Published on 11 July 2018

The articles written and published by researchers in The Conversation usually use a top-down approach intended to “spread knowledge to a wider audience“, as their authors “hope to drive a higher standard of public debate.” This is the approach that I adopted in my previous article and the comments that it generated after publication have inspired me to write this new text.

The bottom-up approach adopted here gives full meaning to the conversational intent of this online media. In this paper, I address the critical position of certain medical doctors, who position themselves on the thin line between sports integrity and cheating. The first three parts show that behind the three most prominent scandals­—revealed—of sport doping is a doctor who is acting sneakily. The fourth part reveals that other doctors are finding it increasingly difficult to stay in the shadow of doping. The fifth and final part explains the legitimacy or illegitimacy (depending the side we're in) of their eminently strategic role at the heart of the system.

I wish to raise awareness by decreasing, as much as possible, the common state of blindness in the face of such hypocrisy granted by the force of things.

The case of Dr. Éric Ryckaert

Almost everyone, in a lifetime, has heard about the Festina affair at least once. At first glance, it all seems perfectly clear: the Festina professional cycling team was found guilty of having set up systematic medical doping within the team in order to win. Their soigneur Willy Voet was used as a scapegoat and sacrificed to save the rest of the team—yet there was a hiccup.

As a noun group, “the Festina affair” is very convenient as it doesn't target any physical person. Yet it doesn't matter: Willy Voet filled the void, even if it didn't make sense. After a fine analysis of this sensitive case using methodological individualism, it becomes clear that the mastermind of the whole system was actually Dr. Eric Ryckaert, to whom Willy Voet reported directly.

Although Dr. Ryckaert was under scrutiny as part of the investigation, when considering his tremendous responsibility in this affair, it is surprising, if not deplorable, that his name was scarcely mentioned. Would systematic doping have been possible without Dr. Ryckaert in charge? Definitely not. As a consequence, this doping scandal ought to be designated under a different name—the Dr. Éric Ryckaert affair.

The Dr. Michele Ferrari affair

Almost everyone has heard about the Armstrong affair at least once in their lifetime. At first, it all seems just as clear as the previous story. Professional cyclist Lance Armstrong was found guilty of setting up a systematic medical doping system within his team to win the race.

When the scandal broke, Armstrong was the only one under the spotlight—which once again, raises suspicions. Indeed, the cyclist didn't act alone, as he was helped by a number of accomplices, Dr. Michele Ferrari in particular. To understand the importance of this doctor's role in the system, all it takes is to define the nature of his relationship with Armstrong.


First, Ferrari and Armstrong signed an exclusive contract amounting to one million euros over 10 years. Secondly, when his doctor was under investigation, Armstrong would intervene in person. Without Ferrari in charge, could this sophisticated doping system have existed? Absolutely not. The scandal should therefore be designated under a different name: the Michele Ferrari affair.

The Dr. Eufemiano Fuentes affair

Although more recent, the Puerto affair is not as well known to a wide audience, yet this affair is much more serious when compared to the previous ones. During a raid of Mr Fuentes' residence in 2006, the Spanish police discovered and seized 211 packets of blood. The intervention was mandated after certain cyclists had acknowledged the existence of large-scale blood doping.

This was a high-profile affair in the sports environment as patients of Dr Fuentes were not only cyclists, but also athletes from more lucrative disciplines such as soccer and tennis. In 2016, the doctor himself told the media “there are going to be surprises.” In 2017, after many unexpected developments, the Spanish courts ruled against the identification of the clients involved in the affair.

In this respect, Dr. Fuentes argued by mentioning “the right to confidentiality that results from physician–patient privilege” to conceal the nature of his actions.

Revealing the identity of athletes doped by Dr. Fuentes would have been comparable to an earthquake of the highest magnitude in the entire planet of sports, in other words, it would have been devastating. This scandal therefore ought to be renamed the Dr. Eufemiano Fuentes affair.

The noose is slowly tightening around other doctors

Even today, other doctors are making headline news due to strong doping-related suspicions. Here are three of them to illustrate my point.

First, Bernard Sainz, known as Docteur Mabuse, was caught red-handed in a Cash Investigation TV documentary in 2016, as he was communicating doping protocols to cyclists. For the record, Sainz had already been sentenced for illegal practice of medicine as he is not a legitimate doctor. However, his nickname clearly shows how doped athletes venerate the title of doctor in medicine.

Secondly, Dr. Richard Freeman, former doctor of the Sky cycling team (for which he still works for Christopher Froome), is in a delicate position as he has not been able to prove the legitimacy of some of his medical prescriptions. Facing this, he said that someone violently stole his laptop, and it allegedly turns out that this was the only computer in which he stored his athletes' medical records. To justify his actions, he has recently published a book under the explicit title of The Line: Where Medicine and Sport Collide.

Thirdly, the doctor of the Russian football team, Eduard Bezuglov, had to answer before the media during the 2018 FIFA World Cup as his team was suspected of doping. Indeed, the extreme vitality of Russian players surprised the most experienced observers, and this impression was backed by data. The doctor replied that his players achieved outstanding performance for the following reasons: “good training, good motivation, and all of Russia is behind us.”

Do not change a winning team

Like any complex phenomenon, sport doping is a result of multiple factors—what I would like to highlight here is a concealed pattern. This is not about throwing stigma on all doctors since the vast majority of them do not cross the red line.

Yet all professions have their share of bad apples and we can only note that certain doctors are the proven masterminds of doping practitioners. Their status grants them with certain impunity, enabling them to protect cheaters, like a fortress, in the face of honest sportsmen and anti-doping actors.

More concretely, through their medical prescriptions, their fine knowledge of the human body, their mastery of anti-doping regulations and their respectability, doctors can be outstanding allies to athletes who resort to doping. Cheaters have known this for a long time, which is why they turn to those doctors to access success and glory. On the one hand, doped athletes hide in silence and on the other, doctors involved in doping practices unscrupulously use a sentence of the Hippocratic Oath for protection: “Into whatsoever houses I enter, I will never divulge the secrets that are shared with me.”

And that's how both parties work hand-in-hand to win at all costs, sharing the same language—silence.  Should certain doctors decide not to play by the rules in the future, the task of overcoming doping will become even more laborious, and this extra layer of complexity really isn't necessary.

Fabien M. Gargam, Assistant Professor of Management, Renmin University of China and Research Fellow, Université Paris Sud – Université Paris-Saclay