Peter Shelton

To Dope or not to Dope: That Is the Question

Posted in More Sport, Watch columns by pshelton on August 18, 2012

Top-level road cycling cannot seem to escape the specter of doping.

Just last month, Luxemburg’s Frank Schleck was withdrawn by his team from the Tour de France after testing positive for Xipamide, a banned diuretic that can be used to help flush other banned substances from an athlete’s system.

And then, of course, there’s the seemingly endless drama of Lance Armstrong’s legal battle with the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency, USADA, which, depending on your perspective is either a persecution or a necessary catharsis for the sport.

Armstrong is retired. Schleck, along with his brother Andy, was due to race in this month’s USA Pro Cycling Challenge across the mountains of Colorado. Frank will not be making the trip; Andy will. (Andy inherited the Tour de France crown in 2010 when nominal winner Alberto Contador was stripped of the title for doping.)

There will be drug testing at the Pro Challenge. And there will be riders participating whose names are currently under drug-related clouds.

Race Director Jim Birrell said his organization “works closely with UCI (the International Cycling Union, the sport’s governing body) and, yes, every day we will be testing the General Classification (overall) leader, that day’s stage winner, and two other riders picked at random.”

Within an hour of the race finish each of these four will meet with the Doping Control Officer and be asked to give a urine or a blood sample. “You don’t know ahead of time which it will be,” Birrell said.

Neither do you know what substances doping control will be looking for. “They don’t tell you,” Birrell repeated. They don’t tell you, because, as Tom Murray, chair of the ethics panel for the World Anti-Doping Agency, told me, “The contest is more even now” between those who would cheat (and their doctors and chemists) and those who would catch them cheating. “USADA and WADA have changed the landscape,” Murray said. “They are making a difference. They have funding now to conduct research, but there’s still an edge for the outlaws.”

Why dope? Because given the intensely competitive nature of sport at the highest levels, and the very small differences in physical and mental ability among top athletes, a drug or a procedure that can improve your time by even 1 or 2 percent is an immense temptation.

Murray, who has been studying ethical issues around performance-enhancement for 30 years at the Hastings Center in New York, said, “Once you believe there is an effective drug, you have three choices.” One, you can compete at a disadvantage, trusting that your innate ability and work ethic will level the playing field. This works only rarely, with freakishly gifted individuals. Murray mentioned the hurdler Edwin Moses, whose legs were so long he only needed three strides between hurdles where everyone else took four. Two, you can decide not to dope and effectively give up any hope of winning the Tour de France. And three, you can join your fellows in chemical enhancement so that you at least have a chance to compete.

The UCI website lists a cabinet full of doping techniques. Near the top is “blood doping,” which “increases one’s red blood cell mass resulting in the transport of more oxygen to the muscles.” The preferred method of blood doping these days, the one that Lance Armstrong is charged with employing, is EPO, erythropoietin, known to the athletes as “Edgar Allen Poe.”  It’s a hormone that is produced naturally in the kidneys and acts in the bone marrow to stimulate red blood cell production. A racer who injects EPO risks thickening of the blood, heart disease, stroke, and cerebral or pulmonary embolism. But it can also increase his efficiency on the bike by 10-15 percent. A urine test for EPO was first used at the 2000 Sydney Olympics.

The UCI goes on to list the synthetic oxygen carrier HBOC, two types of blood transfusions, homologus (using someone else’s blood) and autologous (using one’s own stored blood). “A resurgence [in transfusions] is likely due to the introduction of efficient EPO detection methods,” the website says. There is currently no test for autologous blood transfusions, but WADA is working on one.

There is Human Growth Hormone, and testosterone, the latter known by the nickname “oil.” A big spike in testosterone level is likely to get you disqualified; it’s not subtle. Floyd Landis found that out at the Tour de France in 2006. Landis had had a very bad day in the mountains, all but dashing his hopes of replacing Armstrong as Tour champion. But somehow the very next day he mounted a superhuman effort, crushing his rivals by minutes and setting up his eventual triumph in Paris. As stage winner he knew he would be tested. For years, the disgraced American claimed the test result must have been caused by the whiskey he drank the night before, drowning his sorrows.

