I have problems with doping in cycling. Well, I have problems with the topic of doping. My primary problem is that I don’t think I care enough about it, or at least I don’t care about the correct aspects of doping. I tend to only care about doping when it involves a major, current, winning athlete. Or Lance Armstrong. This is not the appropriate attitude for a fan of the sport and a recreational cyclist to have, or to publically admit, but it is true. I do not know every rider or their history after following cycling for the last couple of years so what may be a bigger story to most may be lost on me. I am against doping and consider it to be cheating. I also feel that a certain amount of people in any endeavor will cheat the rules in some way, so I think that I am not surprised when a number of riders test positive each year. Disappointed, but not surprised. My real hope is that the sport makes it through each year without a big name or race winning rider testing positive. That is the type of story that will get picked up by the larger media and do more damage to cycling’s image. Any other cyclist will probably be covered in cycling specific media and be ignored by mainstream sources.
Lance Armstrong is a special case. He ruined cycling’s image in America and set it back decades. He became famous for winning the Tour de France seven times and then managed to use his “confession” to try to enhance his fame. I’ve written about him before so I won’t go into it again here, but I do tend to sit up and take notice when there is a new development in his case. I wish I wouldn’t, but I get drawn it even after so much time has passed.
I have other problems with doping. Two of these problems can be illustrated by two recent stories. The first is Michael Rogers’ explanation of his positive test for clenbuterol following the Tour of Beijing. Rogers claim is that he unknowingly ate meat tainted with the drug, citing the World Doping Agency’s admission that there may be an issue with any local meat in China. While the drug is banned in China there is continued use in agriculture.
This story is interesting to me because of my background in the environmental field. One of the areas I do a large amount of work in is waste characterization and site assessment. You would be amazed at the amount of hazardous materials you come into contact with on a daily basis. If your house was built before the late 1970s you might have lead paint on some of the woodwork and polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) in your window caulk. You might still have PCBs in your house if you have fluorescent lighting. They can be in the ballasts that regulate the electricity in the light fixtures. You probably have asbestos in your floor tiles as well. There is even more risk of exposure once you leave your house. There is almost no clean soil left anywhere anymore. If you live in the city you probably have your neighborhood built on something called urban fill. It is soil that typically has a high level of metals and other inorganic contaminates polluting it. Things are no better in the suburbs. Most of the soil used to level building sites there came from farms if it didn’t come from urban projects. That means that you might have high levels of herbicides and pesticides in your soil. On top of all of that, if the soil in your yard or around your apartment is near a road you have trace amounts of gasoline, oil, and other run off from the traffic. There is also the matter of lead contamination if you live anywhere near a metal bridge that was painted in the 1970s or earlier. Here in New England even pristine land in the mountains that has seen little human interference still has amazing high levels of naturally occurring arsenic.
I do not know the levels of clenbuterol in Rodgers’ system or if his claim of tainted meat consumption would be plausible based on those results but I can see how it might be. Even Chinese Olympic athletes have claimed that their own government warned them away from pork prior to the games. What I find more interesting is what this might mean moving forward. Cycling has a banned substance policy that takes effect once any amount of a substance is detected. As the testing becomes more and more sensitive will some athletes be caught because of inadvertent ingestion? Clenbuterol cannot be the only chemical that might be consumed in low levels by accident. At some point will the World Anti-Doping Agency have to determine when a chemical is effective? I completely agree with a zero tolerance policy on doping, but should we prosecute athletes that are not gaining a competitive advantage just because they have accidentally ingested a banned substance? I am asking these questions because I truly do not have an answer or the knowledge required to start to form one. A large part of the problem of the conversation on doping is the high level of chemistry and biology knowledge that is required to understand the topic. Most laymen, I among them, just don’t understand the questions enough to formulate answers. Maybe that is the origin of the Zero Tolerance Policy.
The second story that has me caring more about doping is the case of David LeDuc. LeDuc is a 62 year old man that that tested positive after the USA Cycling Master’s Championship. He admitted to using three banned substances though he had medical explanations for two of them. I am fascinated and horrified by the thought of a man old enough to be a grandfather doping to win bicycle races. Yes, he was competing for a national championship, but he is still 62 years old. What drives him to dope? The article points to older racers trying to remain relevant, but I am not sure that is the only reason.
The cycling culture has developed a strange double standard regarding doping. We castigate athletes that are caught using a banned substance. We clamor for their proverbial head and want them stripped of their wins. Long in depth articles are written about them in Bicycling Magazine, asking questions of an athlete’s motivation and moral compass. But printed right next to the article is an advertisement for a nutritional supplement that mirrors blood doping results. Competitive cyclists seem to gravitate toward anything that can help their performance, including supplements. Most cycling magazines are full of tips to elevate your personal best achievements, and for many, supplements are part of their program. Cyclists will spend a lot of time trying different supplements and seeing how they affect their performance and recovery. There is a belief that you are not competing if you aren’t focusing on every aspect of your cycling program. Training, nutrition, form, equipment, and supplements all share a role in the complete cyclist’s toolkit. There seems to be a thin line between what is allowed and encouraged versus what is a banned substance. Part of the line is if something is a drug or if it is all natural, but what would happen if some supplement was as effective as EPO? Would it be added to the banned substance lists? Part of my problem with doping is not really understanding why something is banned. Some substances are easy to understand. Amphetamines? Yes, banned. Blood transfusions? Fairly obvious as well. But danger to the athlete is not the sole reason for banning a substance, the substance must increase performance. Should a very effective supplement be banned as well? When is a supplement too effective?
I think the biggest problem I have with doping is that it is so much more complicated that it appears to be on the surface. The motivation of a professional cyclist to dope and a banned substance list is just the surface. It is easy to say that you are against doping, but harder to make calls when there may be an accidental positive like the Rodgers case. It is also easy to say that doping cyclists know they are cheating and there is something wrong with their moral compass. It is a little harder to have a blanket statement if you say that over your own supplement cocktail that isn’t a banned substance. Yet. I am not writing this as an excuse for doping, just the opposite. I really would like to see more of these issues talked about. If we can start a conversation maybe we can start to change some gray areas to black or white.
What do you think about doping? Supplements? Accidental positives?
Joe, great comments on doping. I worked as an environmental guy for one short year (wasn’t for me), but my eyes were opened to groundwater and soil contamination. It seems that everything is contaminated with something. Hell, they are even discovering new compounds in water that they never knew existed before, but it gets in our crops because the irrigation water has it. Old fireworks factories used to dump their waste into sand pits…if it went into the ground, the thinking went, it was all gone. Nope, it’s now in our water supply.
On doping, I agree that we need to be careful with the zero tolerance when we don’t know the effective doses for chemicals in the body. A big problem with past doping is that the UCI and WADA set arbitrary levels of some chemicals (ie. hematocrit of 50%), which set the EPO playing field and favored riders like Armstrong (unknowingly) who had more room to dope up to 50% than others. That’s why the “everyone was doping so it was a level playing field” is such crap. If you were naturally at 48%, you could not dope much, but if you were naturally at 43%, EPO was a huge helper for you.
The other side of doping is trust. Every doping story, especially Armstrong’s confession, has eroded the trust that riders have with the public and the cycling community. So when Rogers claims tainted meat for his positive result, most just laugh and say, “yeah right, buddy.” That’s just the way it is right now, total suspicion.
Anyway, great comments on doping. Thanks for sharing.
You certainly gave us a lot to think and talk about. Hope this gets the conversation started.