The Long Ball Tactic

The arguments against legalised doping

Posted in Uncategorized by mike on October 17, 2012

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.

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.

Health risks

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’s not about the doping: Unanswered questions in the Lance Armstrong case

Posted in Uncategorized by mike on February 7, 2012

When U.S. Attorney Andre Birotte Jr. announced on Friday that there would be no charges against Lance Armstrong and his former U.S. Postal team the cycling world seemed to lapse into a kind of collective shock. Soon an all too predictable narrative began to be spun – namely that this was vindication for Armstrong and proof that he never doped. Out of curiosity I did a Google News search for the phrase ‘Armstrong cleared of doping charges’, sure enough more than one news agency was choosing to report the news of the case’s collapse in this way.

The truth, though, is somewhat more nuanced. My understanding is that sports doping is not, in itself, a crime in America and certainly not one that would be pursued by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, the F.B.I and the Department of Justice.

Armstrong was never accused simply of doping. The doping may have formed the basis for a case involving fraud, or misuse of public money or any of the other charges it was rumoured Jeff Novitzky and his team were following, but not a crime on its own. Therefore, the investigation could, hypothetically, have thrown up evidence of doping and still been closed down if the attorney didn’t feel there was a strong enough case to make the serious charges stick. In other words, it’s not correct to say that this decision not to press charges vindicates Armstrong from doping. In the same way, perhaps, that the unsatisfactory conclusion to the recent Barry Bonds perjury trial does not exonerate him from taking steroids.

Those who, like cycling commentator Phil liggett, seek to conflate the issue of doping with the closure of the federal case have either not understood the procedure or are being deliberately disingenuous.

There may be an argument now to just let sleeping dogs lie, the issue of Armstrong’s doping will never fully be resolved and, surely, if there were that much evidence then the federal authorities would have pressed charges?  I had some sympathy with this viewpoint in the immediate aftermath of the news on Friday, but since then a number of news reports and anonymous sources have created many unanswered questions.

The most intriguing of these came today when Cyclingnews.com reported the US internet radio station NPR had spoken to “sources within the FBI, FDA and US Postal Services” who were “shocked, surprised and angry” that they were only given 30 minutes notice before the L.A. Attorney’s office informed the media the case would be closed. The NPR source also claimed that prosecutors were about to indict a number of individuals for fraud, witness tampering, mail fraud and drug distribution before the rug was seemingly pulled from under their feet.

This version of events was backed up by “a source who had co-operated with the federal investigation” who told Cyclingnews.com:

I talked to someone within the investigation but the reason why the case was shut down was due to a one man decision. The evidence against those involved was absolutely overwhelming. They were going to be charged with a slew of crimes but for reasons unexplained he closed the case saying it wasn’t open for discussion.

We can piece together from this, then, that Andre Birotte Jr made the decision on Friday to drop the case unilaterally, only giving the agencies investigating it a 30 minutes head start before the media was told. Birotte, in his position as Attorney for the Central District of California, is entirely within his rights to do this, but the source who have subsequently spoken out clearly do not agree that there was insufficient evidence. Indeed, Cyclingnews’s source believes the federal evidence was “absolutely overwhelming”.

Why, then, do we find ourselves in the situation we are in now? There could be any number of explanations why Birotte took the decision to drop the case quietly, the Friday before the Super Bowl (a time when the media are distracted with the football event of the year and may not have either the resources or the will to comprehensively follow up a legal case involving cycling). Could one explanation be that this was more a political decision than a judicial one? The more we look at the information available combined with the odd timing, the more we are compelled to ask just what exactly went on behind the scenes?

The team that Armstrong hired to defend himself certainly carries some political clout. His attorney Mark Fabiani, the man dubbed the ‘master of disaster’, is a former White House special counsel who, according to ESPN, “specializes in helping steer embattled politicians, companies and organizations through legal and public relations crises”. It was Fabiani who steered Bill and Hilary Clinton through the Whitewater scandal of the early 90s and was hired by Goldman Sachs in April 2010 in the aftermath of the global financial crisis to clean up its public image. The Financial Times described one of Fabiani’s main attributes as being “politically connected”.

Fabiani’s business partner Chris Lehane is similarly well connected and, it is reported, worked on a daily basis in the White House with Clinton’s lawyer Lanny Breuer, who is now Assistant Attorney General for the Criminal Division of the Department of Justice.

Before getting into full-blown conspiracy theory mode it’s maybe time to step back slightly and state that there’s no reason to believe anything untoward happened. Maybe a little lobbying went on here, a few old friends were lent on there, who knows. I do believe, however, that it’s worth highlighting the circles in which Armstrong and his team moved in, in order to view the case in a wider context.

If we take the Cyclingnews and NPR sources at their word then a U.S. Attorney has taken the decision to close down a case which those investigating it felt there was ‘overwhelming’ evidence to pursue. If that is what went on then there must surely be other factors involved. Would Birotte really want to spend the state’s time and money trying to prosecute someone as well connected as Armstrong? Did he really want to be the guy who sanctioned an investigation into how one of the world’s best known cancer charities spent its money? Did he decide, in the end, despite the evidence, the most politically expedient move would be to put a lid on the whole thing and move on? The timing of the decision could have come right out of the Fabiani PR playbook, as could the subsequent reports and comments trying to confuse the dropping of the Federal case with an acquittal from allegations of cheating in a bike race in France.

There may be more to come. In the meantime we can only speculate.

Where do we go from here?

Posted in Uncategorized by mike on February 4, 2012

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.

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