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.
It is my firm belief that Lance Armstrong won his 7 Tours de France whilst doping.
To counter this by saying, ” but he’s never tested positive” is to assume that cycling’s doping controls are absolute and will always catch the bad guys eventually. This didn’t happen with Jan Ulrich or the countless others who were caught out in Operation Puerto in 2006. Britain’s golden boy David Millar never tested positive, yet in 2004 police raided his room in Biaritz and found used syringes and two empty phials of EPO.
Basically, I could write a lengthy blogpost on why I think Armstrong doped, but I’d like to assume that every reasonable person, unburdened by the trappings of fandom, can look at the facts dispassionately and come to the conclusion that it’s impossible to believe he did it clean, however good a story it would make. There’s the testimonys from former teammates where doping regimes are described in detail, there’s his association with the controversial Michele Ferrari (which, according to Italian police, continued in secret until at least 2010 after Ferrari’s arrest in 2004), and then, of course, there’s the context. The rivals who were snarled at, crushed and firmly put in their place were all using EPO and transfusing blood, Armstrong rode and dominated in cycling’s dirtiest era and we are asked to believe his success was a result of talent and mental strength winning out over pharmaceutically enhanced opponents.
Those who hoped that the federal investigation launched into Armstrong and doping in US cycling would come up with charges and, ultimately, convictions were hopefully not all crossing their fingers out of bitterness or a bloody-minded vindictive desire to see a hero fall.
Instead, we wanted the truth to come out. Cycling cannot progress if its future is built on fairytales. We need to go back and honestly address what went wrong, why riders doped, who knew what and how it can be stopped in the future. The alternative to this, as far as I can see, is to shout loud about the guys who get caught out and bring the full force of scorn and indignation down on their shoulders. Sometimes these guys end up like Floyd Landis, where a confession relieves them of their burden, other times they end up like Marco Pantani. The common factor between the two is that they are suddenly ostracised and disowned by a sport and culture that nurtured them, taught them to act this way by institutionalising the act of doping, and then threw them to the wolves.
In Floyd Landis’s opinion, only a total amnesty can save cycling now. Ask riders to reveal how they dope, how they avoid testing positive and in return offer immunity from punishment. Understand a little more, condemn a little less, in other words. The sport needs to understand its problems before it can confront them fully. Landis has helped with this and he should be applauded for eventually doing the right thing, but the sport should make provisions for others to follow his lead, not brief the press that those who break cycling’s great omerta are liars or psychologically unbalanced.
To talk about this in abstract terms is fine, but the huge barrier standing in the way is cycling’s survival as a commercial entity. If it stops one day and says ‘actually, all this is a lie and we cannot say for sure that any of these athletes are clean’ the money would run out overnight. Which sponsor wants to have their name on the jersey of a cheat? Who wants their brand to be associated with lies and corruption? Where would the funding come from?
This is why cycling seemingly must carry on as it is, and why there will be huge sighs of relief in the offices of the UCI at the news no charges will be brought against the man who rejuvinated the sport after the Festina scandal in 1998, when pundits where openly questioning whether the Tour de France could survive. Cycling enjoyed some glorious commercial success in the years from 1999-2005, even if the racing itself was stolid and largely unexciting, the buccaneering daring of the Hinault, Lemond and Fignon era replaced by the machinelike, regimented performances of Armstrong’s US Postal team, leading from the front and grinding down opponents into submission. To admit that this commercial renaissance was built on a lie would leave the governing body, and many others, open to numerous awkward questions they’d presumably all rather leave in the past.
There are certain n0-go areas in cycling, and Armstrong is definitely one of them. For that reason I can’t answer the question I’ve laid out in the title to this blogpost. I hope that the US Anti-Doping Agency, as they have pledged, carry out a thorough probe into doping practises and receive all the evidence which now won’t be used in the federal investigation. I hope they build their investigation on finding out the truth, no matter what, rather than a damage limitations exercise with one eye on keeping the golden goose laying eggs just a little bit longer.
I hope the truth comes out eventually because I want to believe in cycling a bit more. And, I think possibly more than that, I want the courage of Floyd Landis and Tyler Hamilton who did a lot of disgraceful things and told a lot of lies but eventually spoke out against a culture of denial, to count for something. I don’t want the PR machine to spin into overdrive and declare that Armstrong has been found not guilty and that Landis and Hamilton have been proved to have been lying, because no such thing has happened, no trial has taken place.
Cheating is probably more commonplace than we’d like to believe and once something has been set in motion its hard to stop. I’m not even sure doping can be seen in such absolute terms as a matter of right and wrong. Christophe Bassons found being ‘right’ was hard, as he was mocked by his teammates for refusing to take the doping products which they all used. If you want to succeed in the sport, you’re probably going to need to do more than ride clean and hope for a break, particularly in an event that spans three weeks. And isn’t that what sport is about anyway? Finding a way to succeed. That’s not a justification of doping, it’s just a question. But it’s a question that needs to be answered, along with a lot of others, if cycling is to lay its demons to rest for once and for all.
Here’s an interesting look at how cycling’s governing body (the UCI) uses its drug testing programme.
