Commentary

Joe Papp's long and winding road

Lower-tier pro's career, PED role touched some of cycling's biggest names

Updated: October 23, 2011, 11:20 AM ET
By Bonnie D. Ford | ESPN.com

PITTSBURGH -- Of all the strange and convoluted journeys through sports and doping in recent annals, former cyclist Joe Papp's odyssey from user to trafficker to repentant informant has to be one of the most unusual.

One part of that long and twisting road came to an end of sorts Friday in the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Pennsylvania when Papp was sentenced to three years' probation, including six months of house arrest, for running an online distribution network for human growth hormone and the blood booster erythropoietin.

Federal investigators raided Papp's home and seized evidence of his operation in the fall of 2007. Papp pleaded guilty to two felony conspiracy counts in February 2010, but his sentencing was delayed multiple times while he cooperated with the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency, helping to pursue cases against his former customers and providing information about others.

That collaboration -- which resulted in more than a dozen convictions, with other cases still under investigation -- enabled him to avoid prison time for offenses that could have netted him 10 years of incarceration.

[+] EnlargeJoe Papp
Bonnie D. Ford/ESPN.comJoe Papp's role in PED distribution created ripples through the professional and amateur levels of cycling.

Reading from a pre-sentencing report, U.S. District Chief Judge Gary L. Lancaster said Papp "has acted as a public advocate" in efforts to clamp down on performance-enhancing drug use, and cited his lack of previous criminal history, his graduate education, and various mental and physical health issues stemming from his past abuse of PEDs.

USADA general counsel Bill Bock attended the hearing but was not called to testify on Papp's behalf, and both the prosecutor and Papp's defense lawyer -- a federal public defender who began representing him last summer when he ran out of money for private counsel -- declined to comment. Papp's formal plea agreement remains sealed.

Papp himself made only the briefest of statements before sentencing. "I accept responsibility for my actions, and I apologize for them," he said.

But in an interview with ESPN.com after the sentencing, Papp elaborated on the double life and bad decisions that continue to haunt him.

"Nothing I've done for the anti-doping movement is something I could have done if I hadn't been involved with doping in the first place," Papp said. "But since September 2007, I have not tried to cover up anything. I've been completely transparent to the degree I could, legally. It has ruined my life, and there's nothing positive or redeeming about it. I would give anything not to be in this position.

"I obviously regret all of it, and I wish I could take it all back," added Papp, who said the case has wrecked him financially. He said he is unemployed and last worked in software sales; he lives with his mother and is subsisting on loans from family.

The lengths to which USADA went to work with Papp show his value to authorities as an athlete familiar with many parts of cycling's doping food chain, even after the agency learned he had concealed his role as a dealer.

USADA called Papp, who had been suspended for a positive test for synthetic testosterone in 2006, as a witness in deposed Tour de France winner Floyd Landis' arbitration hearing in May 2007. Papp testified in general terms about the use of testosterone and other PEDs in professional cycling. Just four months later, the federal raid revealed Papp had been acting as a middleman for a Chinese manufacturer of EPO before, during and after the Landis case was heard, making an estimated $80,000 in transactions to 187 customers, most of them lower-level professionals or amateurs.

But USADA CEO Travis Tygart said the agency worked with Papp because of his ability to help close cases and furnish information that was useful in targeted testing. "Joe eventually did the right thing in admitting his criminal behavior and deciding to assist authorities in correcting his wrongs and ultimately helping the fight against doping in sport," Tygart said.

The arbitrators in the case did not learn of the federal investigation against Papp until after they upheld Landis' positive test for synthetic testosterone, and their ruling gave no weight to Papp's testimony. Still, Papp also expressed remorse for embarrassing USADA.

"I also really regret the way I handled testifying at Floyd's arbitration," he said. "I wish I hadn't put USADA in that position."

USADA imposed its own delayed sanction on Papp on Friday -- a lifetime ban reduced to eight years for his cooperation. Papp said he has no plans to make his living in the sport.

Papp's case shined some light on the little-discussed phenomenon of doping in the amateur ranks, in which most of his clients competed.

Catching pros who cheat clearly resounds more with the public, but Papp said he thinks some testing of amateurs is justified even though there is no money on the line. He said he has received positive feedback from weekend warriors who want their races to be on the level.

Papp said he is "nauseated" at the notion that he sold drugs to some inexperienced riders who could have put their health in considerable jeopardy because they did not have the resources and advice available to professionals.

"When I got involved in trafficking, I didn't think about the fact that I was making it easier for other people to put themselves at risk by using products like EPO and HGH," he said.

"Not everyone had the level of layman's proficiency that I had. There was one case [involving a past online customer] where there was a younger guy. … He didn't have the expertise or medical supervision to mitigate the risks. It disgusted me and really frightened me, the thought that he could have really hurt himself."

Papp did not have personal contact with all of his online customers and does not know who all of them were because some used dummy email accounts or other means of concealing their identities. Most were U.S.-based but not all were U.S. citizens, and Papp was recently linked to an investigation of world and former Olympic champion Jeannie Longo of France.

Most of the evidence Papp has provided has been in paper and electronic form, but he did testify in one case, that of U.S. cyclist Phil Zajicek. USADA lost that arbitration when Papp's credibility was questioned and his evidence was considered insufficient by the panel, but the agency later gathered evidence from other sources. Zajicek is now serving a lifetime suspension for his offense, which was his second, and was fined for lying in his hearing.

One of the most important cases involving Papp was one of the earliest -- a conviction of former Rock Racing rider Kayle Leogrande on the grounds of a so-called "non-analytical violation." The case was the first won by USADA in the absence of a positive drug test, instead resting on testimony of team staff members along with photographs, phone records and a handwritten note provided by Papp showing that Leogrande had purchased EPO from him.

The Leogrande case caught the attention of federal authorities and sparked an investigation of doping in U.S. professional cycling with which Papp cooperated in its initial phase. Months later, that investigation would morph into the current probe of Lance Armstrong and his past teams and business associates.

Bonnie D. Ford covers Olympic sports for ESPN.com. She can be reached at bonniedford@aol.com.

Bonnie D. Ford covers Olympic sports for ESPN.com.