Disputed Tour de France champion Floyd Landis is pioneering the use of social network tools to rally a collective consciousness in his fight against allegations that he used a banned substance to help him win the world’s greatest cycling race.
In today’s guilty-until-proven-innocent world of doping charges against cyclists and other athletes – most recently swimmer Ian Thorpe – Landis has turned to the court of public opinion using a “wiki defense” and “crowdsourcing” to gain knowledge and build his case for a formal legal hearing.
Landis, with the help of his one-time coach Dr. Arnie Baker, hopes the Web and social network technology will help them uncover and confirm what he calls grievous mistakes that resulted in a positive test that he used a banned substance to help him win the Tour de France.
Of course, while Landis professes his innocence to charges that he used a synthetic form of the male hormone testosterone to boost his performance, the Tour de France organization already does not recognize him as the race champion. The International Cycling Union stands ready to strip him of the title if his appeals process fails, and after years of drug scandals in cycling many have already branded Landis with the scarlet letter of a cheater.
He faces becoming the first winner in the 103-year history of the race to be stripped of his title, but most important, his career could be all but over.
To fight back, he has gone “full-monty” in putting his case before the public.
First, he exercised his option with the United States Anti-Doping Agency (USADA) to have a public hearing on his doping charges, becoming the first athlete ever to do so.
He then took the unique step to publish online, Wikipedia-style, the 370 pages of his lab tests for the world to read and evaluate, a move that would send shivers down the spine of HIPAA-compliance officers.
“The wiki has been quite productive,” says Baker, who gets hundreds of e-mails a day from people who have pored over the documents on Landis’s drug tests and offered insight into myriad alleged procedural and other mistakes that Landis says led to his positive test.
“People have contacted me and said ‘this would not be a positive test in our lab,’ ” Baker says. He says many experts have helped confirm his assertion that Landis’s urine sample was not fit for testing and the testing itself was fundamentally flawed.
In addition, Landis is touring the country with Baker and his publicist, Michael Henson, conducting “Town Hall” meetings as part of the Floyd Fairness Fund to discuss the perceived mistakes made by the French testing lab that handled his urine sample.
He is also using the meetings to raise money for a defense that has already gobbled up $250,000 of his own money and requires $150,000 a month to sustain.
But it is his use of the Web and wikis to harness the collective wisdom of those interested in the case that has helped him add ammunition to a defense he will take before the USADA on May 14 at Pepperdine University in Malibu, Calif.
Baker says the idea for the wiki was hatched during a trip to Los Angeles with Landis, who told Baker he wanted everything done out in the open.
“I’d rather not have it be in the open,” Landis says. “I’d rather have [labs, doping agencies] who follow their own rules.”
He says he is in a race much different from cycling. “I have to get enough money fast enough, I have to learn everything fast enough and I have to get the best help.”
Landis is turning to social networking to turn on the speed.
Being so public is an ironic twist for the 31-year-old Landis who grew up without even a television in a strict Mennonite household in Pennsylvania. Now he is on a bleeding edge of social networking in order to save his career.
While Landis and Baker knew little about the formal definitions of social networking when they started, what they did understand was the global reach of the Internet.
Baker’s intent with the wiki defense was to expose the relevant issues within the raw lab documentation from France’s Labaratoire National Depistage de Dopage concerning Landis’s case. Baker did that by posting the documents on the Internet in October along with a slide show focused on the salient points.
“It counts what the public thinks and how the public views the case,” Baker says.
What also counts is the information that has flowed back to Baker and the contacts he has made.
The wiki spawned a phenomenon becoming known as “crowdsourcing,” an emerging technique to use one’s audience to provide reporting power on a mass scale.
The technique is being explored through a journalism experiment run by New York University and by online sites Talking Points Memo and TPMmuckraker.com.
“Our process has resulted in many people contributing ideas,” Baker says. “I’m not a mass spectrometrist, but there are many out there that have contacted us and that has been helpful to gain information and resources.”
Mass spectrometry is an analytical technique used to identify chemicals in a substance, such as testosterone in urine.
In addition, Baker says the wiki has brought to him lab workers who have provided critiques of the procedures used by the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) accredited labs that tested Landis’s urine sample.
“If we wanted to contact an expert to help us, the person we would naturally choose would be someone in a WADA-accredited lab who could give us information about how tests should be done and assess the quality of the documentation. But by WADA’s own codes, anyone in a WADA lab is forbidden from assisting the defense,” Baker says.
But via the wiki he has been contacted by scientists who work in WADA-accredited labs. “It has given us some direction,” he says.
Landis hopes that direction is up and he will know if that is the case come May when he heads to his first hearing.
“Listen, I’d rather be riding my bike,” Landis says. “Sometimes you're dealt a bad hand, but I came to play, and I'm not leaving.”
Landis hopes his battle will lead to reforms in drug testing and the disclosure of test results within cycling and other sports.
“You can never go back,” Landis says. “That is why we are trying to change the system. The way this was dealt with is that I was convicted by the press and the officials before I was ever told what was going on.”
His hope is that the social network he and Baker have created will help produce factual answers that reveal what actually did go on.
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