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Riccardo Riccò may be guilty, but don’t blame him for everything

Whatever you may think of him – in my case, very little – Riccardo Riccò is not the devil incarnate. There, I’ve said it.

I doubt it came as a shock to anyone interested in cycling when news broke late on Sunday that the Italian rider had apparently confessed to having given himself an illegal blood transfusion, after being hospitalised with suspected kidney failure. In all probability, few were even remotely surprised at the vehement outpouring of pious condemnation which spewed forth from fellow cyclists, media and fans alike.

But how much of this anger should genuinely be directed at Riccò himself, and to what extent is this unloved pariah of the cycling community being used as a scapegoat for the sport’s wider ills?

Black-and-white facts

In 2008, Riccò finished as runner-up at the Giro d’Italia and won two stages at the Tour de France before being thrown out mid-race by his Saunier Duval team for violation of the team’s ethical code. The subsequent revelation of his positive test for CERA (a banned variant of the blood booster EPO) and two-year suspension (later reduced to 20 months) were merely the official confirmation of what had already been widely suspected.

Riccò returned to the pro peloton in 2010, initially for Ceramica Flaminia and then signing with Vacansoleil.

Last Sunday, he was admitted to hospital with a fever and suspected kidney failure. According to allegations published in La Gazzetta dello Sport, he told the doctor treating him that this was caused by a self-transfusion of his own blood which he had stored in a fridge for 25 days. The doctor then reported this information to the authorities leading to investigations being launched by both the police and the Italian Olympic Committee (CONI). Under Italian law, if convicted of illegal doping practices he could also face between three months and three years in prison.

Vacansoleil commercial manager Frank Kwanten has also confirmed that the team had started its own inquiry, adding:

The team has a zero-tolerance policy considering doping use. All riders and staff who violate the internal and UCI doping rules are fired on the spot.

Although initially classed as ‘critical’, reports yesterday stated his condition had improved and suggested he could soon be discharged from hospital in Modena.

Shades of grey

Once my initial reaction to the news of Riccò’s hospitalisation – dismay, anger but not surprise – had died down, three questions started running around my head which have been troubling me ever since.

Were any transfusions really self-administered? While this is entirely possible for the determined, they are nonetheless significantly more complex – and dangerous – procedures than giving oneself a simple injection. Was someone else involved – a team doctor or a personal trainer, perhaps?

Should doctor-patient confidentiality have been broken like this? I’m not sure what the legal standing is in Italy, but from a purely ethical perspective it is surely questionable.

And finally, what about Vacansoleil? Signing Riccò helped elevate them to ProTeam status for 2011. Should they really have been so quick to snap up a rider with such a chequered history? Or was the attraction of Riccò’s UCI points too tempting? (Yes, I know he had served his punishment already. I’m just questioning whether the team’s commercial and competitive motivations overrode any semblance of common sense.)

An outpouring of piety, not pity

Over the past few days, several of Riccò’s rivals have spoken openly in condemnation of the rider, as well as large elements of the sport’s fans declaring his career should now be finished for good. Certainly, a conviction for a second offence is likely to result in a minimum suspension of five years, with a lifetime ban also a distinct possibility.

However, particularly in the first 24 hours after the news broke, the widespread reaction to the news felt disturbingly like a witch-hunt – an excuse to cast one of the peloton’s least likeable characters into the wilderness, never to be seen again.

Is that right? I’m not so sure.

Let me be quite clear about this. If, as seems likely, any investigation finds him guilty, I consider Riccardo Riccò – and all multiple doping offenders like him – to be persona non grata as far as cycling is concerned. The sport doesn’t need him. Nor does it want him.

But is Riccò the only doper in the pro peloton? Of course not.

Will his example of the damage you can cause yourself in the course of doping dissuade others from copying him? I very much doubt it.

Should he be punished if found guilty? Absolutely, and to the fullest extent the rules allow for.

But should he also be pitied? Yes.

Whatever mistakes Riccardo Riccò has made – and to whatever extent he is solely responsible for his actions – his cycling career is likely over, but he remains a human being.

Riccò idolised his compatriot Marco Pantani, and he has already taken several steps down the same path trodden by ‘Il Pirata’. Pantani died at the age of 34, alone in a Rimini hotel room, as a result of the effects of acute cocaine poisoning.

The greatest tragedy of the Marco Pantani story was not that he doped. It was not even the fact that he won while doping. No, the worst chapter of the story was the final one: his untimely death, unloved and cast aside by a society which was done with him.

Whatever sins Riccò has committed, does any sane person really want him to end up the same way Pantani did? Is this really the way a responsible society treats its sinners? Punishment has not worked – and further punishment seems inevitable – but what about rehabilitation? What about condemning the man only for his own crimes, and not an entire generation’s?

