Would a Leniency Policy for Drugs Cheats Work?

Economic estimations based on OECD data for 23 countries and a 20 year time frame show positive and significant effects of leniency* programs for detecting and destabilizing cartels. My question is whether a leniency policy could work to oust drugs cartels and groups in cycling; it a potent query that has been suggested more than once by the UCI, USADA and other anti-doping agencies.

The data alluded to above looks at mark-ups achieved by companies involved in cartels, and finds that the introduction of leniency programs lowered the price cost mark-up, and can therefore be considered to have been beneficial to competition, and beneficial to destabilizing cartel action. There are some problems with the data, as many other effects could have lowered mark-ups in the period of analysis, but overall we can consider that leniency policies have been beneficial.

There are many things that link a cartel in business to a drugs ring in cycling; cartel activity is covert and secretive, cartel participation is illegal (with several managing directors imprisoned under the Enterprise Act in the UK for their participation in cartel activity) and cartel participation is largely conducted with the anticipation of monetary gains. Most importantly though, cartel activity is categorically condemned as damaging the economy; just as drugs rings could never be argued to be beneficial to cycling.

There are some factors that set the two situations apart however; in cycling the incentives to be involved in a drugs program are not just monetary; there is the intangible merit of victory, even if it is tainted by a guilty conscience. Equally, coming clean about being involved in a drugs ring in cycling is likely to damage the reputation of the individual for the rest of their career, even if they are exempt from the bans and fines that their fellow cheats have placed upon them. The result of these two factors is that there is more incentive to uphold a drug ring's secrecy; there are more benefits to staying involved, and more benefits to not divesting the crime. For these reasons a leniency program seems less likely to work.

So can we consider monetary incentives for leniency? Could we pay individuals to own-up to their crimes and "dob in" their fellow riders? Possibly, but again it is problematic; a cheat in business is rather different from a cheat in sport, mainly because sports cheats tend to tarnish their reputation for their life time. As a result the monetary incentives would have to be very large to encourage leniency; large enough that they could cover all the potential losses to earnings and status caused by tarnishing a career with admittance.

Finally, we have to consider the possibility that an individual may not be believed when they do expose the crime. A case in point is Floyd Landis or Tyler Hamilton. At best the public refuse to believe them, but the authorities do (much like the Armstrong case with USADA). At worst, the individual may confess themselves, but then fail to provide significant evidence to condemn others, therefore losing any hope of leniency. These two potential outcomes reduce the likelihood of an individual ever confessing under a leniency policy for drugs use.

So would a leniency policy work for drugs cheats in cycling? Unfortunately, I think not. There are too many incentives to continue to "collude" in a drugs programme, and too many possibilities that leniency will not produce the desired outcome for the individual. Monetary incentives may help, but they would have to be substantial; and you have to question the morality of paying individuals to admit to a crime!

Drugs programmes then seem to be a classic case where prevention is better than cure. The fear of testing must be heightened, the loop-holes removed and the corrupt individuals dismissed. It is not enough to get the guilty to confess, the guilty must be eliminated from the sport altogether, excluding the need for a leniency program in the first instance.

*A leniency program is when an individual will be exempt from punishment, or even rewarded for blowing the whistle on a cartel or criminal undertaking that he or she has been involved in.


  1. Interesting write up Tim. Looking at some of the penalties and how they effect riders I wouldn't be surprised if they think them too forgiving. It's the fact they can back date them and be up and racing in a few months. There seems no real punishment there.

    Would a ban for life cure or drive the issue deeper?

  2. That's another interesting question isn't it, in my mind I would like to say that it would, but deep down I rather feel that it wouldn't.

    If you consider drugs rings to be like a cartel; the more you increase the punishment, the more the cartel is sustainable, as no one wants to deviate from the agreement. If you put a life time ban on doping, then yes you relay the message that you shouldn't start doping in the first place, but you also make those existing doping networks work harder and invest more into avoiding detection.

    Perhaps the best option would be fines that were so large they would bankrupt any cyclist and their team, even if they had large financial backing. If you couldn't pay the fine, then imprisonment is perhaps an option. That's the only way that I can see you stop riders doping for years, building up a fortune on race wins and then taking the attitude that it doesn't matter if you get caught now, as you have your fortune and you can retire (mostly thinking of Armstrong here).

    It's an interesting debate, to be honest I don't really have an answer clear in my mind. All I know is that change is needed.


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