It was a partisan crowd in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, and they gave their local hero, Floyd Landis, a standing ovation that went on and on. The cyclist came home in March to raise money for his campaign to clear his name. Landis shot to fame in July 2006 as only the third American to win the Tour de France, but became infamous just four days later when it emerged that a urine sample he gave during the race had shown a testosterone ratio outside the allowed range.
To date, the campaign has involved hefty legal fees, a series of public fund-raisers such as that one, the first-ever public hearing of a doping arbitration (scheduled to take place in May), and an unprecedented Internet strategy known as the “Wiki Defense” that is forcing journalists to question the global antidoping operation that they too often treated as foolproof.
When the news of Landiss test results first broke, the headlines screamed “Doping Scandal.” The next day the sprinter Justin Gatlin announced that he, too, had registered abnormal testosterone ratios in a test in April 2006. Both Landis and Gatlin denied doping. An army of columnists wondered if the public could ever trust sporting achievement again.
But recently Landis has begun generating more nuanced press coverage. The change is largely the result of his Wiki Defense, in which he posted 370 pages of his test documents online in the hope of unearthing experts and explanations for the suspicious result. “Wiki” refers to the open editing systems best embodied by Wikipedia, the online encyclopedia that relies on a wisdom-of-crowds approach to verifying the accuracy of its entries. Landis is the first athlete to use the Internet in this way, and the move sparked a series of debates on blogs and in chat rooms as scientists and other experts responded to the documents. “A scientist from NASA called me up and said, I bet you never thought youd be hearing from NASA, ” Dr. Arnie Baker, Landiss longtime friend and coach, told the Pennsylvania crowd. “I told him he was the third one from NASA alone.”
Baker is running the science side of the cyclists defense and has built a case based on problems with the procedures followed by the laboratory that conducted Landiss tests. Baker also notes apparent inconsistencies within the antidoping system run by the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA). In Pennsylvania he presented a slide show of some of the biggest problems with Landiss test. “Oh, my gosh,” the woman behind me kept exclaiming as Baker ran through what to the scientifically uninformed, myself included, seemed very basic procedural errors that could cast doubt on the ability of the lab that did the tests. For instance, the lab appears to have covered up changes to entries in its documentsa contravention of basic scientific protocol where mistakes are crossed out but left visible for record-keeping purposes. More intriguingly, it appears that different labs accredited by WADA use different criteria in deciding if a test is abnormal or not.
Those are the questions about the antidoping system that have interested the media, but it took Landiss Wiki prod to get the journalists to challenge their own assumptions.
“There was an assumption that the process was bullet-proof, that you couldnt fool the lab,” said Michael Hiltzik, a staff writer at the Los Angeles Times. In December he wrote a two-part series called “Presumed Guilty” that examined the internal workings of the anti-doping system. “Because of the Wiki, Ive been able to take the documents to experts and get them to walk me through it,” said Hiltzik. “If he [Landis] hadnt posted the documents, there wouldnt be this emerging body of online discussion that questions the lab process.”
The effect of the Wiki Defense has been to circumvent the mainstream media by generating online debate. Cycling chat forums buzzed with scientific questions and Landis himself, unscripted and initially unbeknownst to his defense team, joined a forum. The debate rages on, but the chatter provided reporters with scientific questionsand expert sourcesthey might not have otherwise known to ask, or had access to.
Initially, Landiss victory was a great human-interest story. His Pennsylvania Mennonite upbringing was credited with fostering a strong work ethic and a never-say-die spiritespecially when it emerged that he rode the entire three-week race in pain from a decaying hip that would soon need to be replaced.