Wednesday, 24 October 2012

How do we stop doping in cycling? (Part 1)

Well, everybody must know by now about the downfall of Lance Armstrong.  Rather than being viewed as a hero and as an inspiration, he is now commonly being referred to as a cheat, bully, and fraud.  His sponsors have dropped him, his titles have been stripped, and he has been forced to step down as chairman of Livestrong.

Admittedly, it is sad time for me because he was a childhood hero, as he was for many others.  But unfortunately, he just was not the athlete we were lead to believe.  USADA's reasoned decision paints the true picture of who Amstrong was during those years; an athlete who wins at absolutely any cost.

Who is to blame?

Although Armstong is in the spotlight with regards to his drug use, it is not as though he introduced doping into the sport of cycling.  As early as the late 1800's, athletes were noted to be using cocaine, heroin, morphine among other drugs in the hopes of enhancing performance. 

In the mid 1900's, amphetamines came along.  Italian cyclists referred to them as la bomba, due to the drug's ability to mask fatigue, and help athletes push beyond their normal limits.    

Then in the 1980's, the wonder drug, EPO, came along.  It works by increasing the red blood cell content of your blood.  With a higher red blood cell count, your oxygen carrying capacity increases, and thus performance goes up.  The winner of the 1998 Tour de France, Marco Pantani, was thrown out of the '99 Giro D'Italia for a high hematorict level (to many red blood cells), pointing to EPO use. 

We also cannot forget the entire Festina scandal, in which the entire team was thrown out of the 1998 Tour de France due to EPO use.

So, was Armstrong the inventor of doping in the sport cycling?  Not even close.  Some evidence even points to the fact that he was pressured to dope, at least in part, because of the already rampant use of EPO and other doping methods.

Armstrong racing in 1993
"It's harder to race this year, cycling is harder now. In a year, I tell you, man. I hate to point fingers, and I'm not going to do that. But there are a lot of guys who are a lot better and a lot faster than last year," Armstrong said in a 1994 interview.

He couldn't keep up in 1994 the way he could the year before.  He did not say it was because there was doping, but he was insinuating something was up; what else could he be talking about given the sports' history?

At that point in time, Armstrong was faced with a dilemma.   He could choose to either fall into obscurity within the sport, or start to dope.  What else would an ultra-competitive, aggressive, and dominant personality-type chose?  It is not a stretch to speculate that his unrelenting, and almost unreasonable drive to succeed propelled him not only to start using illegal performance enhancing drugs, but to become the best user the sport has ever seen.

In his book, It's Not About the Bike, Armstrong stated that he, "tackled the problem of the Tour as if [he] were in math class, science class,chemistry class, and nutrition class, all rolled into one. [He] did computer calculations that balanced [his] body weight and [his] equipment weight with the potential velocity of the bike in various stages, trying to find the equation that would get [him] to the finish line faster than anybody else. [He] kept careful computer graphs of [his] training rides, calibrating the distances, wattages, and thresholds."  

In the same way he methodically attacked aerodynamics, equipment, nutrition, and training, USADA's reasoned decision makes it quite evident that he and his accomplices pursued doping with the same intensity.  

What Armstrong could have done

So Armstrong made some morally wrong decisions due to pressure of an existing doping culture.  Does this make him a victim?  The culture of cycling played into Armstrong's decision to dope; there is no doubt.  His unrelenting drive to win also factored in.  

That being said, it is unreasonable to suggest that every professional cyclist with a dominant personality-type had no choice but to use banned substances.  There was a third variable at play here; the fact that there was something in Armstrong's brain that decided winning was more important than playing by the rules.

He could have taken the high road and chosen to be a regular guy who is a good cyclist.  Take Scott Mercier for example; he walked away from cycling when confronted with drugs for the first time.  While it must have been impossibly hard to walk away form the sport, Mercier admits he feels better about it these days.

With regards to Armstrong being stripped of his accolades, along with his teammates also admitting to drug use, Mercier states, "It certainly gives me some validation for the decision I made.  It wasn't that I wasn't good enough, it was just that I made different choices. They talk about winning at all costs, but are you willing to push well beyond the limits?  I'm not, I think there's more to life than that. Sport should be a level playing field and it wasn't. It was who had the best team and resources and the best medicine and that wasn't the game I wanted to play."

Former pro-cyclist, Scott Mercier
Mercier did not want to leave the sport.  He wanted to compete.  It also is obvious that there was part of him that at least considered doping as an option.  

"I would see the likes of Tyler Hamilton and George Hincapie having great success in the Tour and wonder 'where would I have ended up?" Mercier explains.

There is no doubt that Mercier was conflicted.  He had the same drive to succeed that Armstrong possessed.  But, when that drive was confronted with the idea of cheating, he opted to step away from cycling.  Armstrong could have done the same when confronted with the challenges he faced in 1994.

Yes, there were other factors influencing what Armstrong did.  However, it is just plain ignorant  if one fails to acknowledge USADA's reasoned decision and view him as a victim of cycling culture.  At the end of the day, it was Armstrong's fault.

By the same token, I think it is equally ignorant to keep beating up on Armstrong thinking that it will help.  Cycling culture was deeply rooted in doping.  Yes, Armstrong dove head first into that culture and took it to a new level.  But he is not the inventor, and the solution stems much deeper than punishing him unnecessarily.  Heck, even Armstrong's enemies agree.

It is time to move forward to figure out a real solution.  A sport where there is no doping is something I think everybody would be happier with.  Now it is just a matter of how to get there.

So what is the solution?

First of all, it is clear that what we are doing now is not enough.  After all, the UCI claims to have tested Armstrong a total of 218 times.  None of these tests were positive for doping.  There are two explanations for this:

  • Somehow, there actually have been no positive tests
  • Any positive tests that were found were subsequently covered up
In all likelihood, it is a combination of the two options.  The tests are flawed, there's no doubt there.  For instance, other then measuring the density of your red blood cells, EPO is very difficult to detect directly. So what is preventing athletes from doping up to the legal limit?

That aside, there is good reason to believe that the testers are also corrupt.  The UCI has long been criticized by three time Tour de France winner, Greg LeMond.  The UCI has also pushed to silence LeMond, and have not been successful in doing so. 

In an interesting story, LeMond's wife, Kathy LeMond,  testified under oath that $500,000 was paid to then UCI president, Hein Verbruggen, to get rid of a positive Armstrong test.

Most recently, Tyler Hamilton has called for Pat McQuad to step down as UCI president, claiming  hypocrisy among the union, and describing the sports inability to regulate itself.  

How do we fix this ongoing issue?  That is what I will discuss with my next post.  What are your thoughts on a potential solution?

Also, check out this article published in the British Journal of Sports Medicine, which discusses why doping should be legalized.  Is this a plausible solution in your mind?

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