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The last few weeks have been rife with doping suspensions and the biggest splash has been and no doubt continues to be Alberto Contador’s, but there are plenty more high profile names at various stages in the disciplinary process.  We’ve talked about the suspensions so far and there are plenty of cycling news sites covering the situation, so we thought it would be interesting to contemplate and discuss the longer term implications of a suspension for a cyclist.  Is there ever a road to redemption?

Once the ban has been served the athlete is, in theory, free to return to top flight professional competition.  The number of athletes (not just cyclists) who struggle to do this might suggest however that this is not as simple as it sounds.  British athletics sprinter Dwain Chambers, who served a two year ban, has been trying to break back in to the ranks since June 2006.  He remains banned from competing in the Olympics (by the British Olympic Association), several European athletics meetings and has caused controversy among fellow athletes including team mate Darren Campbell who refused to take part in a victory lap with Chambers after the 4 x 100m at the 2006 European Championships.  He has also attempted to move to different sports yet he has been unable to shake the stigma of being  a previously doped athlete.

In cycling, Michael Rasmussen, aka ‘The Chicken’ has also struggled.  Rasmussen was given a two year ban in 2007 for lying about his whereabouts prior to the Tour de France causing him to miss a random drug test.  This resulted in him being pulled from the 2007 Tour by his team Rabobank, while wearing the yellow jersey and odds-on to win.  Having served the ban, Rasmussen has ridden for continental ranked teams and had a personal sponsor supporting his journey back to a pro team.  This sponsor has even offered to pay his salary on the pro team to give him a chance to redeem himself – yet despite all of this, he has been unable to secure a pro-deal despite links to Riis’ Team Saxo Bank.

It seems that while the athlete can serve the ban and ‘do the time’, their reputation can often be ruined and the trust between their team and the peloton is irreversible damaged.

But there is one good news story, that of Scottish rider and Time Trial specialist David Millar.  Millar served a two year ban for use of EPO after confessing in 2004.  When he was investigated, Millar’s response was immediate, he admitted to taking EPO and did not contest the length of his ban.  He then spent considerable time debriefing the UCI and British Cycling in detail, cataloguing his doping, how he did it and the pressures that led him to take the performance enhancing drugs in an effort to offer insight in to his experience.  During his ban he independently became involved with British Cycling and UK Sport running workshops with young athletes where he pinpointed the early warning signs of a young athlete who may feel the need to use performance enhancing drugs.

Having served his ban, Millar returned to professional cycling, where he initially received a cold reception in the peloton – many felt he had implicated them in his open and frank confession.  Despite this, Millar has come to represent the new, clean generation of riders coming through both by being a prominent anti-doping spokesperson and through his continued involvement with WADA (World Anti-Doping Agency).  This year has been a phenomenal one for Millar where he won the Commonwealth Games Time Trial for Scotland, took third in the Commonwealth Games road race, second in the World Championships Time Trial and on Sunday, he set a new course record at the Chrono des Nations Time Trial in France.
Despite his full disclosure, honest approach, acceptance of his punishment and subsequent involvement in anti-doping campaigns, Millar has still struggled to shake off the stigma of being a former doper.  Dave Brailsford Team Sky Principal, did at one point allegedly see Millar as a Team Sky signing but press reports at the time suggested Brailsford was prevented from signing Millar because of his past errors and the potentially damaging publicity this might attract.  Millar is also still banned by the British Olympic Association (BOA) from representing Great Britain in the Olympics – the policy of the BOA to not allow those who have been found guilty of doping is a contentious one.

David Millar has shown that redemption is, to some degree possible.  You can serve your time and have a successful professional career.  But equally it seems that once damaged in such a way, an athlete’s reputation will forever be associated with any past misdemeanour.  There are many who believe that bans should not be temporary but life-long, preventing an individual from ever returning to competition and also serving as a stronger deterrent for those considering cheating.  But many believe that people make mistakes and they should be allowed to redeem themselves, after all, we are all fallible.  The difficult question is – are those caught truly sorry, or, were they happy to gain an unfair advantage and accept the results that came with that?  Should you be given another chance or does doping deserve a lifetime ban?  What are your thoughts?

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