I know about as much about professional cycling as I do about Riemannian manifolds. That is to say, not a lot. But I don’t understand something that seems perfectly obvious to most people who are fans of the sport: why shouldn’t cyclists dope?
Before I go any further, let me be clear. I know perfectly well why Lance Armstrong et al. shouldn’t have doped. Every sport has some set of arbitrary rules. In football, both feet must land inside a line for a catch to count. In tennis, a serve is faulted when a foot touches the baseline. There were rules, and Armstrong and the team knowingly broke them.
Here is one of the saddest comings clean that I’ve read. Levi Leipheimer, a cyclist of whom I’ve never heard, tells the world the truth that he couldn’t tell for years. He doped. But it wasn’t really his fault. But he takes responsibility. But he couldn’t do otherwise. But he admits it.
Having made sacrifices for my dream, several years after I turned pro, I came to see cycling for what it was: a sport where some team managers and doctors coordinated and facilitated the use of banned substances and methods by their riders. A sport where the athletes at the highest level—perhaps without exception—used banned substances. A sport where doping was so accepted that riders from different teams—who were competitors on the road—coordinated their doping to keep up with other riders doing the same thing.
I regret that this was the state of affairs in the sport that we love and I chose as my career. I am sorry that I was forced to make the decisions I made. I admit that I didn’t let doping deter me from my dream. I admit that I used banned substances.
I know that learning this will disappoint many of my fans and friends and I am sorry that the sport and I have let you down.
Right or wrong, in my mind the choice was “do it or go home.” For me that was not a choice.
People will be disappointed and say I was wrong, that I should have chosen differently, and am just making excuses. I made the decision I made. I don’t offer this description of the sport as an excuse, simply as an explanation of the context and reason for my decision. I won’t lie about it—I have to own it—I accept responsibility for my decision.
I could have come forward sooner. But would that have accomplished anything—other than to end my career? One rider coming forward and telling his story in the face of cycling’s code of silence would not have fixed a problem that was institutional.
Emphasis mine. Dude. You were not stealing a crust of bread to feed your family. You were riding a bicycle. You had a choice. My guess is, if you had named Lance Armstrong as a ringleader in a doping conspiracy, you might have drawn a bit of attention.
But I digress.
There was a debate recently in the New York Times about whether doping should be banned. Frankly, the reasons raised against it in the debate don’t seem all that compelling.
The reasons against it are 1) we should have a level playing field, 2) it’s unnatural and in sport we are celebrating human achievement, and 3) they are harmful.
We don’t have a level playing field with the substances banned because some people are taking them and some are not. And we don’t know who is and who is not. If they were permitted, we would have, if anything, a more level playing field.
The natural/unnatural distinction also seems a bit arbitrary. We wouldn’t mind if someone went on a fairly extreme diet that seemed to aid performance. We wouldn’t mind bicycle or clothing innovations that aid performance, which are certainly unnatural. Some of the doping substances are actually natural, such as human growth hormone, testosterone, or blood transfusions.
Here is a list of the doping techniques apparently used by the cyclists. I am no doctor, and maybe the doctor who is my co-clogger and best friend in the whole wide world might want to weigh in. But it seems to me that this list, while not innocuous, is not crazy crazy harmful. This op-ed in the New York Times suggests that one of the items on the list, erythropoietin, is a witch’s brew that will kill you deader than hemlock. I have no idea if this is right. I checked Google scholar for recent studies. The vast majority suggested protective or therapeutic effects of erythropoietin on various heart, brain, and blood disorders. One exception was this study, which suggested that if you already have cancer, venous thromboembolism and mortality are increased with erythropoietin.
In any case, we seem to accept significant risk to our football players, hockey players, figure skaters, ski jumpers, and pole vaulters, to name a few. In fact, these sports seem to pose much greater risk. Why is doping for cycling different?
In short, I don’t see a reason why, from this point forward anyway, cyclists shouldn’t dope for all their races I won’t watch.