La Vida Wanker

La Vida Wanker

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Joe Papp Interview: Part I

In the mind of the public, doping is a dirty thing. We assign blame, claim righteous indignation and experience a visceral rejection to the cheating of our idols. So when our stars start to fall, we find pleasure in accelerating their descent.

Meanwhile, to the developing world―where conditions promote doping and ethical muddles―we show indifference. Viewing cycling, the sporting public sees doping as a test of morals rather than economic necessity.

And every year, another rider from a disadvantaged background emerges and shocks the world with his performance. For weeks, we are stunned by the talent. In the underdog, we have found a new idol.

Invariably, the star is soon found a fraud. One must only look to the 2010 Vuelta Espana for a current example. Ezequiel Mosquera and his teammate David Garcia da Pena tested positive for Hydroxyethyl Starch, a blood plasma expander.

Over four years ago, another rider tested positive for a different drug. In his case, it was for using synthetic testosterone at the 2006 Tour of Turkey. At the Landis hearings, this same rider provided testimony regarding the benefits of testosterone for cyclists. And earlier this year, he pleaded guilty to “conspiracy to distribute performance enhancing drugs.” As the Post Gazette reports, the plea agreement in the case is sealed. As of now, “it remains unclear if Mr. Papp is cooperating against anyone.”

Although a talented rider who raced on the U.S. National Team and represented the U.S. at the UCI Pan American Continental Championships, Papp was hardly a superstar in the mold of Alejandro Valverde or Alberto Contador. And unlike many other dopers, he was not running from abject poverty. His motivations are his own, and his comments cannot―as he repeated often―speak for all.

In the following interview, Mr. Papp discusses much. Over the course of more than two hours, we covered topics ranging from junior racing to doping in the Tour de France―to name a few. In a series of Q&As, I will publish his remarks. They are lightly edited to ease comprehension. Some lines are omitted, but only if they leave both the general message and literal meaning of the text unchanged. Additionally, my questions have been rephrased to guide your reading. Other than that, his words appear exactly as he spoke them.

Contador's Positive Test

PW: What was your initial reaction to the Contador positive?

JP: First reaction when I saw the headline was that it was a spoof. I couldn’t believe it. When I read it, it was horrifying. I cannot imagine Contador intentionally doped with clenbuterol. It’s a doping product that is not very effective; it produces horrible side effects, especially leg cramps and muscle cramps that are unbearable. [Clenbuterol is] not in the pantheon of doping products that any cyclist, let alone a Tour de France contender, would reach for.

PW: Beyond the sanctions Contador may be facing, what results could the positive have on cycling?

JP: I think it’s going to be terrible. We’re at a point here in the public and also with the media that the level of cynicism is off the charts right now. And the predominate initial reaction will be rolling of the eyes... “Oh those cyclists. always doped...they’ve been doped since 1900...” I don’t think many people will initially want to hear or really think it’s food contamination.

PW: Earlier this year, the Radioshack rider Li Fuyu tested positive for clenbuterol. WADA and the UCI were hardly lenient with him. What type of position does this leave both organizations now in dealing with Contador?

JP: They’re in a horrible position. I don’t even know what leeway―if any―they even have...

Unless they can find a piece of meat that came off the plate of the meat that supposedly contaminated his urine with clenbuterol, I don’t think there is anything they can do for him.

PW: So does the Contador case show the need for changes to the WADA Strict Liability policy?

JP: Absolutely. There has to be the provision within the code for the adjudication of the case of legitimate food contaminate in such a manner as to not penalize the athlete. If he didn’t do it―if he really had food contamination―he shouldn’t lose the Tour de France.

(Until the next question, the following material was lifted from a portion of the interview that occurred several moments later.)

Is that [the stripping of his Tour de France title] really the right thing, the right response? I don’t want him to be positive. I’m horrified.

I’d much rather him be positive for a blood transfusion, cortisone, EPO― a product that makes sense to use. In that case, I'd say he’s a dirty cheating scumbag just like I was.

Why do you take EPO? Because it really, really works.

PW: Can you speak to the improved testing methods and how they may have affected the Contador positive?

