A cynic’s guide to doping in sport

We make athletes heroes at our peril. Athletes, for example, fix games. They cheat when they can. They can be cruel on the field – and off it, brutish; especially in their treatment of women. Just read the paper any day and be disappointed. But none of all these iniquities taken together, violates sport as drugs do alone. Athletics, like the other performing arts, is primarily a function of the body. Yes, it helps to understand well, the game you are playing, but, ultimately sports are physical. They require strength, speed, balance, hand-eye coordination, and often endurance. To succeed, the athlete must excel in at least one of these qualities, or even, in some cases, in an admixture of all.  …When athletes take performance-enhancing drugs they destroy that basic truth. Imagine if there were a drug that could improve a tenor’s or a soprano’s voice, so the notes were more pure. That would devalue all opera because the art would be false, the cognoscenti unable to trust what they would be hearing as true human beauty.    Think of that analogy with steroids and HGH (Human Growth Hormones) to sport. Frank Deford

Never a failed test. I rest my case. Tweet by Lance Armstrong in 2011

The tests are easy to beat. We’re way, way ahead of the tests. They’ve got their doctors, and we’ve got ours, and ours are better. Better paid, for sure. Besides, the UCI (Union Cycliste Internationale, the sport’s governing body) doesn’t want to catch certain guys anyway. Why would they? It’d cost them money. Tyler Hamilton quoted in the introduction to The Secret Race

If I told them what I know, then goodbye to the World Cup and European championship. A statement Doctor Eufemiano Fuentes (see below) in 2010, which he subsequently retracted


Andrei Kivilev, José Azevedo, Andreas Klöden and Levi Leipheimer. Unless you are a genuine cycling aficionado you probably won’t know most or indeed any of these names. They come from a counterfactual list of the  clean cyclists who would have won the Tour de France during Lance Armstrong’s seven-year reign Armstrong, as you probably know, was stripped of his seven triumphs by the US Anti-Doping Authority (USADA). The Texan cyclist who famously came back from testicular cancer, was a source of inspiration to millions, and has raised around half a billion dollars through his charities. He had never tested positive, but has now decided to stop fighting the charges against him. The list, which I found on a French cycling blog, must have been a complicated endeavour; it’s not a question of removing the Texan cyclist. You need to take out all the other cyclists who have been involved in doping. And of course this list is provisional, until the next scandal. One solution would be to wait ten years before announcing the winner of each Tour, although this would remove some of the excitement. The whole affair has been a subject for French schadenfreude. French-language tweeters have been joking about two of Armstrong’s famous compatriots and namesakes: Next we’ll learn that Neil Armstrong never walked on the moon and Louis couldn’t play the trumpet.

I decided to blog about this subject after I finished reading The Secret Race by Tyler Hamilton. The book’s subtitle gives you a clear idea of what the book is about. Inside the Hidden World of the Tour de France: Doping, Cover-ups and Winning at All Costs. The book provides a fascinating exposé of the dark underbelly of professional cycling. Hamilton was a teammate of Lance Armstrong during the 1999, 2000 and 2001 Tour de France and played a key role in his victories. Of course Hamilton may not be the most reliable narrator, having admitted to doping and been forced to give up the Olympic gold medal he won at Athens in 2004. This a problem when dealing with thee kinds of accusations – those making them may well be of dubious character and they may be benefitting legally and/or financially from their whistleblowing. But the story does ring true. Hamilton describes in detail the cloak-and-dagger operations of the cyclists to gain that competitive edge. Hof course it wasn’t just the cyclists. This was systemic abuse with a whole cast of shady characters including team coaches, doctors and UCI officials. One of the more disreputable characters in the book is Eufemiano Fuentes a doctor whose doping network among professional cyclists was investigated by the Spanish police Operación Puerto (Operation Mountain Pass) in 2006. More closely connected to Armstrong was another doctor, Michele Ferrari, who was given a lifetime sports ban by the USADA for numerous anti-doping violations

Hamilton, Armstrong and others took, first, testosterone, then the blood booster EPO (They had a nickname for it, Edgar, as in Edgar Alan Poe) before graduating to large-scale blood transfusions. The cyclists could have said no, but I can understand what motivated them. Economists have studied the problem of doping from the perspective of game theory – a Prisoner’s Dilemma-type interaction. Each athlete finds it optimal to take drugs; this results in a situation of generalized doping although each athlete would be better off if none of them doped

Doping is not confined to one period, country or sport. It went on at the time of Ancient Greece. In East Germany athletes did it for the greater glory of communism. And in the capitalist West it brings its practitioners fame and truckloads of money.

What is the harm? There are undoubtedly negative externalities. In Cheating in Contests a paper in the Oxford Review of Economic Policy, Preston and Szymanski listed four negative effects:

1)      It is damaging to athletes’ health

2)      It gives doped athletes an unfair advantage,

3)      It undermines interest in the sport,

4)      It undermines the reputation of a sport.

Julian Savulescu, a Romanian–Australian philosopher and bioethicist who teaches at Oxford University has a contrarian take on the doping issue. He contends that performance enhancement is the very DNA of sport and we should embrace drugs in sport rather than banning them. He believes that the sporting war on drugs is creating a climate of fear. How can we enjoy the spectacle if we don’t know who is clean and who isn’t? The ban is indeed bad for the health of the athletes. They currently use undetectable substances and methods with no medical supervision or responsibility. The type of doctors involved in the world of doping is of the most disreputable kind. Wouldn’t it be better if it was all above board? Honest athletes don’t have access to safe enhancement methods, giving cheaters all the competitive advantage.

When we talk about safety the risks of doping should be seen in the context of the risks entailed by many professional sports. The health argument is highly slippery; high level sport is just not conducive to health. I am not just talking about sports like boxing and American football. Tennis and soccer also put incredible strains on athletes’ bodies. Is medically supervised administration of steroids really much worse than the kind of risks many professional athletes face?

Savulescu does argue that the drugs should be consistent with the spirit of the sport in question and he does make some fine distinctions. Steroids do not give you some magical ability. What they do is enhance the effects of hard training and speed up recovery from injury. Steroids, growth hormone and blood doping actually mimic natural processes. However, in sports like archery and shooting, which test the athlete’s precision and accuracy, taking beta-blockers to reduce tremors would compromise the competition. It’s a moral minefield and in the future we may see gene doping, which is said to be undetectable.

There is one solution – create one league for athletes who dope and another for clean ones. Call me a cynic but I reckon the former would get higher television ratings, greater prestige, and ultimately larger financial rewards. We may pay lip service to the idea of purity in sport, but as spectators we want supermen battling it out. We pretend to be outraged about the stories of doping, but we are quite happy to play along and worship our heroes as long as we are not confronted with the truth.


2 Responses to A cynic’s guide to doping in sport

  1. As usual a very good and interesting post. Congratulations!

  2. Alberto says:

    I’ve already heard the two-league idea, but the sense of morals is also relevant. and I think few people would be interested in a competition in which all the players are deemed chaters.

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