When it comes to law enforcement responses to organized crime, we hear constantly that the goal is to get the "kingpins" rather than the "little guys". I wonder why the opposite is the approach to drug enforcement in sports?
Here's the argument: In the 80s and early 90s there were no reliable tests for moderate levels of EPO.
EPO is a massive performance enhancer. It increases oxygen carrying capacity up to 15%.
Oxygen capacity is the main determinant of success in mountain stages of races. (Any strong club rider can achieve the speeds of world class riders on a mountain. What they can't do is maintain it, because they go into oxygen debt.)
Many top riders of the time are known to have used EPO.
Therefore: they all did. If they hadn't, they could not have competed.
(It is not my point here to get into the question of whether we should care about doping. But the above argument amounts to the best case for caring, I think. The reality is that if anyone does, everyone must. And use of performance enhancing drugs is very bad for long-term health. But this too is a digression.)
So every world class pro was doping.
Who profited from this? The riders surely did. They were able to compete in a sport that pays very well. But for all their high salaries, they were the worker-bees, the little guys, of the operation. Their teams all have owners or management groups, and more importantly are sponsored by major corporations. These corporations ultimately call the shots because they control the money. They also use these events as advertising, presumably making large amounts of money in the process. Another group of kingpins are the people who control, market, and make millions off of the grand tours.
If the goal is to deter drug use, it is clear that punishing riders won't work. There is constant improvement in the chemistry of doping. Testing technology is generally 5 years behind doping technology. People who get caught are either riders who push the limits - doping more than the norm, and so more easily detectable - and those who are high profile enough, like Armstrong, to generate massive investigative investment. So a rider is never sure of being caught. That provides them a simple choice: don't dope and be unable to compete at the highest level; or dope, make lots of money, and have a chance of getting banned someday. Not a recipe for eliminating drugs.
By contrast, it would be fairly simple to set up a strict liability system for owners, sponsors, and tour organizers. You are putting out a product for the public. You are representing what that product is. You are making enormous amounts of money from that product. So let it be your responsibility to make sure it is as advertised, on pain of fines commensurate with the profits being pulled in - say $1 million for first offense, doubling with each successive.
Is it impossible for teams to guarantee success given the incentive for riders to dope? Not really. First, note that this is sophisticated stuff. Riders don't just hit up a dealer and shoot up in an alley. These are all carefully designed programs of recently invented chemical elements, administered in ways that take account of all sorts of medical factors. Which is to say, there is involvement at much higher levels. Second, the only meaningful way to test - given the reality of changing chemistry - is to freeze blood samples and keep them for 10 years. All salaries could be deferred - give folks a minimal salary with a huge payment 10 years later provided the blood stays clean. (It is worth noting that the market is pushing in this direction a bit. It is hard to successfully advertise using a sport where everyone knows that everyone is doping. So sponsors are pulling out. In response a couple teams have instituted serious testing that includes long-term storage. But there is no reason to think this will become the norm, or survive long. There is always a huge incentive for other teams to jump in and try to game the current chemistry.)
And finally, what if strict liability doesn't turn out to be feasible? That is, what if strict liability for kingpins means that corporations aren't willing to sponsor pro teams anymore? Well, then I guess we would be back to amateur athletics. That strikes me as a good thing, but if you think it isn't, then at least admit that you've made a deal: in exchange for keeping sports as a big money business - in exchange for the ancillary benefits of maintaining kingpins - you are willing to accept that doping will always be a part of it.
Of this, I'm sure: stripping multi-millionaire Lance Armstrong of some titles isn't going to be much of an incentive for the next guy not to use the next generation of EPO.