(BLOGGER’S NOTE: this is day 6 of a series of short essays designed for the lay fan to learn more about and perhaps enjoy the Tour de France. I will be posting one of these for every day of the Tour. Today, we do a little Q&A about the scourge of the Tour and the sport as a whole: doping.)
So is the doping situation in cycling getting any better?
Kind of depends on whether or not you see the glass as half-empty or half-full. Certainly, the number of disqualifications and vacated tour titles has gone down and speeds in the races have returned to something human beings might actually achieve. If you’re an optimist, you’ll say that the sport’s more sophisticated testing and the adoption of policies such as the “biological passport” have allowed the sport to finally get its arms around the problem. On the other hand, if you’re a pessimist, you’ll simply say that doping is still going on. The dopers have just gotten smarter about their dosages and speeds.
How badly has doping hurt the sport?
There’s any number of ways you can quantify it. We haven’t even seen the long-term health effects of doping, because the sport’s most notorious users aren’t all that old. In terms of public perception, growth of the sport and plain old economics, it’s been pretty damaging. Cycling teams live and die by the money from their sponsors. As the doping problem got more out of hand, major companies such as Rabobank, a well-known Dutch financial institution, pulled their sponsorships. (Think about it. A BANK decides you’re not honest enough to do business with.) With fewer corporate sponsorships, there’s less money to go around. This means fewer competitive teams and fewer jobs for the riders. The PR problem has also hurt the growth of the sport. I mean, if you’re a casual fan in America, what do you usually hear in regards to cycling? Doping. Cycling is losing a major market because many potential fans view it as hopelessly corrupt and simply don’t give it the time of day.
But if cycling’s getting a handle on the doping problem, isn’t it going to help all those other problems?
In the long run, assuming there are no other major doping scandals, sure. But if you think about “you never get a second chance to make a first impression” and “fool me once, shame on you” and stuff like that, you realize it takes a longer to dig yourself OUT of a bad PR hole than it did to put yourself in one.
But Lance Armstrong was worse than any other doper, right?
I hate to be mealy-mouthed, but it depends on your definition of “worse”. With 7 Tour titles taken away from him, Armstrong is the most famous doper in history. But he was the end product of a bad era. As much as people had to admit this, when Armstrong claims his doping was nothing more than keeping up with the Joneses, he’s not wrong. The Tour’s decision to vacate Armstrong’s championships rather than follow cycling protocol by awarding them to the runners up is a tacit admission that the entire era was dirty. Everybody Armstrong shared a podium with over those seven Tours was implicated or, in some cases, outright convicted of doping.
So Armstrong isn’t the only Tour winner who doped?
Hardly. Jan Ullrich, the 1997 winner, admitted to doping after his career ended. 1996 winner Bjarne Riis also confessed to doping during his Tour win. Marco Pantini, the 1998 winner, died of a heart attack after years of consuming a drug store of chemicals. The power output numbers for Miguel Indurain, the winner from 1991 to 1995, are highly suspect (in the sense that you’d have to be a Kryptonian working under a yellow sun to create those kind of numbers.) On the other side of the Armstrong era, you’ve got Floyd Landis having the 2006 Tour title taken away from him for doping. Alberto Contador, the winner in 2007 and 2009, lost the 2010 Tour title due to a positive doping test. So you’ve got about twenty consecutive Tours marred by some variety of doping.
Can we be sure the riders these days are clean?
Sure? No. But again, the news has been…well, if not “good”, there haven’t been any negative reports coming in. At the moment, fans seem to throw accusations only at riders they don’t like. Chris Froome is not popular among cycling fans, so there are plenty of whispers about him doping. The popular Nairo Quintana, however, doesn’t have the same accusations directed at him. Certainly, the performances are more within human range and we’re not getting as many riders suddenly achieving success out of nowhere. So a sense of normalcy has been restored. But it’s the kind of normalcy where you’re still waiting for the other shoe to drop.
Will the sport ever get rid of doping entirely?
Probably not. It’s the dark side of a great sport, but cheating goes all the way back to the creation of the Tour de France. In terms of doping, in the early days it was champagne (don’t laugh, it actually boosts the heart rate.) Later, it was amphetamines and then we got to EPO. It seems as long as someone can think up a way to give the riders an edge, they’ll find a way to use it. The battle goes on…
JOE DAVIS is the main character in a series of mystery novels by Randall J. Funk. Mr. Davis and Mr. Funk are delighted by the shocking similarities in their opinions and writing styles.