This list was leaked, presumably from someone in the UCI, to the French sports daily L’equipe who published it this morning. It’s basically a “suspicion list”, for want of a better term, that doctors gave to the UCI before the start of the Tour de France 2010 showing which riders they think displayed signs of possibly doping.
(credit to Bobby Lightspeed)
According to L’equipe, riders in the 4-10 categories are the ones testers should take notice of. Don’t draw too many conclusions from this, it’s certainly not a list of who is and who isn’t doping, more just a guide for who to test.
All of this is based on rider’s biological passports – a collection of data based on blood samples taken at different times which can be looked at collectively. If a rider’s blood levels differ from one test to another, or there are any other anomalies, then this may be evidence that they are doping and should be examined closer. They can highlight things like fluctuating hematocrit levels and haemoglobin levels, which could indicate the use of doping products to aid recovery and create red blood cells to produce more oxygen.
The biological passport is something I believe FIFA should implement worldwide. The logistics are obviously tricky – there are far more professional footballers in the world than there are professional cyclists – but if it could be brought in initially for, say, every player in England and Spain’s top divisions then it would be a really worthwhile project and show FIFA were serious about their anti-doping message. It’s something they have “considered” in the past but, to my knowledge, have yet to do anything about.
For this to happen there, of course, needs to be more blood testing done. I’ve read various FA pdf files that outline their approach to anti-doping and a real roadblock seems to be the fact blood testing is expensive. In a game which is so awash with money at the top level this really shouldn’t be a problem. Sponsors could be encouraged to put money into an anti-doping pool that could be used effectively or, alternatively, FIFA could channel more of its revenue into this area of the game.
People might ask: why address a problem that doesn’t exist? Surely the only reason cycling is so far ahead of football in blood testing and the biological passport is because it is a dirtier sport? Well, for a start we don’t know that football is cleaner than cycling. I’ve written about examples in the past where top footballers have been found using exactly the same doping products as cyclists (namely EPO) but, for whatever reason, not much has been made of it. In addition to this, anti-doping rules shouldn’t be reactionary measures, they should be preventive. Why wait until you have a doping problem before doing anything about it? Isn’t it best to act early to prevent doping ever becoming an issue?
In the wake of even more FIFA corruption allegations this week Sepp Blatter could really clean up his imagine by taking anti-doping seriously. For a man who says he wants to “take a step ahead in the fight against doping” he’s been very inactive thus far. In a medical report on FIFA’s website in August 2007 it was revealed that no blood testing took place at the 2006 World Cup whatsoever, despite having taken place at the 2002 World Cup. The reason given for this was:
Laboratory experts advised against taking blood tests, since given current levels of medical advancement, they would not be able to provide any further information. The blood tests taken at the 2002 FIFA World Cup did not throw up any abnormal results.
I find this baffling. Blood tests are more effective than urine tests, that’s been shown in sports like cycling and athletics for years. I’m sure that WADA (World Anti-Doping Agency) would argue FIFA’s suggestion that blood tests couldn’t provide any more information than urine tests, and the logic that there weren’t any “abnormal results” four years previously so testing is now unnecessary is perverse, to say the least.
In my opinion, despite the obvious flaws in cycling’s “suspicion list” (and, remember, the list was never meant to be published), football could still take a few cues here and move towards being more responsible. Blood testing is needed in the sport on a far more regular basis than currently happens. Then, through the biological passport, governing bodies can get a more accurate picture of who to test and whether or not players are clean.
With launch of the British pro cycling team Team Sky today, allow me to turn my attention to cycling for a minute.
Cycling has long been something of a minority sport in this country. In fact, the sport’s status would be best classified, until recently, as ‘cult following’, rather than ‘mainstream’. All this changed when the British track cycling team was completely revamped and given a fair old chunk of lottery money with the goal of winning Team GB some Olympic gold. Soon, gone were the days when British cyclists turned up to velodromes self-financed and clutching their own equipment. In the space of two Olympic games the British track cycling team had gone from outsiders to that rarest of rarities in British sport – a world-dominating, finely tuned winning machine. The heroes of this renaissance were the likes of Chris Hoy, Victoria Pendleton and the only man to have retained his gold medal in the individual pursuit, Bradley Wiggins.
The wider world of cycling, however, has much more to offer than velodromes and kilometre sprints. The greatest stars of the track are a different animal entirely to the monolithic endurance machines that are those men that put their bodies through hell year in year out and compete for glory in road events such as Paris-Roubaix, the Tour of Flanders and, generally speaking, the ultimate goal – Le Tour de France. The history of British riders in the Tour is a sporadic and scattered one. To a historian of the greatest race in the world they would be considered not much more than footnote – a few stage wins here, a few yellow jerseys there – were it not for one man who tragically and controversially wrote himself into the mythology of the Tour, Tom Simpson.
