Doping scandals spoiling the spirit of sports

Phillip Barron
The Herald Sun (September 2006)

Allegations that cyclists are doping are so common that anyone accused is guilty until proven innocent. And that’s taking its toll on the sport. The cover of the October Bicycling, arguably the sport’s leading monthly, makes plain why it matters – whether Floyd Landis doped or didn’t, “either way, we lose.”

Did Landis pull off one of the greatest accomplishments in cycling’s history? The night before stage 17 of this year’s Tour de France, Floyd Landis told his wife he was going to “go out in the morning and do something big.” He attacked – broke away from his competitors, setting his own maniacal pace — so early in the day that most thought he had no chance of following through. When you attack like he did you ride on your own, without the wind-breaking assistance of the peloton or even your own team. He went on to win stage 17, setting himself up to win the Tour.

Or, did he pull off an incredible fraud? A few days after being crowned champion of the Tour, a blood sample tested positive for irregularities – an unnaturally high ratio of testosterone to epitestosterone.

There are good reasons to doubt that he cheated. Testosterone is an anabolic steroid: a muscle-builder. It’s the choice of weight lifters or sprinters, not endurance athletes. Testosterone helps an athlete only cumulatively. Over time, it helps an athlete amass muscle – more quickly, yes, but it’s not an instant effect. If Landis was using synthetic testosterone for a performance boost, traces of it would have shown up prior to stage 17.

Besides, testosterone is produced naturally by the body and the human body is complex in ways that continue to baffle scientists. In addition to controlling muscle-growth, testosterone regulates bone density. A few days into the Tour, Landis announced he was suffering necrosis of the hip and was scheduled for hip surgery immediately following the Tour.

Human performance, at the level of a professional athlete, is a matter of refined efficiency. Do we know that the human body, especially one tuned as efficiently as Landis’ and suffering a degenerative bone disease, could not independently and naturally slow its production of epistestosterone and accelerate its production of testosterone as a matter of survival? Landis may be right; he may not be able to give a good explanation of his blood sample.

If he successfully defends himself, Landis may recover his place on a pro-team and maybe even his reputation. He may keep his title to the TdF, but the damage seems to be done. The culture of drug-use in sports is so pervasive (or at least apparently so) that we’re ready to believe the accused are guilty before all the evidence is in and without understanding the contested accuracy of the blood testing techniques.

About the only thing going for cycling’s continuing dope-scandal plague is that it’s not just cycling’s problem. The U.S. Congress held special hearings in 2005 to investigate alleged drug use in Major League Baseball and is currently holding similar hearings investigating steroid use in the National Football League. Earlier this summer, Marion Jones and Justin Gatlin, international level track athletes, each failed doping tests and subsequently lost their multi-million dollar contracts with Nike.

The real problem is that while the margin between winning and losing is usually small on the clock, it’s much bigger in the paycheck.

Athletes competing at the elite professional level live or die by the fractions of seconds between finishes. Taking any amount of drugs won’t make me ride as fast as Landis, but it might give someone who is already training as hard as Landis the boost he needs to edge out a competitor. And there’s his incentive.

The difference in lifestyle between a first place finisher and a fifth place finisher is more exaggerated than the differing times it takes them to cross the finish line. Corporate money in sports is corrupting sport itself. And it’s the willingness to be bought, that most capitalist of virtues, that infects the players and brings the gods of physical performance down to our very human level.

Don’t believe me? Tell me (and without Googling it) who finished second to Lance in each of his seven Tour de France wins. Or, this year, who stood in the third place spot on the podium while Landis stood on top? We don’t know because OLN, Nike, Campagnolo, Phonak, Gerolsteiner, and everyone else who has money in sports reward one spot: the top of the podium.

What’s the answer to doping in sports? I don’t know… I don’t have an answer, but I think a worthy pursuit in life is to ask questions the answers to which cannot be Googled. It’s often useful just to articulate the problem, and that may be all we can do.

The growing popularity of single-speed rallies (Happy Fun Racing hosts one locally each year) and alleycats (five in the Triangle area so far in 2006) speaks to the growing uneasiness with the one-winner-one-reward paradigm. Weekend alleycats have traditional race elements, as does the Single Speed World Championship, but their rewards range from tattoos to messenger bags and bike parts, which are often distributed more democratically. They’re often more anti-race, and more fun.

The monthly Tuesday night Cruiser Ride – Carrboro’s social ride praising the virtues of low-tech and slow pace – is no race at all. It’s a creative reminder that riding a bike is supposed to be fun.

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