Reflections on doping

So, we are now able to re-write the results from this year’s Tour de France with some certainty, erasing stage wins, rejigging the overall, and congratulating Carlos Sastre and Frank Schleck for jointly winning the KOM title following Kohl’s disgrace.

The latter may have ridden himself into a near coma on Alpe d’Huez, with an above-average performance, but it certainly was not the ‘extraterrestrial’ climbing we have seen in the past. His performance may have defied expectations, but he did not make a mockery of the peloton like Sella (at the Giro), Ricco, Piepoli, and Schumacher. (Not the mention the infringement of Dmitri Fofonov, who may have doped simply to survive all the way to Paris, rather than to actually win a major prize.)

Astute watchers of the Tour may have had their suspicions, but Kohl’s case confounded the now regularly-practised technique of outing dopers simply by scrutinizing their race-winning performances. Kohl’s watts on Alpe d’Huez were less than impressive compared to other riders, but may have been well above what he has produced before, but this would require an extensive crunching of the numbers.

Overall, though, it is very hard to claim that the doping situation is getting any better, with this slew of positive tests. The overall cleanliness of the peloton may indeed be improving, and more and more riders are speaking out against doping, but dopers are still stealing victories and ruining races with alarming regularity.

Should we really be surprised?

Doping in cycling is now decidedly uncool. Forty years ago it was the norm, and spoken about quite openly by some with the courage to reveal cycling’s supposed dark secrets. “We are not athletes, we are professional cyclists,” Rudi Altig said in response to doping controls. Doping may have been frowned upon, but it was not perceived as morally wrong. Jacques Anquetil was a revered figure, despite his habitual use of amphetamines. “You think I rode Bordeaux-Paris using just sugar,” he once said.

Twenty years ago, if all the accounts are accurate, doping remained the norm but retreated more and more into deception and omerta as the authorities sought, at least half-heartedly, to eliminate such practices. Doped riders won races, but so did clean ones. Penalties were light. Sensitive souls like Paul Kimmage were outraged by what they discovered in the peloton. Others, as Joe Parkin talks about in his recent book, accepted it and just got on with their own racing. Some flirted briefly with drugs (Alan Pieper), others did not (Andy Hampsten), and some got on the full program (insert name of your choice here).

Then attitudes changed. Serious, organized, team-wide programs became the norm in the 90s. EPO-fuelled performances made a mockery of the physiological norms of previous eras, and national authorities took control of anti-doping efforts away from a compliant UCI and turned riders into criminals. Those genuinely against doping finally found that their voices could be heard, while savvy players saw the direction of the prevailing wind and joined the chorus.

Cycling, like some other sports, has the attraction for supporters of seeming to represent some pure endeavour, some epic quest of fair competition and betterment; noble riders battling each other and the environment, embodying the best athletic motives and edifying our own conception of cycling and sport as something outside of ourselves and a cruel and capricious society. We are stirred by stories of overcoming adversity, stupendous achievement, and the besting of rivals. The more dramatic the story, the more heroic – and the more fans abandon themselves to the passions of partisanship and adulation.

Anq 1
A tough day for Gaul and Anquetil, perhaps sans sucre.

But for the riders, their milieu is much more modest. Many are simply professionals doing a job that they enjoy, eking out a career just like their fans. Instead of being in an office, a factory, or on a work site, professional cyclists are on the road. It is curious indeed that what to them is a job is to their fans a pursuit imbued with a wider significance and all the trappings of celebrity.

Imagine if we were to take the somewhat surreal situation of turning construction into a sport, where we would follow ardently the building of new apartment complexes, idolizing the fastest pipe layer or dry-waller, publishing magazines in their honour and featuring their work on extended TV coverage. But of course this analogy breaks down because cycling – and sport – has been constructed to be something different, not a routine and regular ‘job’, but something different: part entertainment, part political, part commercial, part diversion.

The essential problem, therefore, is that while sport is ‘outside’, those inside the sport are simply workers (and managers) doing what they may see as a regular job. They are subject to the same pressures and motivations that we all feel in our careers, and there is reason to believe that their jobs are excessively tough on a physical level, require substantial mental and emotional commitment, and provide for little in terms of guarantees for the future. There are few protections for riders, no retirement plans, no expectations that a long-term career in the industry is necessarily possible.

We should therefore expect to find the same cross section of participants in the sport that we find in any workplace, perhaps under even more pressure to perform than in many jobs. We should not therefore be surprised to find hard work, fair play, self-sacrifice, noble motives, double-dealing, lying and cheating. In other words, cycling is a mirror on the wider world. As Jonathan Vaughters has noted, there is clearly a handful of sociopaths in the peloton, despite most riders wanting to do the right thing.

In other words, we risk holding cycling up to a higher standard than society and consequently we risk becoming more outraged over doping and cheating (how dare they!) than rampant greed on Wall Street bringing down the world economy. We expect derivatives traders to be disreputable, but we do not expect cyclists to be.

Doping and cheating in cycling to win races and profit in terms of fame and fortune has been present since the sport’s inception. While the situation may improve in the future as values change, changes will likely be slow – just as societal change with attitudes and morals may be more glacial. And given the money that can be made in the sport, expect that temptations to take shortcuts will always exist. As Alex Zulle, busted for doping said, he simply didn’t want to go back to painting houses.

This is not an apology for doping, but an explanation. Expecting that such practices will disappear is like expecting that lying, cheating, and scamming will disappear from all workplaces. The only way to achieve this might be to wait for pure motives to strike to whole peloton (unlikely but possible, although sociopaths will always exist) or to subject riders to increasingly restrictive controls to satisfy our own conceptions of what pure sport should be (increasingly the trend).

Henri Desgrange would undoubtedly be proud of the latter approach, himself being a stickler for draconian rules for the enjoyment of the race by the public and the betterment of the riders’ characters. Writing in L’Auto, he established the idea of the ouvrier de la pedale, pedals workers who were humble and proud, hard working, but ultimately being shaped by the rules of races like the Tour into more respectable citizens, worthy of emulation (that many rebelled against the system, and were still loved by the fans, was a problem with this approach).

Is this what cycling has come to? Maybe, and perhaps that’s what we want. Cycling is a construct, and like wider constructs in society we regulate them (and ourselves) with rules and penalties for transgressions. These regulations change over time, reflecting society’s mores, and perhaps even hopes and dreams. We’re shaping cycling into an ideal. It will take time, and there will be tensions between all the different participants (and we hope that sociopathic riders and managers, as well as power and money hungry officials, stay away – but the may not).

But ultimately, on the road to dope-free cycling, a goal that should certainly be applauded, what are we to conclude if there appears a legion of fans to cheer on their fallen hero, a rider like, say, Ivan Basso, welcoming his return to the peloton as if nothing had ever happened…

2 thoughts on “Reflections on doping

  1. Love the balance in this article. There’s far too few voices giving perspective on doping. It’s great to read someone filling in the vast swathe of grey that exists between the two poles.

    That picture of Gaul and Anquetil is amazing, where did you find it? It feels rare to see pictures of them in colour.

  2. Thank you for the article which is very well written indeed. However I think it should be argued that it’s not our societys (lack of) moral that’s the core subject in matters concerning doping. The real problem is the way we see sport as a clean, iconic arena. Of course it’s not and professional cycling therefore needs new rules that reflects and applies to modernity: We live in a drug regulated and controlled reality so why not say: Let the athlete with the best doctor win. One condition, though: We want to know how they did it! Betcha! Every teminally ill patient would love to know how Floyd Landis managed to recover from human waste to a super human being in just 18 hours in 2006.

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