I wrote the other day about why we should resist the tendency to focus on individuals in efforts to combat sporting fraud, especially doping. Instead, I argued, we should focus on the institutions and values that facilitate and encourage such behaviour. Paradoxically, it is individual cases and the personalities of individuals that can be pivotal in catalysing such a change in focus. That is why we should applaud the actions of those that lift the veil, rather than scapegoat and vilify. Here, I want to explore some of the personal qualities that emerge in one such whistleblower.
Tyler Hamilton’s recent book with Daniel Coyle (The Secret Race) might easily be portrayed as a book about doping in general, and particularly as a book about the behaviour and personality of Lance Armstrong and his confederates. Whilst this is a reasonable and accurate response, I think it would downplay a more positive and constructive narrative about an individual who seems peculiarly adept at battling physical pain, but much less equipped to deal with the psychological pain of life and competition. It is this peculiar combination that makes the book much more interesting than pure exposé. If we are to understand doping, I would argue, understanding the mindset of those who are prepared to publicly discuss it is an important step to undertake.
Towards the end of the book, Hamilton (through Coyle) says this about racing in a peloton where doping has receded (to some degree):
(I)t’s the humanity we love in these races. Every day brings risks and rewards. You might win. You might lose. That’s the point.
This might seem a curious point coming from a convicted doper, but that is exactly the insight that Hamilton brings. The most chilling aspect of the book for me is not the description of botched blood transfusions, or the general lunacy of a sporting world where all parties conspire in a falsehood, but the transformation away from such a human view of bicycle racing to one in which the elimination of risk through doping, iron leadership, team allegiance, media control and eventually bullying. This is the transformation that occurs in Hamilton: by the time he arrives at Phonak it is truly ‘all or nothing’ and Hamilton has become not himself, but a copy of Armstrong, one which might have even been superior in terms of physical performance in 2004, but could never be as ruthless.
This transformation starts before the doping. A key episode in this process of dehumanisation coming when it becomes clear that Pedro Celaya, for all his apparent warmth and humanity, sees riders in terms of their percentage hematocrit. The reduction of sporting performance to the quantifiable is not sufficient cause of doping (unless one believes that Peter Keen and Chris Boardman are fraudulent), but a necessary one. At many points in the book, this impoverishment of sport to pure competition seems to underpin the parallel perversion of Hamilton’s motives and actions. Hamilton sometimes signals his attempts to reject this view of sport, such as when he describes how Ferrari’s even more reductive approach seemed unable to capture one of the his central strengths: the ability to suffer (as in Liège, where he finishes 23rd in 1999 having been told he would not even finish). But he is unable to resist.
There are many things to love about this book: I delighted in the way that in the darkest moments there is humour, warmth and a an appreciation of the absurd, but I will leave those corners to others. But for me, it is cautionary tale about the perversion of sport’s transformative potential into an industrial practice which dehumanises the competitor and hence allows in the possibility that doping is just another tool for winning. Moreover, although it is now easier to see from The Secret Race how low individuals have to get before they grasp opportunities for redemption it is also helps us understand better that only some athletes have the courage and humanity within them to come forward in this way. Hamilton (like nearly all cheats) first denies, but unlike most, eventually decides to come clean, and does so with a degree of humanity (and humility) absent in some other accounts.
I hope the truth has really set him free, and will help shift us away from blaming athletes for doping. As Michael Ashenden (anti-doping scientist and former member of UCI bio-passport panel) admits to Coyle (in a footnote) his conversations with dope cheats have led him from a position of condemnation to one in which he says:
Before, I saw them as weak people, bad people. Now I see that they’re put in an impossible situation. If I had been put in their situation, I would do what they did.