Landis eventually fessed up, though his armor-plated denial took years to erode. And he has come out publically saying Armstrong doped, too. The USADA case, which has yet to come to a hearing, claims to have testimony from 10 former teammates and associates of Armstrong’s from the U.S. Postal Service days. Four of those rumored to have testified will be at the Pro Challenge: Levi Leipheimer, George Hincapie, Christian Vande Velde, and David Zabriski. Leipheimer won the overall at last year’s inaugural Pro Cycling Challenge. Vande Velde came second. “Big George” Hincapie, who was a faithful domestique for Armstrong on all seven of the Texan’s Tour de France victories, has said that at age 39 he will retire at the end of the year. “60 Minutes” quoted Hincapie as saying he and Armstrong supplied one another with performance enhancing drugs. Hincapie says he never spoke with “60 Minutes” and these days slides around questions from the press with amiable but vague statements about “loyalty.”

The Lance Armstrong question – whether or not USADA should pursue a cancer-survivor hero whose alleged crimes are well in the past – has divided the cycling community. Some say, leave Lance be; draw a line through the past and try to chart a fairer future. Others say, only ripping the bandage from the wound will allow ultimate healing.

Anti-Lance factions are angered by his stonewalling. “Lance redefines innocence as simply not having been caught,” writes Edward Pickering, a cycling blogger. He supports the USADA investigation. “Cycling has its first chance in a generation to come to terms with its past,” he writes.

Tom Murray, the ethicist, thinks the tide is shifting. Is doping control doomed to failure? “No,” he told me. “Somebody will try to cheat. It will never be 100 percent. But the tide will shift [toward cleaner competition]. That’s a realistic hope.”

He said the Armstrong case “makes me think of South Africa with its truth and reconciliation commissions. Bad things were done, horrible things that needed to come to light. This [drugs in cycling] is not horrible by comparison. But it would be wonderful to rip the Band-Aid off the wound; everybody tell the truth. If Lance were to tell everything he knows, and come to a kind of plea bargain, maybe get to keep some of his titles . . . I would certainly welcome that. It’s important to get the truth out.”

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15 Responses

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  1. isiscambassassassassian said, on August 25, 2012 at 9:13 pm

    If cycling can set a sufficiently hard line ethical position, maybe there is hope for baseball?

  2. exurei said, on August 25, 2012 at 9:22 pm

    As far as I know, Lance Armstrong has never been tested positively. What kind of evidence do they have? All the people who testified against him have been tested positively. Strange, huh? I think every cyclist racing in the TDF takes one or the other kind of performance enhancing drugs. If they want to strip Lance of his titles I think there is no one there who is not guilty of the same “crime” to be able to step up. I find it also very strange, that no athlete of other sports gets so often tested as a professional cyclist. And yet the officials are not satisfied… I find the whole witch hunt pathetic and damaging to the sport of cycling. I have the impression that politics is more important than the sport of cycling. … and BTW congrats for being freshly pressed. ;o)

  3. Kai @embraceyoumag said, on August 25, 2012 at 9:31 pm

    Athletes dope for several reasons: pressure to meet expectations from family and country seem to be the biggest. If you win once it’s like you have the need to continue winning so as to live up to those expectations, hence wanting to get a boost to the system. I’m just saying.

  4. Time-traveler said, on August 25, 2012 at 9:32 pm

    I completely agree with the Band-Aid theory. He does say that he could not have been doping, because he passed all the tests. As you stated earlier in the article though, there are many ways to hide the drugs. So much so that the athletes are actually at an advantage when it comes to that. I like the point of view that you wrote this in. It’s a much better perspective than all the arguing and finger pointing that I keep reading and listening to on the news.

  5. HoaiPhai said, on August 25, 2012 at 10:31 pm

    The use of performance enhancing drugs seems to be a concern to the governing bodies of most, if not all, sports. In spite of the danger of sanctions, some athletes continue to use them. Why don’t sports hold two parallel events, clean and no-holds-barred? Anyone caught taking performance enhancing drugs in the “clean league” would be banned from the sport – clean, dirty, or professional – for life.

    Having such a parallel system would allow us to determine the actual advantage of drugging and doping as well as its effects on the health of the athletes who choose that route.

  6. mohduro said, on August 25, 2012 at 10:49 pm

    I agree and I am sure that is not fully intending and intended use of the drug for doping, a very interesting discussion, thanks.

