they are killing themselves

  • Comment number 7.

    I'm disgusted that you've removed the link someone posted, all it is is an interview with a scientist who is an expert on all aspects of doping.
    He may mention certain names, but having just finished the article, it's basically just saying that doping controls accross all sports are far from being accurate and worse, those in charge of the sports are too concerned about their own sports image to care anyway, money buys lies/liars and the whole system is not to be trusted, especially many 'experts' and most pro athletes.

  • Comment number 8.

    Your statement about Contador is not factually correct. He was cleared of a doping offence by the Spanish authorities. It is the UCI and WADA who are appealing this decision to the Court of Arbitration for Sport, and Contador is permitted to race whilst waiting for this appeal to be held. If UCI/WADA win the appeal Contador will be banned, and any results he obtains between the original doping offence and the appeal will be wiped.

  • Comment number 9.

    Good interview, and it is good that to see whistleblowers being supported in the media for once.

    It would be nice if the BBC were to interview higher profile riders who have blown the whistle and then been attacked by the authorities, other riders and in the media - the likes of Landis, Jaksche, Manzano, Bassons (who has a lot of interesting things to say)

  • Comment number 10.

    Not about money yet after being caught using he then turns to dealing? Frankly I wouldn't believe a word out of this guys mouth.

    Frnakly you shouldn't be wasting licence fee payers money giving this guy publicity at all let alone splitting it into a special 2 part blog.

  • Comment number 11.

    While I agree with No.10 that his reliability is called into question by his behaviour after being caught - dealing is, after all, even less forgivable than partaking - I do believe that this is a valuable blog touching on an important, albeit very depressing aspect of modern sport. It perhaps isn't an opportune time to raise this issue, what with the London Olympics just a year away and a number of other sports also deserving deeper analysis, but I think it is an issue that needs to be analyzed openly and as publicly as possible. And while I recognize that criminalization is perhaps the most effective deterrent, as a matter of personal integrity - which should be at the top of every individual's priorities - surely the knowledge that one has enhanced one's performance by artificial means (ie: cheated) takes away any pleasure that might be derived from ensuing success, fame and wealth. You cannot put a value on being able to put one's head on the pillow every night with a clean conscience!
    It is heartening that detection is making such enormous strides, but it is always one step behind the cheats, who appear to be backed by a multi-million dollar research industry. And the ambiguous attitude of the authorities, mentioned in the blog and demonstrated in practise - look at the way Marion Jones was ostracised after deciding to come clean, sending a very clear message to others whose consciences were bothering them - does not help in the least. So in the end it all comes down to individual integrity and doing what is right, even if it is after the event (forgiveness and redemption are powerful motives), and this should be loudly applauded even as we condemn the act. As for the anonymous "exceptions", these are life's true heroes, in my opinion!

  • Comment number 12.

    Cycling is far from perfect in its fight against doping, but there is at least an attempt with things like the biological passport. Most other sports do very little in the way of testing (Barcelona FC, for example, have had urine, not blood tests, twice this season). The simple reasoning is that these sports do not have problems with drugs even though there is overwhelming evidence to the contrary. In the fall out from Operation Puerto it was only the cyclists on the list who faced any form of punishment, the footballers, tennis players etc. were never even named.

  • Comment number 13.

    Interesting article and one which every cycling fan should read.
    With regard to Ombladon (No 9) French TV has recently carried an interview with Floyd Landis which really just showed him to be a bitter man mainly concerned with trashing anyone else's reputation.
    One of my strongest feelings engendered by any sport was watching Alexander Vinokourov ride off the front of the peleton for the last kilometre of the Tour on the Champs Elysee and winning the stage. With the stage set up for the sprinters and all of the teams domestiques going at full speed he just shouldn't have been able to do it........ He passed the obligatory drugs test after the stage though.......
    Hopefully cycling will continue to repair its reputation but it will be a long journey.
    TheBigBean has a very good point. Other sports don't seem to want to get involved in drug testing. The rule that ALL athletes in ALL sports should give their whereabouts so that out of competition testing can take place at random should be made compulsory. No agreement, no play, no pay. Sadly the Football authorities won't agree to that as the players won't. Millions and millions watch football.We get what we deserve. Depressing really.

