Tuesday, August 4, 2009
Doping in Cycling: Do We Even Have the Right to Be Upset?
This year's Tour de France was billed by the ASO as a clean tour. If you are reading this blog, I don't have to detail and recap all of the wranglings prior to and during this Tour over doping and its prevention. Alas, a stage winner was caught using EPO in an out of competition test before the Tour (some test results take almost a month). My intent is not to comment on Astarloza's apparent doping violation (it is alleged until his "B" sample is tested), but rather to comment on the cycling community's reaction to doping.
Cycling has never been a "clean" sport. Anyone who reminisces about the "good old days" before doping hasn't been doing their history homework. Cheating has been rampant in the Tour de France since its inception. Originally, riders sabotaged each other (everything from tacks in the road to tinkering with each other's bikes) or found other conveyances to bring them to the finish faster than those who actually rode bicycles for the whole of the race. Drugs, either painkillers to dull the misery or amphetamine (cocaine also) to give the rider a super human charge have pervaded cycling culture since the very beginning. Furthermore for the majority of pro cycling's life span, usage of drug to enhance performance was not only acceptable, but encouraged.
Concern about drugs in cycling started in 1967 when Tom Simpson died on Mt. Ventoux from a combination of amphetamine, alcohol, dehydration and a stomach bug. Simpson's death marks the first time that the organizers of the Tour began paying lip service to prevention of doping. Their response? They dubbed the 1968 TdF as "The Tour of Health," while allowing the doping to continue unchecked.
Scandal has been heaped upon scandal. In the late 90's the Festina Affair revealed systematic doping, sanctioned from the top of the team down to the riders; everyone in between was complicit and the whole team was ejected from the tour. In 2006 the Floyd Landis had his win stripped only days after parading down the Champs d'Elysees and in 2007 Michael Rasmussen was thrown out of the Tour while wearing the yellow jersey.
So this year Astraloza won a stage of the Tour and then was discovered to have doped during his training. Are you really surprised? How can you be? I'd be more surprised to definitively learn that a winner of the Tour was not doping.
What about outrage, are you outraged that this behavior goes on? You shouldn't be. Protour cycling culture silently condones doping. Isn't this clear by now?
You haven't been in that culture so you don't know what you would do if you were put in the riders' situation. And you, as a fan of cycling, have no say in how those riders conduct themselves. What are you going to do, stop buying...I'll bet that you don't even know what product or service Astraloza's team is sponsored by.
Astraloza didn't dope to rip you off. He took a drug that improved his performance in a sport where many others are also taking similar drugs. Astraloza hurt his competitors and his sponsors; they are the ones who should be upset. Some competitors might speak up out of a sense of obligation to the public, but you'll hear venom from very few of them.
As other commentators have recently pointed out, cycling in Europe is much more working class than it is in the US. Many riders come from modest backgrounds and view pro cycling as a way out of terrible circumstances (think pro basketball here in the US).
How would you react if you were 18 years old, it was your first time away from home, your first time away from your parents and friends and you were given your first pro contract and sent to the team doctor who told you that you either have to dope or go back to your oppressive hometown and resume shoveling dung for a living. I suppose that you can tell me with absolute certainty that you'd stand on principle, that you'd turn down the contract, that you'd go home to shovel shit for the next 40 years, proud that you stood by your principles
Looking at doping as a moral transgression is simplistic and unrealistic. If cheating is part of the game, you cheat in order to play. Pro cycling is working hard to change this, but they are not there yet.
I don't condone doping in sport. But I also don't view it as black and white.