Simpson was a man from a working class, north eastern stock. His family moved to Derbyshire when he was young and Simpson found his cycling legs riding through the Peak District. With the goal of becoming a continental cyclist and keen to avoid the burden of national service that was soon to be upon him Simpson moved to Belgium to further his career. At this time, in the late 50s and early 60s, there was no great financial backing for someone with the aspirations of Simpson. The move was mainly self-financed and he earned his keep by racing in events around Europe and by garnering himself publicity in France by playing up to a British upper-class, Avengers-esque stereotype, often seen wearing a suit and bowler hat, clutching an umbrella and a newspaper and drinking a cup of tea. The French quickly took to this eccentric Brit and gave him the nickname ‘Major Tom’. So it was that, in 1967, Simpson entered a car dealership in France and put down a deposit on a brand new Mercedes. “Something to aim at”, Simpson told friends, making clear his intention to win the 1967 Tour de France and make enough money to pay for the car. Simpson never made it back to that car dealership. Towards the end of the tour, fuelled by amphetamines and half a bottle of brandy, Simpson wobbled up the slopes of one of the most ominous and daunting mountains in the Tour’s history, Mont Ventoux. Moving uneasily from side to side up the road Simpson fell off his bike and collapsed on Ventoux’s wind-swept lunar-esque white rocks that lined the side of the road. As his team car stopped and staff ran out to tend to him Simpson is alleged to have breathed his last words “put me back on my bike”, tried once more to ride up the mountain, fallen again and then died.
It could be said that, from then on, British riders in the Tour de France were riding in the shadow of Tommy Simpson. Garmin-Slipstream’s David Millar wrote on the anniversary of Simpson’s death in 2007 that Simpson’s memorial on Ventoux was a reminder of “how close he got and how far he fell – Tommy Simpson, cycling’s very own Icarus.”. On the 26th July 2009 the Tour once again climbed the Ventoux. According to the Guardian report from that stage:
‘Mark Cavendish removed his helmet as he rode past the memorial; Charly Wegelius and David Millar offered gifts, Wegelius a water bottle to be added to the pile of cycling knick-knacks, Millar a cotton hat, which he tossed in the direction of the pale grey marble monument. On it he had written: “Tommy Simpson RIP, David Millar.” ‘.
Before all this though the main pack had come past. Too focused and too drained to concentrate on anything but the road ahead of them were the main general classification contenders – Andy Schleck, Frank Schleck, yellow jersey Alberto Contador, seven-time winner Lance Armstrong and, amazingly, Britain’s Bradley Wiggins. Wiggins had been nothing short of a revelation in the 2009 tour. Losing 10% of his body fat to adjust to the demands of climbing Wiggins had surprised all but himself when he found himself in 4th position coming to the Ventoux, the Tour’s penultimate stage. Needing just to keep pace with the main GC riders and not lose time to Andreas Kloeden, Wiggins rode up the Ventoux with a picture of Tom Simpson affixed to his bike. After finishing the Tour he told the Guardian:
“When I reached Ventoux on the second-last day it felt as if Tom was waiting for me. As I began the climb it felt as if his spirit was riding with me. It started on the early slopes and I imagined how Tom must have been feeling, riding towards his death, and the feeling grew as I climbed.
There were times when Andy Schleck was attacking and it was horrible. I thought, ‘I can’t go on. I can’t do this anymore …’ But I then thought more vividly of Tom and how he must have felt that last day. It was like a reason not to give up. I felt like I was doing it more for his memory than anything.”.
It seems perfectly fitting to imagine, therefore, that Bradley Wiggins, in this seemingly impossible quest to equal Robert Millar’s British best of 4th place, had not a brand new Mercedes as his “something to aim at”, but the legacy of Simpson himself.
Confounding expectations is something that British cycling supremos Dave Brailsford, Shane Sutton and Steve Peters have made their stock in trade on the track over the last decade. Now they turn their attentions to road racing with the new pro cycling team Team Sky. Taking to the roads of London for the team launch today fans will have been filled with optimism and excitement to see the slick way this team has been assembled. It boasts amongst it’s ranks some of the finest young British riders (Ben Swift, Geraint Thomas, Russ Downing, Peter Kenaugh), some of the finest up and coming riders in all of cycling (Edvald Boasson Hagen, Thomas Lofkvist) and, firmly in position as team leader for the Tour de France, Bradley Wiggins. Brailsford’s clearly stated aim for the team is to win the Tour de France within five years. Maybe Wiggins’ fourth place last year was just a preface for the next great chapter in British cycling, maybe it was a fluke he can never repeat. If we can be sure of one thing though it is that British cycling today took a step far greater than any it has taken before and announced itself as a serious force to be reckoned with in the big world of continental road racing. For Bradley Wiggins, riding onto the Champs-Elysée as the winner of the Tour de France now seems a considerably more realistic ‘something to aim at’.
I should mention that the biographical detail of Tom Simpson was learned from reading William Fotheringham’s stunnng biography Put Me Back On My Bike, Dave Millar’s “cyclings very own Icarus” quote comes from his foreword to the reissue of Simpson’s autobiography Cycling Is My Life and Bradley Wiggins’ descrpition of riding the Ventoux comes from the Guardian interview with Donald McRae Exhausted Bradley Wiggins now knows he can win the Tour de France.