Despite Gerolsteiner’s Bernard Kohl being caught taking drugs at the 2008 Tour de France, 98% of riders are managing to ride clean. So why isn't anyone saying so? Is the obsession with bad news starting to hurt cycling more than the acts of drug-abuse themselves?
If you let it, being a cycling writer can be depressing – especially when your wife hands you your morning coffee (I do take my turn!) and announces that a certain Bernard Kohl, winner of the King of the Mountain’s Competition at the 2008 Tour de France has joined Messrs Ricco, Piepoli and Schumacher on the list of riders who, after a lengthy period on the naughty stair, deserve a public whipping, and period in the stocks.
In a simply worded statement, emotionally quote at odds with the conflagration that will surely ensue, the French anti-doping agency AFLD stated this week: "The AFLD confirms that its laboratory at Chatenay-Malabry has found two abnormal samples showing the presence of EPO Cera in blood tests done on 3 and 15 July, before and during the Tour de France, on Austrian cyclist Bernard Kohl."
Your first thought, coupled with watching your pension fund dwindle in the financial crisis, is to wonder if certain cyclists and bankers share a common death wish as far as their respective careers and industries are concerned. Maybe Kohl was desperate to supplement his own shrinking pension fund, and buy some orthodontic treatment, but to defecate on your sport and your colleagues is heinous and the act of a very stupid man.
Before we embark on another round of self-flagellating let’s stop and ask ourselves, as grave as these discoveries are for the reputation of the sport, is the process of hunting down and revealing every incident of drug-abuse harming the sport as much as curing it?
Are we perhaps allowing these cheats too much publicity? And is the way the crusade to eliminate drug abuse is being conducted as damaging to the sport and its participants as the acts of abuse being revealed?
They say the best deterrent against crime is a 100% detection rate. This, of course pre-supposes that all crimes that occur are known, so of course the authorities talk about a 100% clear-up rate instead - not the same thing at all. Some authorities, desperate to make their figures look good, have the habit of either changing the definition of a crime or simply not recording crime in the first place – no crime, no reason to clear it up. Others have the tendency to invent ever more crimes to make themselves look tough, but when you look at the so-called crimes – putting paper in with glass at the re-cycling point, for example – it can make the authorities look ever more over-bearing and controlling, not to say petty. And pettiness leads to resentment and rebellion.
Where then do the anti-doping agencies and the sports bodies they are trying to protect fit in the spectrum of crime fighting agencies? Depending on your perspective they could be the caped-crusader riding to the rescue of an embattled sport, a bumbling Inspector Clouseau trampling over the crime scene, or the Gestapo Mk2. Certainly, nobody could fault them for dogged enthusiasm. Nor can one say that they are inventing more crimes – doping is the crime – though with the discovery of EPO Cera the implementation of the crime is changing all the time.
We must all support their efforts, because there is no question that drug-cheats must be found and removed from the sport. Nobody who lives by the rules of fairness can tolerate the use of drugs to enhance performance, not least because it is perceived as using “artificial” aids to gain advantage whilst at the same time enticing others to do the same against their will. The concept of a drugs-free sport is the last vestige of the very British definition of "amateurism". This concept, which once even regarded “training” as against the spirit of sport, believed that an athlete must be true to themselves and their natural abilities, unenhanced and unadorned.
It means that my response to learning about another rider being had up for doping is very mixed. Depending who it is, I feel like slapping them for sheer stupidity, kicking them for arrogance, or simply tarring and feathering them for being frankly someone who deserved to be caught.
There is another feeling too, which is trampled by the stampede of recrimination, and that is the sheer frustration that someone who is already at the top of their game should seek to effectively gild the lily. It’s like Michelangelo putting a smile on Venus de Milo. It makes you want to wrest the chisel from his hand and use if for an altogether different purpose. It goes for Kohl et al. They are great sportsmen, with abilities that you and I could only dream of. Yet instead of remaining gods they have become base mortals, with every achievement tarnished – fools one and all!