JP: If the labs are getting more effective and more exact in what they are able to screen for... let’s say they can find traces or metabolites they may not have been able to identify before because the quantity was too small. What if they start identifying clenbuterol in urine samples that is really from food contamination that they didn’t pick up before because their protocol wasn’t as exacting. It’s horrifying to think of that.

PW: Why do you think Contador did not use clenbuterol to improve his performance?

JP: The doping that takes place at the elite is pretty sophisticated, rational doping, and taking

clenbuterol during the Tour de France is not rational.

It doesn’t do anything. If you’re taking clenbuterol because you think it has an anabolic affect, it’s just better to take testosterone. And if you’re taking it because it has an anti-asthma affect, just take salbutamol which you can get a therapeutic use exemption (TUE) for.

I used clenbuterol and it’s horrible. I couldn’t wait to get that out of my system and to never touch it again. It goes against all logical thought. I can’t think of any reason why he’d take it at any point during the year.

(The following paragraph was added after email correspondence with

Mr. Papp.)

I can’t think of any reason why he’d take it at any point during the year, though there are riders – especially in Europe – who believe in the benefits of clenbuterol if taken during the off-season, or outside a period of heavy racing. I just think that there are drugs that do what Clen [clenbuterol] is supposed to do better, with fewer side effects and less risk of detection.

Doping in the Junior and U23 Ranks

PW: Following the positives of the Szczepaniak brothers, it appears that doping has reached the junior ranks. Can you speak to this at all?

JP: I think doping... has trickled down into the age group racing and the recreational racing. We know for a fact that it takes place at the junior level and certainly the u23 level in Europe. In Italy, for example, I can think of a few different instances where junior or u23 athletes have been doped by their coaches or doctors―typically often without their really knowing they’re really being doped. I haven’t heard of a case yet with a junior orchestrating their own doping program.

PW: What differentiates those countries from the U.S.?

JP: Where the economic opportunity is not very good for the majority

of the population, then the use of doping products at u23 or the junior level when competing for [the] World Championships becomes something plausible. It means the difference between 2000 Euros a month or a couple hundred Euros a month as a bus driver. You’re talking 10 times increase in salary. If you’re trying to help your family survive, it’s a different equation than if you’re an American kid trying to go faster on his bike. It doesn’t make it any less of a bad thing, but a bit more understandable.

The difference [is] in the importance that cycling occupies in different cultures in different countries. In the U.S., it’s almost exclusively a recreation pursuit. Anyone who goes into cycling that isn’t at the level of a Tour de France contender in the U.S. is going to be losing money if you figure what their opportunity cost it...

[However,] Cycling offers not just a way to make money, but a pretty fun exciting way to make money―provides travel and a whole host of opportunities that aren’t available if you’re just a laborer, if you’re working in your town... It’s a wonder that it [doping in poor countries] doesn’t happen more.

(Until the next question, the following material was lifted from a portion of the interview that occurred several moments later.)

As an aside, we’re not aware of the fact that doping is seen in a very different context in countries outside the U.S., Canada, Britain, Western countries, where really there isn’t economic opportunity. Where you’re really looking at making 200 Euros a month as an unskilled laborer. It really is a different calculus. People can try to avoid accepting that, if they want. But it still doesn’t change that it’s a different reality for the person on the ground...

PW: And how can juniors afford a doping program?

JP: The doping products themselves are not expensive. There are many countries in which you can buy steroids, testosterone, HGH (human growth hormone)―you can buy them over-the-counter without prescription and they don’t cost a lot...

PW: As juniors who dope leave the junior ranks, do they continue doping?

JP: They don’t give up the doping program. If they needed the doping program in order to progress to the level they’re at, they’re not likely to give it up just because they got to the level where they’re earning a wage. Bernhard Kohl is a good example of that. He basically explained that he started doping at the beginning of his career and each of his advancements, progressions in the sport, was connected to doping. When he got to the top, it wasn’t something he stopped was part of his preparation, part of his program.

PW: Considering that doping appears to be largely a socio-economic issue in the developing world, what can be done to clean the sport?

JP: (Until the next paragraph, the following material was lifted from a portion of the interview that occurred several moments earlier.)