I repeat what I said up front: Riccardo Riccò is not the devil incarnate. He is a convenient scapegoat, but everyone really knows he is not the sole cause of cycling’s ills. Therefore he should not be treated as such.

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About Tim
Father of three. Bit of a geek. That's all, folks.

7 Responses to Riccardo Riccò may be guilty, but don’t blame him for everything

  1. Kitty Fondue says:

    I don’t think Ricco is the devil incarnate – I think he’s stupidity incarnate, that’s for sure, and I certainly hope that this brush with mortality teaches him a lesson. There’s always been the belief that he’s following in the footsteps of Pantani and I certainly hope he stops doing that now because we all know where that ended up.

    I think what angers me most about this latest Ricco scandal is that Aldo Sassi, who he signed up with before he died, had given him an incredible second chance and he squandered it so recklessly. I think this just besmirches Sassi’s memory and wasted what little time Sassi had left!

    As for doctor/patient confidentiality, that’s a point. I wonder if there’s something in Italian law that means you have to report a crime if you know one has been committed – and that doping is a crime. Either way, I can’t imagine how he would have been able to keep it a secret when he went into a public hospital.

    • Tim says:

      “Stupidity incarnate” 🙂

      If the brush with mortality doesn’t teach him a lesson, then surely the lengthy-to-lifetime ban which seems likely to follow surely will.

      Excellent point about besmirching Sassi’s memory. I don’t really blame anyone for giving him a second chance, because in the end it is no one’s fault but Ricco’s. I just hope we don’t end up reading about his untimely death in a few years’ time – not to trivialise his crimes, because he is a cheat who has deprived others of valuable earnings, but we have seen far worse in the real world.

  2. Sheree says:

    Great post Tim! I find myself in total agreement with what you’ve written. I’m going to revise my stance on blood doping. As you know I regarded it as a lesser evil; but no more. Kitty above also makes a good point that he’s besmirched the memory of Aldo Sassi. It’s such a shame that he’s wasted his second (and final)chance and you have to ask yourself why? Was it just the money?

    • Tim says:

      I fear any motivation for continued doping must surely have come down to the money and the associated glory. In a way I can understand his viewpoint – although obviously I don’t approve of it. When you know you have great talent but suspect that others around you may be cheating, I can see how it is all too easy to convince yourself that it is right to cheat as well to even the playing field. When you’re as close to the top of your sport as Ricco has been, there must be such a big difference between being a genuine elite rider and just being someone who is good enough to be top 20.

      I always think it’s too easy for fans to sit on their high horses and sanctimoniously state that we would never indulge. But if the difference between doping and not doping is the difference between earning €30,000 a year and raking in a high six or seven-figure salary, would we really find it so easy to say no? If I’m being honest, if it was me I can see how it would be very tempting, even though I’ve never so much as cheated on a spelling test in my life.

      • kittyfondue says:

        As I’ve mentioned before, the idea of EPO is attractive after I do a spin class so I can understand how someone can justify going down that road to themselves if there’s cash and glory involved. Not that I condone it, mind, but like you Tim I wonder how many of us would ‘just say no’ if we were in the same position.

        What I find most repulsive about Ricco is that he is so unbelievably arrogant about it. It seems that his entire persona is about bucking the system, being above the rules, getting away with it (not doing a very good job at that …) etc – I don’t know if it’s about the money for him (although I’m sure that’s part of it) as much as being to get away with stuff.

        I don’t know … it’s one of those cases that really make you look at your own attitudes towards cyclists who get done for cheating. I certainly don’t feel this way about others who have served their bans and come back – there’s just something strangely reptilian about him …

      • Tim says:

        It would be appropriate. Snakes are reptiles, and he is nicknamed ‘The Cobra’, after all. I think we all suspected with Ricco – perhaps more than any other doper – that it was only ever going to be a matter of time before he started again. As you say, his attitude was not exactly remorseful, and it is clear from all the comments that have come out that he was not at the top of everyone’s Christmas card list.

        Interesting that Roger Hammond commented yesterday something along the lines of Ricco being an idiot but that he was also certain he wasn’t doping on his own without assistance. I do wonder how much further this story might yet run.

  3. David says:

    As long as those who get away with doping are revered as heroes there will be a good reason to dope… I don’t think Ricco is condemned for being the devil incarnate i think he is being condemned because he got caught… and in an almost comical fashion (almost killing himself with his own blood, kept in his fridge under bad conditions for too long). I do however believe that there are clean riders out there and those are the ones I admire… Doping or not cycling is one of the best sports and i respect all of the riders…

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