Drugs are bad, mkay: why I still care about dope in cycling

In Paul Fournel’s wonderful essay on doping in Need for the Bike (Trans. A. Stoeckl, 2003: 123-125) he notes that it is doping that often makes racing hard, rather than the opposite, and that the effect of doping on onlookers can be more potent than its effect on competitors. Fournel is pretty agnostic on a personal level: for him, doping is too embedded in the sport to ever go away.

Whilst I agree with some of Fournel’s analysis, my own views have evolved in a rather different direction. I have written on this blog about the psychology of anti-doping, about the boundaries between forbidden performance enhancement and what is acceptable (in relation to music), and about our perceptions of doping and their relationship with notions of truth. It has become clear to me that doping matters to me in a way it does not to Fournel, and in this essay I will try to explain why.

My earliest memory of a doping scandal is Pedro Delgado’s negative positive in the 1988 Tour de France. Here was a paradigmatic case which foreshadows the current absurdity of the ‘fight’ against doping: Delgado tested positive for a substance that was banned by the IOC, but not yet by the UCI. He was allowed to claim his win, and never really had to engage with his positive test, since it was in fact negative. The lengthy but contrasted limbos of Contador (riding having tested positive) and Mosquera (not riding having tested positive) develop directly from cycling’s pragmatic ambivalence towards doping (Mosquera’s case has only recently started to move forwards after legal intervention). We still await the CAS ruling on Contador’s positive.

Doping, as Fournel reminds us, is absurd, as are our responses to it. Commentators on the sport are just as inconsistent as the sport itself: we cannot find common ground. For everyone who thinks leniency in return for cooperation is a pragmatic necessity there is someone who thinks it is a failure to mete out appropriate punishment. For everyone who thinks the past is another country, there are those who believe it is only by confronting the past that cycling can move forwards.

I would argue that there is a continuum between legal applied sports science and forbidden practices, and that the boundary between legal illegal is fairly arbitrary at present. Caffeine is banned, then not; pacing music is treated in running as illegal, but cyclists can listen to what they like over their ear pieces. There are clear efforts to place this boundary using rational means, but our whole attitude to doping is fairly irrational if one bases one’s arguments on the perceived effectiveness of a particular practice:

Caffeine was removed from the Prohibited List in 2004. Its use in sport is not prohibited.

Arguments that led WADA’s stakeholders to take caffeine off the List in 2004 include research indicating that caffeine can potentially be performance-decreasing above the 12 microgram/ml threshold which was historically used in sport. Many experts believe that caffeine is ubiquitous in beverages and food and that reducing the threshold might therefore create the risk of sanctioning athletes for social or diet consumption of caffeine. In addition, caffeine is metabolized at very different rates in individuals.

Caffeine is part of WADA’s Monitoring Program. This program includes substances which are not prohibited in sport, but which WADA monitors in order to detect patterns of misuse in sport. The 2010 Monitoring Program did not reveal global patterns of misuse of caffeine in sport. Caffeine will remain part of the Monitoring Program in 2011.

WADA (2011)

Music is probably more effective than caffeine at enhancing performance, so why not ban its use in all sports (that do not require music). After all, the potentially distracting use of music presents a significant health and safety risk? The actual efficacy of many so-called performance enhancing drugs is far from proven: as with caffeine, we may find corticosteroids becoming unbanned…

One could argue that the use of performance enhancing drugs is cheating regardless of effectiveness. Unfortunately, it is impossible to objectively define that which is unfair or unethical: such constructs are cultural, not physical. Not so long ago it was deemed unethical for amateur sportspeople to be coached by professionals, let alone receive financial benefits for their efforts. Now it would be seen to be crazy to compete seriously without professional advice.

I have struggled with my feelings on this topic. I remember feeling personally affronted by the Delgado case: not by him, but by the absurdity of the authorities’ response to his actions. Ten years later, I felt (like many) that the Festina affair was a terrible indication of the sickness that afflicted cycling. I was distressed when Pantani died. I was depressed by Armstrong’s cyborg-like ascent to Tour de France domination (and how most if us bought it for a while, as a false rebirth). All these things suggest in retrospect, that a more Fournelian approach would have been more reasonable. Why should I care about doping? I do not know these people, and the practice of doping is so much part of the milieu of cycling that to pretend it is avoidable may simply be insane.

Two things seem to have prevented me from simply treating doping as just another component in cycling’s spectacle of the absurd. The first is a dislike of dishonesty, the second a desire to see cycling a safer and more healthy sport for athletes, especially those to young to make an informed choice.

Although I no longer really care who is cheating and who is not (it’s so hard to tell these days) I do care that performance enhancing drugs (and techniques such as transfusion) still seem common. I actually care now more than I ever did because there is a pretence perpetrated by some riders, teams and officials  that somehow cycling has significantly cleaned up its act. Given what we know about the undetectable nature of many techniques this is unlikely to be true: cyclists dope because they feel the benefits outweigh the chances of being caught, and although there may be less doping, it may just be that athletes are being more careful. I applaud those who ride clean and say they are doing so, but find it odd that so few actively speak out against doping. Similarly, I am perplexed by attitudes towards those who break the code of silence observed by the peloton: I have written here about Landis and Papp, and how it is all too easy to label them as bitter or self-serving, when without them and others (such as Manzano, or Jaksche) the anti-doping authorities would be in the dark about actual doping practices. Papp’s recent reduction in ban to 8 years and three year suspended prison sentence (including 6 months house arrest) seem to me a balanced punishment which retains deterrence yet also signals how cooperation can reduce the severity of punishment.

It is health, however, that really drives me on. When I read From Lance to Landis it was the sections on the doping of juniors that gave me pause for thought. When the Giro Bio was raided in 2010 turning up evidence of systematic medication of U23 riders (and leading to further NAS raids) it was clear that nothing much has changed in the intentions of those managing competitive cycling, however much the authorities may be doing to combat such doping. I want cycling to be a sport where no-one is faced with the stark choices that are described by Bjarne Riis or David Millar; where part of being professional is accepting that doping is not just acceptable but expected.

To return to Fournel: although my hopes may be in vain I prefer to keep caring, however futile or absurd this may seem.

1 thought on “Drugs are bad, mkay: why I still care about dope in cycling

  1. Nice post. The change of official status of substances like caffeine from ‘banned’ to ‘monitored’ and back again can only contribute to the perception that what is ‘doping’ is arbitrarily defined by the authorities, and therefore a game to be played rather than a moral or ethical decision. This perpetuates the current situation in that athletes are made to feel they have to rely on the advice of their elders and betters in matters of doping and are naive if they think they can make their own choices.

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