The anti-doping education and the anti-doping effort in general need to be comprehensive and also flexible. Bend with the wind on the ground and take into account what the reality on the local level is. On the Internet forums, a lot of moral indignation and visceral rejection of doping [occurs]. Pretty harsh condemnation of the people accused or implicated in doping and that’s understandable certainly... But you wouldn’t hear it or get that same example in Uruguay or Argentina. It’s a different environment entirely.

PW: Other than economic and educational changes, what can be done?

JP: It would seem that a big problem is the ease of access to the pharmaceuticals... This is from personal experience: definitely eye-opening the willingness of medical professionals in these kind of countries to actively involve themselves in managing your doping program. The lack of fear. It was something very normal. If anything, they looked at doing you a service that you didn’t damage your health. Took pride in their involvement and helping their athletes to do the best job doping they possibly could...

It’s going to have to come from the state side and within the medical association in those countries... It’s a lot easier to condition behavior at the beginning than to change it after it’s established in a pattern.

PW: And what role does testing play in this?

JP: Anybody who thinks of it [that] we’re going to see radical change just from increasing vigilance over the athletes is―I think―going to be disappointed. We’re dealing with a 100 years of tradition and history here.

PW: Is there anything else you'd like to say?

JP: Scott, this was a great interview and I really want to thank you for giving me the chance to share my experiences and observations with your readers. I love cycling and I always have…I’m grateful for what cycling gave me, I’m remorseful for how I hurt the sport, but I just want to encourage you all not to give up on bike racing, either as fans or participants.

PW: In the days since I first interviewed Papp, Kirk O'Bee has been sanctioned for doping, Ezequiel Mosquera and his teammate David Garcia da Pena have tested positive for a blood plasma expander, and elevated levels of plasticizers have been found in Alberto Contador's blood.

Clearly, doping continues in the professional peloton, and for this, fans of the sport should be saddened. However, the current situation provides an unparalleled opportunity. For the first time in years, nearly the entire sport is implicated in fraud. From Alberto Contador down to domestic professionals, the veneer has been shattered. The truth is now visible for all to see—doping is endemic in cycling.

And this truth is almost too terrifying and horrific to bear. It threatens to destroy the love of even the most ardent fan. It shatters the idealism and beauty cycling is built upon. So in this trying moment, we must be strong. We must recognize the existence of widespread doping without abandoning the sport or losing hope. We must move past denial and fear to action.

As Adam Myerson wrote earlier this year, it’s time to clean house—fully. Let there be no doper left standing.

“So burn down Babylon. Burn pro cycling down. There will still be racing, there will still be races. Burn it down, so we can build it up again new. I condemn Landis' original decision to participate in a corrupt, immoral system. But I'll stand in front of the flames with him and watch it burn.”

Stay tuned for the final installments of the Papp interview.

Photos courtesy of Joe Papp


  1. I'm baffled by your claim that escaping Third World poverty has anything to do with doping. Ezequiel Mosquera and David Garcia de la Pena are from Spain. The Szczepaniak brothers are from Poland. These hardly constitute "developing countries."

  2. I think the Third World illustrates economic motivations for doping best, but poverty happens in middle income countries and can be a reason for doping. The Polish Szczepaniak brothers came from a disadvantaged family. As reports, their father made around 250 euros a month. A pro cycling career offered a whole lot more than that.

    (Perhaps, I would be better pointing out class differences across countries rather than differences between countries.)

    "I've plenty of information to figure out who the man is," said Van Kasteren. "We never approve [of doping], but it doesn't take much to understand why those guys could not resist the temptation. In Poland, their father has a monthly salary of just 250 euros, while Kacper with a [top] team could earn 2500 euros [a month]."

  3. Great interview. Applaud not critiscise the the Dopers who've cut the honest line!

  4. Scott, as I told you at the time, it was a pleasure to speak with you and I appreciate the opportunity to communicate with your readers. (Though I'm not able to answer questions concerning ongoing legal matters) I'd be happy to respond to any follow-up inquiries on material we discussed here. Cheers.

  5. Scott, thanks for the clarification. I do see some possible validity to your claim. Anecdotally, Lance Armstrong and Floyd Landis are two domestic data-points that support your argument. Armstrong was raised by a single mother and didn't graduate high school. Landis came from a rural Mennonite family. Professional cycling certainly provided them a better income than the alternatives. But Floyd is now unemployed and owes his "supporters" over a million dollars. Those doping products were a great investment, huh?

