They shoot horses: performance enhancement, risk-taking and the rage to master

In the last few days both the cycling and mainstream press have reported on the usage of presently undetectable performance enhancing drugs in cycling (see e.g., this article in de Telegraaf; this article on José Been wrote an excellent post on her blog about two of these products, and following news of the arrest of Alberto Bèltran in El País, updated this with news that he had been caught with both AICAR and TB-500, making the link back to the arrest of Wim Vansevenant on the eve of last year’s Tour de France. Here I consider the implications of turning to such ‘new’ drugs for cycling in particular and sport in general.

Those of you that follow me on twitter will know that I have an obsession with TB-500 which started last year, and those of you that read this blog will also know that I have argued that conventional anti-doping, based on testing and sanction, is insufficient in combating the tendency of sports-people to break the agreed rules of their sports. I have also highlighted the growing role of law enforcement and education in anti-doping, although I would argue that the latter will always fail if not matched by the involvement of police and customs forces.  A key part of many legal proceedings is evidence from those accused of crimes, and I have wasted many words arguing that instead of stigmatizing and scapegoating end-users and suppliers of performance enhancing drugs we should be finding ways to support and motivate such individuals to provide details of their practices and networks to the authorities.

Bèltran would apparently not have been caught without evidence provided by David Garcia Dapena, a professional cyclist sanctioned for doping (EPO and a blood volumiser)in return for sentence reduction. Most importantly, although Garcia tested positive, neither AICAR nor TB-500, although prohibited, can be tested for at present. Without an arrest in possession, there is no way of combating such substances except through education, and this is where the problem lies. If is true that AICAR and TB-500 are in widespread use in the peloton, two drugs that haven’t even been passed for therapeutic human use (and may have horrific side effects), then the gap between the behaviour of many riders and the expectations enshrined in laws and regulations is such that one might despair: a war on drugs is no more likely to succeed here than it will for recreational drug use. EPO was bad enough, but at least here it was its misapplication in sport that made it dangerous  to health, rather than a complete lack of human data.

I do not want to believe that legalisation of performance enhancing drugs is the only response. The health risks to the amateurs and juniors that aspire to be ‘professional’ (see David Millar’s Racing in the Dark) are just too horrendous to contemplate. However, I am at a loss to see how any amount of expenditure on education, testing or law enforcement will have an impact on such risk-taking behaviour without a real leap our understanding of doping behaviour. Professional sports-people and those that aspire to such levels of performance often have a ‘rage to master’,  as developed by Ellen Winner and her collaborators (e.g., this). Winner’s work on artistic talent is a subtle riposte to those who claim expertise derives from training alone (such as Anders Ericsson, whose claims are popularised by Matthew Syed or Malcolm Gladwell, also see this post on the Science of Sport blog)): she argues that high achievers are often so taken with their chosen path that all else can be ignored, including risks that to others would be unacceptable. Hence, training is the means to an end, but it is inherent or acquired obsession that is the cause that motivates training. Given the monomaniacal drive that characterises such people the temptation to fill the gaps in performance (that are not susceptible to training) with illegal methods must be enormous. What really interests me is how such desire for success can manifest in both ethical and unethical sporting behaviour (even in the same individual): this for me is the key question, and one which I will return to.

2 thoughts on “They shoot horses: performance enhancement, risk-taking and the rage to master

  1. Agree with your points here.

    Don’t have any great insight to add, but it would be interesting to know how much information about TB500 is either given to or researched by the athletes before taking it. Surely no informed or rational person would give their consent to be administered this drug.

    Either they don’t understand (or care to find out) the health risks, or their concerns are mitigated through the general thought processes they use to justify and rationalise their decision to dope.

    In another sport, I’ve seen the transformation in an athlete I know who suddenly chose to take up a relatively unsophisticated doping regime. This was simply triggered by a markedly decreased chance of being tested than previously. In some cases, the chance of being caught, either through testing, by criminal other means, is still an important factor in doping decisions.

    I think at a basic level most people have a fear of being ‘found out’. Is this inherently missing in some individuals?

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