Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Doping and pro cycling

Now that El Pistolero is back, there seems to be a great division among cycling fans about whether or not he cheated, he should be banned, etc. etc.

Until recently, I have been a very vocal proponent of banning dopers, on grounds that they are cheating.  However, while I do think cycling needs to be cleaned up, my view on the whole doping situation is becoming less black and white, and that merely punishing whoever gets caught doping is not going to be sufficient to clean up the sport.

This was brought to a head by this article on Velonews:

This particular line caught my eye:
"Even if I came back, cycling would still be the same, poorly managed, with the leadership continuing to do what they want, applying rules as they wish."

I'll get back to this quote in a second but park it in your mind for now.   

The starting point for this whole change in my thinking came about after reading the full transcript of the interview between Floyd Landis and Paul Kimmage here:

If you are a fan of pro cycling, you need to read this with an open mind - not to judge but to understand how things are in the pro peloton.    Particularly telling to me was Landis's brutally honest comment that if he had to do it again, he would still dope - but would only change his response if/when caught.    

To me, this and other comments like it during the interview, indicate a man who is finally getting the monkey off his back and laying open the "dirty secrets" of pro cycling.

But is it really a "dirty secret", atleast as far as pros are concerned?   In the pro circuit, doping seems to be commonplace.     Read Paul Kimmage's book.  Read Joe Parkin's book.   Read David Walsh.   All indicate a culture where performance-enhancing drugs are a part of daily routine - and that the only change that has come about due to the efforts of WADA and others is to push this daily routine into secrecy.

As WADA and other anti-doping agencies impose new testing regimens, the doping methodology changes.  Put in controls on EPO and hemocrit levels?  No problems, the doping methodology shifts to micro-doses.   And so on.

The fact of the matter is - doping is a prevalent and integral part of cycling, whether you like it or not.   

The fact of the matter also is - most dopers don't get caught for their actual doping.  Most of the big names have been busted via other methods:  missing tests or lying about their location (Rassmussen), having their names show up in the papers of doctors busted for dealing in EPO and the like (Basso), etc. etc.   

When doping is common in the peloton, it is normal for any committed rider to also be tempted to dope.  Let's say you are promising young rider and you have the engine that could win you a Grand Tour or a couple of Classics.    However, the only thing that comes in the way is the fact that most of the other top riders are using EPO or blood bags or HGH or whatever.   Do you stay clean and lose out on the chance to be top dog? 

Hell no. There is a difference between doing something illegal that no one else does, and leveling the playing field by doing the same thing everyone else is doing.    

It is easy to sit back and state that you wouldn't cheat.  However, if any of you have played competitive sports at a high level, you know the amount of effort and commitment that goes into it, and are more likely to see the lure of the "they all do it, so I can do it" line of justification.   

I played squash at the national level in college, and while I was certainly middling in terms of skill and had no particular great hopes of being an elite pro, I know that if everyone else on the team was doping to improve their game, I'd be in line to get the same shots as them.

Judging by all the first-hand accounts I've read of cycling, most pros - barring a few notable exceptions - are the same.  They are human beings who have dedicated their whole life to achieving excellence in a sport that is not known for money - and they are tempted to "level the playing field", either to continue eking out their low-paying living in a job that they love, or to attain prominence that would otherwise be denied them.

And add to that a UCI which is notoriously bureaucratic and inept.   Pat McQuaid is the worst thing to happen to professional cycling.   Here is someone whose first reaction to Landisgate last year was to actually lash out and attack Landis's credibility instead of focusing on the content of the allegations.   Here is someone who passed the buck on the Contador ruling to the Spanish Federation, who tried to cover up Lance Armstrong's donation, etc. etc.  That list is endless.   His someone sole obsession seems to be with maintaining status quo and preventing any upsets of the apple cart, rather than trying to clean up the sport.   

Hell, for that matter, what is a 1-year ban for Contador?   I personally do believe his story (all the balanced articles I have read, including expert opinions, indicate this - even Velonews, which is usually quite unbiased, has pointed out that the Spanish Federation's report in acquitting him is quite reasonable;  other sportsmen have also been cleared of this charge recently), in which case he should have been cleared.  

If he WAS guilty, he should have gotten 2 years.  Wtf is a 1 year sentence?   Either he is guilty - in which case 2 years - or he is not, in which case, 0 years.    Why a different interpretation of the rules for him?   If it was Joe Domestique, think it would be 1 year?   Nope, not a chance.

And remember the case of Lance testing positive for testosterone (or something, forget what) in one of the TdFs, for which he produced a doctor's prescription post-fact?     That was accepted b/c it was Lance - had it been Joe Domestique again, think they would have let it slide?   Again, nope - not a chance.

So what we have is a system which perpetuates itself, which has unfortunate trickle-down consequences on other riders, where star riders are favored and where there is no real incentive to ride clean.

No wonder riders dope.   And no wonder Pelizotti is so disgusted, and Landis is so upset.  Wouldnt you be, if you were caught and punished for doing something that is commonplace, which everyone else does and which you pretty much HAD to do in order to stay in the sport?

So where does that leave us?

What I don't agree with the logic that "everyone dopes, so it should be made legal" either.   It takes away from the beauty and purity of the sport, for one, and second, it artificially levels the playing field too much if all riders have a hemocrit level of 49.9 and so on.

Moreover, the "level playing field" option dangerously trickles down into the amateurs.    When pros dope, the pro-aspirant riders also have to dope in order to perform well against them and be noticed.  When the pro-aspirant riders dope, so do the other high pro/am riders that ride against them.  And then so do the riders that want to compete against top amateurs and so on.

To be honest, as long as doping is so prevalent, nothing can be done to clean it up short of getting rid of all current pro cyclists and start with a fresh lot, aged, say 6.   After all, even if you take a group of clean riders and put them in the pro peloton, they will face the same pressures to dope that their predecessors did, and with the same outcome.

So how do you clean up cycling?  It has to be through testing technology, and by controlling the supply/availability of drugs.   And by imposing extremely high penalties on the doctors who sell such drugs illegally.   There is no other way.