One of the oddest elements of the recent Lance Armstrong/US Postal doping case is the number of people who have concluded as a result that doping should be permitted in cycling.
A recent six-year study by experts found numerous merits to decriminalising drugs in wider society, but I’m still sceptical about doing the same for performance enhancing drugs in sport, for the reasons I outline below:
What do you mean by ‘drugs’?
Very basically, fans need to realise that ‘drugs in sport’ is not a catch-all term. There seems to be an myth that doping is akin to activating a cheat on a computer game – you stick a needle in an athlete’s arm and they automatically boost their attributes by 10%. The term ‘doping’ or ‘drugs’ can range from bulking up using steroids to manipulating your blood levels using EPO. Advocates of legalised doping need to be clear as to which drugs should be legalised – all of them? only some? – and realise that doing this would open athletes up to numerous health risks, which we will discuss later.
Making a ‘level playing field’.
The main argument for legalisation is that doing so would create a level playing field, whereby all athletes would start from the same place and have access to the same drugs. This argument is flawed for a number of reasons. Primarily – and it’s a kind of obvious thing to have to point out – human being’s bodies are not all the same, they react to different drugs in different ways. Some riders will find some PEDs help them, others will find the opposite. Former Armstrong teammate Tyler Hamilton said in a recent interview, “For me, growth hormone, when I tried it, felt awful. My legs felt sluggish. But some riders loved it, and that was their thing.”.
Verner Moller, a professor of sport and body culture at Aarhus University in Denmark recently advocated an “upper threshold” for the level of red blood cells in an athlete’s body. Moller used the argument that this would create a “level playing field”, saying
“Everybody would know what they can do, and it will be less important who has the best doping doctor. You would also see that we would get rid of those false positives, the bad publicity, the doping hysteria.”
Now, far be it from me to question a professor of sport and body culture, but this argument again ignores the physiological differences between athletes. If we set an upper threshold for hematocrit level (the percentage of blood which is made up of red blood cells which carry oxygen to the muscles) at, say, 50% this would not create a level playing field as people naturally have different hematocrit levels to begin with. An example from Tyler Hamilton again illustrates this well:
If Jonathan Vaughters’ is 48, he can only take a little bit of EPO, because it would be too dangerous for him, with testers, to raise his level any higher. Mine was in the lower forties, so EPO could help me more.
Moller’s argument that a threshold would also get rid of “false positives, bad publicity and doping hysteria”, also seems debatable. What would happen if the upper threshold was exceeded? Pro cycling actually did set a hematocrit limit at 50% in the days before EPO use could be detected by testing (a time when Lance Armstrong won his first couple of Tour de France titles, incidentally) and there is no evidence that cycling was any fairer then than it is now with stricter doping controls. This is also a time that, inarguably, had its share of bad publicity and doping hysteria too.
In addition to this, saying doping should be legalised is akin to asking someone to put their health at serious risk for spectator’s entertainment.
The anti-doping organisation Bike Pure have a handy list of the health risks associated with doping on their website. These include an increased risk of cardiovascular disease, liver disease, sterility and depression through steroid use; whilst blood doping carries risks of septicaemia, blood clots, strokes, heart failure and increased risks of heart attacks. It’s surely beyond any person’s moral code to ask athletes to expose themselves to these risks for the sake of sport?
Taking a sentimental view
I watch cycling because I like seeing people haul themselves up a huge mountain on a tiny carbon-framed bike. I like watching people ride over 200kms and then out-think and out-pace their rivals in a sprint to the finish line. I like watch people ride through cobblestones and mud in Belgium and Northern France or be fast and smart enough to win a time trial. As we’ve seen with Lance Armstrong, those performances are instantly tainted when you find out they were done not solely through natural talent and training. Watching a whole peloton of people who could legally take drugs would not appeal to me at all. I generally find that those who advocate legalised doping or applaud Armstrong for doing what it took to win – such as sociologist Malcolm Gladwell – are not actually fans of the sport and are therefore lacking a deeper understanding of just why people love cycling. It’s beautiful, epic, romantic even, none of those adjectives can apply to doping. Cycling – when boiled down to its core – is about one person and a bike taking on everything else, and so it should remain.