Stapleton: 'We can't protect these guys from themselves'

Updated: July 20, 2007, 5:22 PM ET
By Bonnie DeSimone | Special to ESPN.com

MARSEILLE, France -- You can test people's blood, but you can't take advance measurements of the quality of their conscience. Scientists have yet to develop a reliable way to predict what choice an athlete will make in a private moment when he is faced with doing the right thing or doing what he thinks everyone else is doing -- still -- to gain a competitive edge.

Too bad. Bob Stapleton and other people who have invested themselves in cycling would find that kind of analysis very handy.

Bob Stapleton
AP Photo/Alessandro TrovatiBob Stapleton faced a throng of reporters after it Patrik Sinkewitz's positive test was revealed on Wednesday.

Stapleton, general manager of the T-Mobile cycling team, stood in a parking lot under a southern French sun hotter than any klieg lights Wednesday. Sweat trickled down his tanned face as he calmly answered questions from a fleet of reporters. He wore the game face of a captain who launched a vessel he thought was pretty seaworthy, only to have it spring a major leak.

Stapleton said he is continually "amazed" at the tenacity of the doping culture.

"Everybody here gets a chance to do the right thing. We can protect the other members of the team; we can try to protect the sponsor and ourselves. But we can't protect these guys from themselves."

Wednesday morning, Stapleton and T-Mobile were figuratively broadsided as their bus pulled into the Stage 10 start area in Tallard when reporters informed them that support rider Patrik Sinkewitz had an A sample test positive for elevated levels of testosterone. The unannounced test was conducted at a team training camp in the Pyrenees on June 8, and it was unclear why it took so long to process. Stapleton later received an official e-mail notification of the result, although he still had only the sketchiest of details late in the day.

It's important to remember that the B sample has to confirm the A before Sinkewitz would be officially considered a doper. His young, self-possessed teammate Linus Gerdemann, who wore the leader's yellow jersey for a day last week after a breakaway stage win, reminded a French television interviewer of that at the finish line Wednesday.

"I don't want to judge yet, but if it's confirmed, it's not only sad, it's asinine to play with your livelihood like this," Gerdemann said.

The team shielded its other riders from the media, and Sinkewitz himself might not have much of substance to say for a while. He was scheduled to have surgery Wednesday night for facial injuries suffered in a frightful crash with a spectator after Sunday's stage finish in the Alpine ski resort of Tignes.

Stapleton said Sinkewitz was under anesthesia when the news broke and will have his jaw wired shut for an indeterminate amount of time. "Communication will not be easy," Stapleton said. "But we want to hear directly what his story is."

The B sample usually backs up the A. If that's the case with Sinkewitz, he'll be in a world of legal and financial hurt that will make his crash look minor by comparison.

He already has been suspended by T-Mobile and would be fired if the test result sticks. He would be barred from competition for two years by the German cycling federation and could be banned for an additional two years by the Pro Tour -- the politically challenged but still extant body that oversees major races.

And, under the terms of a document all Tour riders were compelled to sign before the race by the UCI, cycling's international governing body, Sinkewitz could forfeit a year's salary.

A positive test is a positive sign that the system is functioning, but it's demoralizing for any team and especially disturbing for T-Mobile. The once-adored team is trying hard to regain credibility in a country that is increasingly disaffected with cycling after a series of scandals and revelations by former and current German riders.

Under Stapleton's management in the past year, the team undertook its own testing program. Riders have to agree to submit to blood tests throughout the year that establish baseline physiological markers. Over time, monitoring those markers can help detect signs of blood doping, or increasing oxygen-processing red blood cells by means of drugs or transfusions.

Everybody here gets a chance to do the right thing. We can protect the other members of the team; we can try to protect the sponsor and ourselves. But we can't protect these guys from themselves.

T-Mobile general manager Bob Stapleton

The tests, which are overseen by an independent entity at a German university, are not anti-doping tests, as Stapleton reiterated Wednesday. They wouldn't have shown a violation such as the one Sinkewitz is said to have committed.

"Anti-doping agencies should do anti-doping tests," Stapleton said. "We do screening tests that go beyond those, but in my opinion, it's not appropriate for teams to do anti-doping tests … if you allow teams to do them, you run the risk of teams doping to the level that falls just below the test."

The effort is part of a larger group of measures intended to cleanse the hearts and minds as well as the circulatory systems of T-Mobile riders, who also have to sign a code of conduct harsher than the standard cycling contract.

"If we think you're screwing around, we can fire you," Stapleton said. "Not too many people entered into employment agreements like that."

Stapleton helped build VoiceStream, a wireless phone company that T-Mobile's parent company bought a few years ago for a reported $30 billion, so he presumably knows a thing or two about managing people and getting results. But he was frank Wednesday when he said doping is a far more slippery beast to get a grip on than mere profits and losses.

"This is a very difficult environment to make change in," he said. "In a company, you have quite a bit more control. You worry about the market and about the external environment. Here, we've got a real culture we have to change, and I find that much more difficult."

It's possible that riders aren't the only ones whose consciences need examining. Stapleton's outspokenness on the topic, particularly as a newcomer, has made him some enemies among other team managers, most of whom are former riders.

He said one manager came to see him Wednesday morning "to express sympathy and support." When a reporter asked what kind of reaction Stapleton expected from the others, he smiled wanly.

"Like I said, I was visited by one team manager," Stapleton said. "I think that's pretty telling."

Bonnie DeSimone is a frequent contributor to ESPN.com.

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