Exposing the cheats is important, and there is nothing to be gained from hiding bad news. A consequence of too much "mea culpa" however is that while the UCI and others bathe in the righteous glow that comes with revealing sin, they are missing the fact bad news is often the only news about cycling that the main-stream press publishes at any given time outside the month of July.
Most people are adult enough to accept that some athletes will always try it on, but the focus on drugs at the expense of any other news is beginning to undermine the entire reputation of the sport to the point that it’s like going from accepting that occasionally you will be given a fake coin or note in your change, to starting to feel that by and large most of the coins or notes in your wallet are fakes – you just can’t tell.
The question is this: is the public perception fair? Doping maybe the cause célèbre in sports, but let’s remind ourselves about the point of the headline to this article: as bad as this news is, Kohl and Co. account for just 2% of the Tour de France Peloton. Read that again: TWO PERCENT. The cynical might say, “that’s 98% who haven’t been caught yet”, in which case I suggest you give up watching sport and rake stones in a Zen garden because you’ll never be satisfied until you have achieved perfection.
Certainly those on the competitive side of the sport, such as the Directeur Sportif of a top team I spoke to recently, feel that the attitude towards drugs had become so hysterical that it is just about impossible to have a sensible discussion about drugs. His assertion wasn’t that we have got it all wrong about doping, but that in the quest to eliminate it, commonsense and discretion have been effectively outlawed, and the public now believe there is no possible excuse for taking drugs – not under any circumstances. By this he means that the idea that the use of drugs for therapeutic benefits is complete anathema to the regulatory culture. It is the same attitude the public has developed towards knives – all are bad, no excuses, so fisherman, hikers, and 80 year-old pipe smokers are banged up without mercy – until someone wakes up to reality.
He gave two particular examples. First was EPO. One of its therapeutic uses is in treating anaemia, particulalry when caused by cancer treatments. While your average professional cyclist probably isn’t suffering from cancer, anaemia is still a common problem for endurance athletes, often caused by the constant dehydration/rehydration cycle athletes endure during training and competition. The normal treatment is to give iron supplements. That might be OK for your average sedentary office worker but what professional athlete has the luxury of taking two or three months off to recover. The implication from the DS is that just as the professional athletes are at the extreme end of human activity, perhaps so should be the acceptable methods of protecting and repairing them. This might actually mean that occasionally a little EPO might be the right treatment and in turn may prevent a worse problem.
The other example my DS contact mentioned was Salbutamol, which is typically used to treat the symptoms of asthma. He cites the case of Alessandro Pettachi, 320ng/l above the 1000ng/l limit stated by the WADA. In layman’s terms that’s about one puff too many on his Ventolin inhaler.
Many laugh at this – one of the world’s top sprinters with asthma – “what a joke”, they say. Maybe Petacchi is taking the proverbial Mickey, but I also know someone who did the Toulouse marathon in 3 hours with sciatica and a Ventolin inhaler in his back pocket. As for the extra puff on a Ventolin inhaler, I am assured that do it once, and you’ll never do it again. Unless Petacchi knew something the medics didn’t, he was actually reducing the size of his performance envelope with the extra puff not expanding it, and was increasing substantially his chance of collapse from heat stress.
Now that’s just two, albeit high profile, drugs which have caught the headlines. Many of you may say, as does the UCI and the other sporting bodies, that the situation is simple – like speeding – just don’t speed, i.e. don’t take drugs. It is, however, the sort of over-simplistic thinking that leads some to believe that driving at 29mph past a school at chucking out time is just dandy, while passing at 31 mph at 5am on a Sunday morning is a hanging offence.
Whatever your view at least on the road there is a speedometer to make it obvious when you are getting it wrong. Athletes don’t have it quite so easy. Take a look at the International Olympic Committee’s (IOC’s) list of banned/restricted substances, here. I’ll save you counting them – there are 482 with more added all the time. The list mentions EPO and amphetamines, but it also contains things like throat lozenges and anti-itch cream. An athlete walking into a pharmacy armed with this list would be lucky to get out with a tube of toothpaste – and depending which brand, not even that.
