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?
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.