  • Comment number 14.

    Why in cycling is it assumed that if you win you must have taken drugs? You beat someone who was taking drugs? Well that proves nothing. I love cycling, I can ride long distance at a decent pace. But I could never ride at pro race pace, I do not have the body for it. People are different, my lungs and muscles are normal. No drug could turn me into Lance Armstrong! Perhaps winners win because they are stronger, mentally and physically, than the average guy, even the average pro. I totally agree that if those involved in doping are caught their punishment must be severe, especially dealers and anyone organizing drug taking, which is a terrible crime. 10 years in prison should be the minimum for convicted drug dealer.

  • Comment number 15.

    can someone - tim or other - explain what crime was (allegedly) committed by joe? are the drugs illegal per se (i always thought they weren't, as such) or is it a more convoluted crime?

  • Comment number 16.

    I was interested by Mark Cavendish's comments the other day, that cycling has a bad reputation because it catches a lot of cheats. This can be interpreted two ways: either cycling is a rotten sport where most take performance enhancing drugs, or cycling is leading the way in drug-cheat detection. For the sake of sport in general, one would like to believe that it is the former, as the latter merely suggests that such widespread drug use is rife within all sports. Cavendish obviously believes that to be true, but that other sports are simply not as good at catching cheats.

    I'm divided over this blog. It seems on the one hand to attempt to illicit sympathy for Papp, as if his helping the authorities after having broken the law and the fact that all those around him were doing it too somehow makes his crimes less criminal, whilst on the other hand highlighting the amount of doping that goes on in sports and the lengths that are being gone to try to solve the problem.

  • Comment number 17.

    The drug issue in cycling is such a shame. Historically it is proven that some of the worlds best have used them (both intentionally and unintentionally) and it always masks what a massive achievement it must be to win such a top event (such as the Tour de France). As an admirer of these sportsmen (and women) and as a cyclist myself I see only one solution to the issue..

    At every event (major or otherwise), strict and rigorous testing should be carried out - and any rider failing such a test should be suspended pending an investigation. Surely if I can be stopped by the police whilst driving and give a voluntary breath/ urine/ blood sample then why can't a top level, internationally sportsman?? If they have nothing to hide, then they have nothing to worry about..

    I also feel massively sorry for Contador - I'm sure he is no cheat, just massively unfortunate he happened to digest something he shouldn't have done. There needs to be a clear definition between an intended drug cheat and someone who happened to eat the wrong fish paste for lunch the day before..

  • Comment number 18.

    The drugs were probably not illegal to possess if you had a prescription for them. It was illegal Papp to own and sell them. I don't think that the comment that categorizes Papp as a whistle-blower is accurate. A whistle-blower would come clean before getting arrested. I think the correct term for someone that names names after getting arrested is "grass" or "snitch". I believe that Papp has only named people in the hopes of reducing his sentence. I prefer the Millar response. Get busted, admit it, serve your time, come back clean and promote clean riding.

  • Comment number 19.

    Re 6.

    Off topic maybe but Thierry Claveyrolat actually shot himself a month after he caused a car crash which seriously injured a family. He was going to prison and his suicide appeared to be a consequence of his guilt rather than "drugs".

  • Comment number 20.

    Thanks for a very good piece on doping in the sport of cycling. I had not heard this story before, about this particular person. What your piece points out is that doping is far more pervasive than even I, an avid follower of the sport, could have believed. It is one thing for a cyclist to use various kinds of performance enhancing drugs, quite another to actively participate in selling and distributing them. What a shame.

  • Comment number 21.

    #19 - Thanks for the correction; I had the story wrong.

    #17 - I am Spanish and a fan of Contador, and I really struggle to believe his story on the clembuterol-infected steak.

    #14 - Of course professionals are better than the average person that do a sport. They have more talent, dedication and strength. And then some cheat to be even better

  • Comment number 22.

