Well, seeing as how it is Tour time, doping scandals seem to be part of the scenery in July. This year is no different, first because of the Wall Street Journal’s article “Blood Brothers” which ran on Saturday during the prologue, and now because Rudy Pevenage has admitted to helping Jan Ulrich dope with Dr. Efumiano Fuentes, he of Operacion Puerto infamy.
I know what many must be thinking. . .that perhaps the admissions and info provided by Floyd Landis has somehow created a critical mass and more admissions will follow. That perhaps Ulrich himself will make good on his promise to one day “reveal what he did during his career.” It would be the best thing for the sport because finally the UCI and others will be forced to admit that if there is not a problem now in 2010, at least there was only a few short years ago. But all I can say is let’s not get our hopes up just yet, because one can never, ever, underestimate the power of omerta and the denial of the officials and many fans. There is a mountain of admissions, positive tests, circumstantial, and physiological data, but in spite of all this evidence many still believe either that the sport was never that dirty, or “that was then, this is now,” meaning with the biological passport suddenly things have changed.
The normalization of doping
You can click back to Cyclingnews.com for the details, but perhaps most telling is Pevenage’s quote in the title of this post—”It was a normal thing to do.” He admits that not once did he feel like he was doing anything wrong. Mind you, this is exactly what many dopers repeat again and again, including Landis. He has expressed no regret for doping, and instead he saw it only as the necessary next step to climb to the top of his profession. When illicit activities like taking hormones and infusing blood, which most of us express huge inhibitions to, suddenly become the status quo, you know you have a problem. This is the effect of a sport’s “culture,” and before we get beaten again with the science stick (!), let me reiterate again that to understand fully doping in sport, one must consider all the angles, even the “social science of sport.” The physiology is indeed a large part of the doping, but there are always many other angles that contribute to the entire picture.
Instead of cyclists being inhibited and choosing not to dope, for those wishing to reach the pinnacle or for those wishing to merely survive, doping is an entirely acceptable option. It is the normal thing to do. And until cycling—and all sports, mind you—can change that culture and that mentality, doping will persist, sometimes in epidemic proportions, although any doping at all is unacceptable. Michael Shermer’s application of Game Theory to the doping situation best summarizes it. Until the negative consequences of doping are larger than the positive consequences of doping, it will persist as a behaviour in sport, primarily because right now there is still little risk of being caught and the benefits in the form of larger salaries, more endorsement deals, and renewed contracts, far outweighr the risks of getting caught. And even getting caught is not the end of the world—just look at Ivan Basso’s and Alexandre Vinokourov’s mostly trouble-free returns to cycling.
How responsible are the coaches?
On another note, this brings up a question that has been asked before regarding the complicity of coaches and/or managers. Typically the athletes test positive and suffer the consequences while the support staff are rarely implicated. This has changed in the past few years as some coaches in athletics have been banned from the sport. Most recently, Jamaican and four-time Olympian Raymond Stewart has been banned for life for buying banned substances from a supplier for his athletes, and previously Trevor Graham and Remy Korchemny have been given “life sentences” from their sport.
But is should be noted that these individuals were banned because it was shown they had a role in physically securing the drugs. and the larger question is even if a coach cannot be proven to have a role in buying the drugs, yet a string of his or her athletes test positive. . .how complicit is the coach? Can they be held accountable at all? It is a very gray area, and perhaps difficult to argue as it means the coach must now take some responsibility for another individual’s actions. However one might argue that if this is the case, then perhaps it might serve to deter doping or also might encourage third-party drug testing by teams and coaches, thus adding an additional layer of scrutiny outside of the organizing bodies.
Vive le Tour
In the mean time, the tour this year has produced some great, if not controversial, racing. Stage 3′s finish on the Arenberg cobbles, while not a favorite of the riders, cracked the race open and produced dramatic results from Cancellara reclaiming the yellow jersey to Andy Schleck and Cadel Evans riding themselves back into contention before the first mountain stage on Saturday. And speaking of the weekend, what’s a sporting fan to do? Between the Tour de France and the last two World Cup matches, I hope your Tivo is working!