    However, Mr. Papp's claim that "there really isn't economic opportunity" in countries other than the U.S. is patently false. As of August 2010, the two countries he lists (Canada and Great Britain) had lower unemployment rates (8.1% and 7.8%, respectively) than the U.S. (9.6%). Mr. Papp may be knowledgeable about some things, doping being one of them. But, Scott, I'm puzzled why a former drug dealer is your preferred source of information about global economics.

  6. My parents lived in Spain for a while. A coworker was based there. Spain is not the US. $50k a year in the US is average for an IT person. In Spain, it let my coworker pay off his dad's mortgage, got the coworker a "fancy" apartment, etc etc etc.

    When you go to a 4 star hotel and the doors are so crooked you can literally stick a size medium hand between the door to the hallway and the doorframe... Even a budget motel in the US is better than that.

    That's Spain, at least how I experienced it.

  7. Where are you possibly getting anything to indicate that I said that there was no economic opportunity in UK or Canada? I said that in countries where there was limited economic opportunity for unskilled workers, especially in Latin America, those who were talented athletes had an incentive to dope that doesn't exist for typical cyclists in the developed world.

  8. Matt,

    Thanks for your comments.

    I think you and I differ on how we understand Papp's comments. From what he said, I understood that economic situations can cause people to dope. His point was regarding the Third World.

    In my introduction, I *not Papp* expanded this to include disadvantaged people everywhere in the world. The main point of the argument is that economics can be a strong force. When doping allows one the opportunity to make a "good" living—when combined with cycling's intangible benefits—then the decision process becomes more complicated and muddles the moral decision process. (this is not to say doping is the right decision. Don't let that be my message!)

    In terms of the unemployment argument, I'm not sure how that really fits in. The other countries he was referring to were—from what I understand—Third World. He was arguing that in such places the economic opportunity one has is fairly limited compared to in the U.S. I think he was grouping the Western world and comparing it to Latin America and elsewhere.

    Thanks again for your comments!

  9. Mr. Papp, the sentence to which I refer is this: "As an aside, we’re not aware of the fact that doping is seen in a very different context in countries outside the U.S.―Canada, Britain, Western countries―where really there isn’t economic opportunity"

    Perhaps Mr. Rosenfield misrepresented what you intended say with the use of dashes to offset some of your words. If so, this underscores the importance of proper transcription techniques, not the invalidity of your statement. I apologize.

    Historical or economic inconsistencies aside, I confess my objection is partly a result of the strong personal revulsion with which I read almost anything related to the figure of Mr. Joe Papp. There is something inherently and intensely distasteful about someone making quite a lot of money facilitating others' dishonesty, then performing an about-face and claiming moral superiority over those who did the same. Scott, I like your blog and find it humorous and true to its name, in the best, self-deprecating sense of the word "wanker." But Mr. Papp is a real wanker, a slimeball, and no friend of the sport of cycling. I'm disappointed that you tacitly endorsed his credibility by giving him a pulpit on your blog.

  10. I don't mean to monopolize your comment section or turn this into a mud-slinging match, Scott. It's your blog and you're free to write what you want and interview who you like. I've shared my take on the situation. Best of luck with the blog and with racing. Maybe I'll see you on some group rides this winter. If not, at collegiate nats.

  11. Matt,

    You're correct abou my transcription error. I will change that right away. I apologize for the confusion it caused.

    In terms of putting Mr. Papp on my blog, I think this returns to deeper questions about the role of journalism.

    Like him or not, Mr. Papp knows about doping. And I think my readers care to read what he has to say. By giving him an outlet, I'm not endorsing his views. And I'm not giving anything to his credibility.

    (I don't think this is similar to reporting on those who, for example, deny the Holocaust. Mr. Papp hasn't said anything here that I know to be false.)

    Most importantly, Mr. Papp is here to fulfill the desires of my readers. Many people sent me questions and were excited to hear Mr. Papp's response. I think that's a public service more than a boost to Mr. Papp's credibility.

    In the end, we may just disagree on this topic, but that's ok.

    Also, I'm not sure who you are, but I've enjoyed our discussion here. I look forward to riding with you soon.

    Thanks for your comments.