Maybe avoiding being naughty may be less of an issue than it appears, but I have to say that while sticking a needle in your arm (and insulin is included in the list) is not something you do by accident, being accused of doping because you took too many of those lozenges you bought in Tokyo airport looks way too easy.
In fact, the more you read about doping, the more you feel that the only way to avoid being caught eventually is to stick to a diet of boiled rice and distilled water. It’s now no longer possible to be a top-flight competitor simply by being a naturally gifted athlete because you have to surround yourself with so many experts to protect you from making the simplest mistakes – like buying the wrong brand of ibuprofen or cough medicine. Compared with the challenges off surviving professionally off the bike, racing must be a cinch.
Now let’s go back to the 98% of athletes at the Tour de France who are clean. We can only salute the self-discipline of these athletes. The temptation to abuse drugs must be so great especially when you see that all those taking drug are winning stages at the Tour de France.
But, just because they are drugs-free doesn’t mean we shouldn’t be concerned about what is happening to these young bodies? It is oft stated that professional cycling is so hard on the body that each Tour de France takes a year off your life. My assumption is that the damage that leads to this doesn’t suddenly occur 20 years after retirement, but systematically, day after day during a cyclist’s career.
What needs to be acknowledged is that seeking out and punishing the perpetrators can’t overshadow the need to protect athletes from themselves, and mitigate the effect the sport has on them during and post their careers. The authorities have to be open to the idea that creating a climate of fear over being caught for the more trivial offences can inadvertently push athletes to take greater risks, first by not taking treatment early when it could prevent problems, and then later resorting to more extreme measure like abusing EPO.
While the main drive against drug abuse has to come from teams and team-mates there is also a great responsibility on the UCI, WADA, and the AFLD et al, to go beyond contributing to simplistic headlines with announcements that another doper has been discovered. They have to adopt the role of mentor as much as disciplinarian. It’s all very well being all fundamentalist about the issue, but these bodies need to do more to show they are recognising and tackling the underlying causes of doping – not just the greed and arrogance which I readily admit accounts for much doping, but the desperation and ignorance, the pain and life-shortening brutal existence of the professional cyclist.
It means too that rehabilitating athletes to be role models is as important as catching and punishing them. Every athlete who dopes is potentially an athlete who can show the flipside of doping. David Millar is an example of this going from cheater to leader of a team which, as team-mate Magnus Backstedt puts it, is a breath of fresh air in the sport with its approach to the pastoral care of riders. And on the subject of teams, maybe it is time to acknowledge that cycling is a team sport and move away from the cult of the individual to one based on overall team performance. Sweetspot is doing just this with their inaugural Tour Series in the UK next year.
The public too needs to be helped to understand more about the problem – with facts. Instead of listing item after banned item, tell us why each item is banned, tell them the effect and the actual levels of performance enhancement. I think the public will be surprised that strepsils don’t actually turn an athlete into a Superman or Wonder Woman, unless they were one already.
Sure, threading the needle between success and failure is what sport is all about, but some balance has to be found. It can’t all be about taking one puff or two, one lozenge or the whole packet. Sure, we want athletes to play on a level field, but not if it means burying sport in a quagmire of bad publicity and unrealistic goals in the process.
All of us have to remember that the two most important groups of people in cycle-sport are the athletes and the spectators. Everyone else; sports ministers, regulators, race organisers, drug testers, journalists, owe their living to these two groups. It is something that we should all remember each time one of us issues a press release, writes a headline or makes a new rule – a perfect sport can end up not being sport at all.
WADA (World Anti-Doping Agency)
WADA list of banned substances and prohibited practices
AFLD (L’Agence Française de Lutte Contre le Dopage)