  7. iRuniBreathe said, on August 25, 2012 at 11:18 pm

    It’s a slippery slope given that Lance has never admitted that he used any performance-enhancing drugs, nor are there any proven ‘failed’ drug tests to attest to him. I think the marvel of winning 7 Tour titles should not be diminished. However, in fairness to the sport and supporters, I think some Band-Aid remedies would be welcomed. Sport (cycling) does need to be cleaned up, especially for future aspiring athletes. What are we saying to young athletes when the ideal is to win at any price?
    Congrats on the FP.
    iRuniBreathe

  8. brokenballerina said, on August 25, 2012 at 11:26 pm

    Well appearently it isnt a modern thing to do…
    I read your article and I just thought, “why can it be like the olden times?” But then I figured I was saying this in ignorance. I had no idea if people did such “doping” a long time ago or not. Google to the rescue!

    “The use of drugs to enhance performance in sports has certainly occurred since the time of the original Olympic Games [from 776 to 393 BC]. The origin of the word ‘doping’ is attributed to the Dutch word ‘doop,’ which is a viscous opium juice, the drug of choice of the ancient Greeks.”
    Larry D. Bowers, PhD “Athletic Drug Testing,” Clinics in Sports Medicine, Apr. 1, 1998

    “The ancient Olympic champions were professionals who competed for huge cash prizes as well as olive wreaths… Most forms of what we would call cheating were perfectly acceptable to them, save for game-fixing. There is evidence that they gorged themselves on meat — not a normal dietary staple of the Greeks — and experimented with herbal medications in an effort to enhance their performances…

    The ancient Greek athletes also drank wine potions, used hallucinogens and ate animal hearts or testicles in search of potency.”

    Sally Jenkins “Winning, Cheating Have Ancient Roots,” Washington Post, Aug. 3, 2007

  9. blakeworld said, on August 26, 2012 at 12:25 am

    Dear USADA,

    Congratulations……….All of you people there at the USADA have proved with your witch hunt of Lance Armstrong that you ALL are on the same playing field of some of the most despicable people on Earth……..right up there with the freaks at the Topeka, KS Westboro Church that picket soldiers funerals…..

    You people with your “Holier than Thou” attitude do NOTHING to inspire or lift people up as Lance Armstrong does…….you only exist to tear people down, which not only makes you all the worst kind of people, but makes you complete losers……and losers always hate people better than themselves…..that’s why they are losers and will always be losers……and you people are major LOSERS…….

    Lance Armstrong passed ALL the tests (nearly 500 of them in his career and many that were random) and still you persisted because you could not stand the fact that he was just a better athlete that all the rest……..I would expect that you will soon be going after Usain Bolt and Michael Phelps and most likely will be opening cases against Jim Thorpe, Jesse Owens, and Michael Jordan so you losers can feel like you have anything to do worth while…………

    There is NOT a Rath or Punishment severe enough to impose on all of you there at the USADA that you ALL deserve more than anyone I can think of for what you have done to Lance Armstrong, His Family, and to the millions of people around the world that his story and achievements have inspired and given strength to overcome against all odds……..You will all get yours in this life or the next……

    Most discusted,

    Blake Norris
    Las Vegas, NV

    • exurei said, on August 26, 2012 at 10:51 am

      !!!Thumbs Up!!! You express exactly what I feel. Thanks.

  10. Jean said, on August 26, 2012 at 1:56 am

    Forget about a dual parallel system with drugging and doping. Athletes will damage themselves…it’s a drug for pete’s sake. From a medical ethics point of view no doctor in their sane mind if they wanted to keep their license, would encourage that.

    There is alot of discussion in general cycling forums about this decision and how international competitive cycling races will be perceived.

  11. Lepank said, on August 26, 2012 at 5:21 am

    Nice Article

  12. Lynn Marie Ford said, on August 26, 2012 at 5:45 am

    Drugs are a form of cheating!

  13. vanbraman said, on August 26, 2012 at 5:47 am

    There is so much pressure out there to stay competitive. I think this is why we often see veteran athletes using banned substances. I have not come to a conclusion about Armstrong’s guilt or innocence. However, I see so much politics involved in the investigation. It is hard to determine the motive behind some of what is going on. I wonder if Armsrong is being used as a high profile scapegoat? Who benefits from his fall?

  14. Yasir Imran said, on August 26, 2012 at 3:18 pm

    lovelly post


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