Almost every major sport is marred by scandal at the moment and many journalists are quick to discuss what the scandals' implications mean for the games. But Michael Hiltzik, Pulitzer-Prize winning investigative journalist-turned-sportswriter, says more scrutiny should be paid to the allegations and those who make them.
CHRIS BANNON: The Tour de France ended this week, but you wouldn’t know it if you get your news from two German TV stations or from a Swiss newspaper. They vowed to stop covering the legendary race. Their coverage boycott, of course, results from the doping allegations that have forced a half dozen cyclists out of the race. But the steroid issue dominated the coverage for those still on the story. CORRESPONDENT: None of us can quite recall anything like it in sports, from the new doping charges in the Tour de France-
CORRESPONDENT: Can The Tour survive? CORRESPONDENT: Well, the question has to be posed to the sponsors. They’re the ones who – CORRESPONDENT: In Paris today it was the end of the road for this year’s Tour de France, or what some cynics have this year labeled the Tour de Farce. The grueling bicycle competition leaves behind a race course stained by scandal. CHRIS BANNON: As sometimes happens, a week ago a French lab leaked the news that early favorite Alexander Vinokourov had tested positive for doping. Vinokourov says he’s innocent, but that hasn’t stopped the sports media from reporting on the leaked results.
These stories are complicated. They require both insight into sports and the chops of an investigative reporter, and it doesn’t hurt if you’re a research chemist too. Michael Hiltzik isn’t a chemist but he is a Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative journalist who was assigned to the sports beat a year and a half ago at The L.A. Times. Michael, welcome to the show. MICHAEL HILTZIK: Well, thanks for having me. CHRIS BANNON: Do sports reporters respond with enough skepticism when these sports scandals first get out? MICHAEL HILTZIK: Generally, no. Sports reporters tend to cover these scandals from the standpoint of the fans, which is a natural phenomenon. As soon as a scandal emerges, their first question is the fan’s question. And that is what’s the effect of this going to be on my team or the league.
They take the guilt of the athlete or the ref, the latest NBA case, as read, and they leap ahead to the questions of how this is going to play out on the field.
Certainly the question of doping is the most complicated thing to get your mind around. You really do need to develop an expertise in science, in laboratory technique and in legal procedure, and that’s not something that comes easily to anybody in the journalistic field, and it’s not something that can be done really on the run. CHRIS BANNON: Let’s go to the doping test, since you bring it up. You did a little investigation into the World Anti-doping Association. Explain for me what that organization is and what sort of power it has. MICHAEL HILTZIK: The World Anti-doping agency was established by the Olympic movement as putatively an independent arbiter of doping issues in sport. So WADA, as it’s called, makes the rules; they write the standards and then they judge themselves whether these standards have been violated. CHRIS BANNON: And they’re often thought of, up until recently, as a sort of definitive statement of guilt. When they pronounce that someone has been caught doping, that’s it. MICHAEL HILTZIK: And that’s been the problem. WADA’s pronouncements, or those of its satellite agencies, have been accepted by the press and public as gospel, and one of the things that I did was to question whether they deserve to be treated as gospel.
What I found was that the science was questionable, the laboratory performance was highly variable at best and that the legal procedure, including the legal rights that athletes have, are almost non-existent. CHRIS BANNON: Is it a kind of, I mean, almost doping McCarthyism here, that WADA has some sort of interest in promoting the idea that doping is pervasive? MICHAEL HILTZIK: Yes, it’s got a very clear interest. WADA has to go to the countries that fund it and to the International Olympic Committee, and they’ve got to appeal for budgetary funds every year. Like any institution in that position, they have a clear interest in maximizing the threat that they’re fighting. WADA’s president, Dick Pound, is famous for overstating the threat.
The fact of the matter is that WADA’s own figures show that the level of doping in sport is much smaller than he suggests. I would point to the case of Marion Jones last summer who was tested for the use of IPA, which is a blood hormone that helps endurance athletes or runners with their oxygen intake.
Marion Jones, a sample was tested. It was ruled positive. There were headlines in all the newspapers that she had been found guilty. She insisted that the B sample be tested and that came up negative. Now, under the WADA rules, that means there is no charge.
But the cat is out of the bag. I mean, the toothpaste was out of the tube. She could not un-ring the bell, to assemble as many clichés [CHRIS LAUGHS] as I can. It now becomes part of the Marion Jones story, that she was accused of taking IPO back in July or August of 2006, even though there was never a formal charge. CHRIS BANNON: Floyd Landis famously failed a doping test after the 2006 Tour de France, but he’s found a way to challenge the credibility of those tests that’s really sort of unique, and in a way, responsible for a lot of new interest in this whole process. MICHAEL HILTZIK: What Landis has done is that he’s made all of the evidence against him public, and that’s really never been done before. He posted it all online. The effect of this has been to invite the world scientific community and legal experts to look at the evidence and decide for themselves whether it all amounts to a positive result.
What I see, and what many others have seen, is this is very sloppy laboratory work, at best. If this evidence was presented against Landis in an American court of law, there’s room for doubt that it would ever make it to a jury. CHRIS BANNON: Do you think Landis’s case has changed the way the media is now covering this issue, or sports generally? MICHAEL HILTZIK: You do see a little bit more skepticism but a lot is going to turn on how Landis’s case turns out. His case is still before a panel of three arbitrators. They have not yet ruled, although a ruling could come any day. If they overturn the accusation, then I think that’ll have a very significant effect on how this field gets covered in the future. CHRIS BANNON: Michael, thanks very much for joining us today.
MICHAEL HILTZIK: You’re welcome. It was a pleasure to be here. CHRIS BANNON: Michael Hiltzik is a sports reporter for The L.A. Times. In a few days, the National Football League will kick off its preseason by obstructing coverage. Now all news organizations except those affiliated with the NFL are limited to just 45 seconds of stadium video per day on their websites.