    Our country has a huge drug problem and we spend multi millions every year trying to help the victims of this culture.

    Our prisons are full (98% of the women in documentary on Corton Vale prison were there because of crimes associated with addictions) of people caught up in this horrible trade of thieving to feed their habit.

    Is it really clever to build a multi billion pound theatre viz the olympic park to enable people from all over the world to show just how close they can get to the edge of the laws of sport, using drugs, without being caught?

    I wish the olympics were this fair, untainted grapple between athletes of similar prowess that we are led to believe. It is not and has not been so for decades.
    The true winners will be the chemists and doctors as their client's success will encourage ever more young "athletes" to join their stables.

    The great and the good will be there next year eulogising about the glory being brought to their countries by athletic success.
    Prior to attending the olympics, it should be compulsory for them to attend a prison or a drug rehabilitation centre and see the human fallout from drugs

    Maybe they and our great and good will waken up to the real truth about athletics and performance enhancing drugs.

  • Comment number 23.

    Further to my comments in No.11, I think the whole question of sport should be reevaluated. My own view is that sport represents a personal challenge and competing against anybody else is a subsidiary issue. that is why sport is so valuable to all people, without exception, and our growing obsession with success and fame has not only blinded us to this fact, but has marginalized a huge proportion of the population and helped to generate increasing obesity and health problems.
    Not only does sport help to promote good health, when practiced sensibly and fairly, but it is enormous fun to participate in, helps to develop self-discipline and can be hugely inspirational. I was amongst the better athletes at my school and took this a bit too much for granted until I witnessed the heart-breaking experience of a colleague, who managed to play for his favourite football team - Charlton Athletic . First he was out for a meniscus operation on one knee, came back and soon had to have an operation on the other knee. With his knees sorted out, he was back in the team and someone broke his leg - and in those days it wasn’t the simple formality and short recovery period it is today (that’s why Dave Mackay’s broken leg devastated the Spurs side and probably cost them two titles - it was seen as career ending; hence the impressiveness of his recovery). But I digress; the point I want to make is that house matches at school meant roping into the team lads who otherwise never participated in competitive sport, and in many cases were certainly not built for it. And yet, on the day, their response was nothing short of magnificent. I have a vivid image of the school rugby captain trying to break through our lines, with a small kid hanging onto one of his legs, another trying to secure a grip around his waist and finally being brought down by another coming in to help and take the ball off him. None of them ever came close to playing rugby for the school, yet they played a vital role in helping us secure the house trophy, as they excelled themselves in representing their house.
    That’s what sport is all about - overcoming your own limitations and adversities - not simply being the fastest, strongest, jumping or throwing the farthest. We see heroic examples all the time: the Swiss miss marathon runner who just would not give up, even though her finish was excruciating to watch. Or the Brazilian gymnast who had primitive training equipment yet managed to finish 13th in the Olympics.
    And this is why drug taking is such a perversion of the whole principle. I suppose that if everybody took the same performance enhancing drugs it would have the same net effect as body-building and other techniques to improve one’s physical ability, like those specially designed swimsuits. But when some do it and others don’t, whether because they disapprove or simply can’t afford it, then it’s no longer a level playing field and the situation can be equated with any other means of cheating or corruption.
    Well, that’s the way I see it anyway.

  • Comment number 24.

    Good blog and clearly prompting some issues for discussion.

    The great thing about sport is that we are not all born equal and so have to pursue the sports we can to the best of our ability. There are a lot of people I raced against on the track (bike) and road (bike and running) who were stronger, fitter or faster due to natural ability, harder training or greater perseverance. There were fewer whom I beat who were stronger and fitter but had less perseverance. The thing that undermines the satisfaction that can be drawn from both of these scenarios is when you are beaten by a cheat.

    #17 - out of interest, whilst the ingestion of meat loaded with clembutorol is one route in to the blood stream another might be from previously drawn blood of an athlete who was using clembuterol out of season, being reloaded into the body during competition.

  • Comment number 25.

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the house rules. Explain.


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