The Jump

TOUR de FRANCE  2000  Mt Ventoux

You are Marco Pantani. It is 1999, and you are winning the Giro d’Italia, the race you dreamed of winning as a teenager flogging a borrowed bike around the countryside outside Cesenatico. You’ve won four stages. You’re way ahead on GC, and you’re holed up in the team hotel, tired, mentally drained, but, on some level, deeply satisfied with the legacy you’re creating for yourself in the sport you love.

Then you’re out the side door into the bright sunlight, mobbed by press, hounded for an explanation for the impossibly high hematocrit level your tests show. You’re disqualified. You’re shamed. You are no longer a legend, but a pariah.

This is what professionals might call a “precipitating event.” In your life it might be a divorce, the loss of a job, the death of a child. In pro cycling, a doping positive can be the death of your career, the event that pushes you over the edge.

Charlie, the addictions counselor I see every Friday morning, tells me that he sees what’s called “dual diagnosis,” i.e. clinical depression AND addiction, so much that he’s not convinced the two can be separated. Depression can lead to addiction. Addiction can lead to depression. They are the chicken and egg, egg and chicken.

The vast majority of those reading these words will know how Marco Pantani’s life turned out. After his expulsion from the Giro he made a few faltering attempts at comeback, but eventually succumbed to cocaine addiction, dying alone in a hotel room in 2004.

Addiction is a disease, progressive and fatal if untreated.

Last week, in a piece entitled “Love for the Doper,” I connected the abuse of performance-enhancing drugs (PEDs) with the addiction to illicit drugs, the descent into a mental state that convinces you that you need the drugs to go on. At the time, Padraig (our host and proprietor here at RKP) asked me how I would explain the jump that many athletes who use PEDs make to abusing illicit drugs. The recent death of Frank Vandenbroucke, as well as the passing of Marco Pantani, are but two examples of this jump.

And I would say that the answer lies somewhere at the nexus of humiliation, shame, loneliness and the tendency toward extreme behaviors, all of these factors combined with a precipitating event. To use Pantani as an example, though Vandenbroucke’s particulars are fairly similar, you have a unique character type, a self-described loner, a guy who nearly everyone who knew him would call “socially awkward, who also happens to be an elite athlete, an occupation more or less defined by the extremity of the behavior necessary to achieve success. You take this awkward, lonely and very probably depressed guy, who is already completely inured to suffering, and you heap on top a generous serving of humiliation.

Now, that humiliation validates an underlying shame that the guy feels, because he’s doping. He becomes even more depressed. Up to that point he was able to offset the shame and depression with the thrill of victory and adulation. Later, Pantani and Vandenbroucke made an effort to find some equilibrium by turning to the one thing that made them feel better, the one thing that delivered the thrill and muted the shame, illicit drugs.

What was once just a party drug, readily available to them as wealthy celebrities, takes on a new role (Are you listening Tom Boonen?). It moves itself front and center. Forced to abandon the PEDs, the rider sticks with the illicit drugs, substituting the mental effects of one for the mental effects of the other. The central conceit of the addict’s mindset is that he can’t do without the drugs that are actually tearing him apart. Compounding the problem is that the rider believes he can’t make a living without riding and can’t ride without drugs of one sort or the other. It’s a Catch-22 that turned Pantani and Vandenbroucke into corpses in hotel rooms, the saddest possible ending for an athlete in our sport.

To be sure, not every rider involved with PEDs will make the jump to illicit drugs, but a very real link exists between the use of PEDs and depression, and then between depression and the use of illicit drugs. Think not only of Pantani and Vandenbroucke, but also of Richard Virenque, if Willy Voet is to be believed, and Jan Ulrich.

Every time I hear the name of another convicted doper I try to stifle my instinct to judge. Riders don’t make bad decisions maliciously. They slip a little, and then a little more, and day after day, week after week, year after year, they become something they never meant to be. They can make deals with the devil that take them to the very top of the sport, and then one event, one vial of blood spun down in a centrifuge, one tainted jar of piss, pushes them off the edge.

Some don’t make it back.  

Image: John Pierce, Photosport International

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  1. Charles Cushman

    To add to this, if you have never tried an illegal drug it is hard to understand how good they can make you feel. I would have to think that doping could have that same effect and riding without EPO could feel the same as the first bike ride after a winter of not riding.

  2. Dano

    Very well stated. The concept of dual diagnosis or dual characteristic is very intersting and you do well to bring this out. I had not formally noted that but it is true and they are present for many. Indeed, the virtues pro cyclist possess, that of digging deep into ones soul and suffering at the levels they do, to levels of a sadistic personhood coupled w/dope is an awful combination. On one hand, this duality is purposely developed, then in the twighlight of a career abandoned only to fall in depths of sadness and hopelessness that they can indeed appreciate.

    Especially to note beyond just the most recent and sad examples of Pantani, VDB and all, are the examples of Charly Gaul, Tom Simpson and many others. Those who generations ago were using amphetamines and other drugs. At that time however, and most interestingly, the notion was it was actually harmful NOT to use drugs, that the body could not perform at the levels these men were riding at without help of amphetamines. So they used. Gaul noted one day that as he used, lined up at the line being both seen by other riders as ‘near death’ and stating to fellow riders that ‘today he was going to die’. The notes of those riders are interesting to read, it is insightful and something I find very intersting.

    But not all used either. For example, Greame Obree had well documented major depression and I am not aware of any notes of him using drugs, at least openly. He did well some days, other days were living hell. Nonetheless, with or without dope, after their careers end, there are depths that many do dwell in.

    No doubt though is it is well noted the post-performance and post-career major depression that results from the drug use, as Gaul was a recluse rarely seen afterward and others clearly were worse because of the drug use during their career.

  3. lachlan

    Interesting point about “tendency toward extreme behaviors”.

    One could say its pretty much an entry requirement to competitive cycling… Even at a basic amateur level your life is very much at an extreme: mentally, physically, in what you eat and drink, in what you think about, and what you spend your time and money on.

    Friends and family can atest to that even if the riders can’t always!

    Even at an amateur level you see the top guys lives (and performances) which are very extreme, and so can (almost) imagine the extremes required to be a top pro.

    So I guess as you suggest not surprising that its easy to do extreme things beyond the bike.

  4. Marco Placero

    I wonder whether it works another way for high-performing athletes: illicit drugs to PEDs. We here in Northern California have a fantastic racer who’s struggling with addiction, although it’s unknown about possible PED use. Don’t know him but the profile seems to fit the bit know about his story. It’s definitely the personality type that goes with obsessive behaviors described eloquently by Da Robot. His insights make me wonder about my own “healthy” cycling addictions.

    I hope this dude’s friends read this blog and can get some new avenues from Da Robot’s well thought essay, to help him rise back to the greatness in him, but for his illicit drug use.

    Maybe they can remind him of positive precipitating events, to get him back on his feet before it’s too late. The rest of us can only dip our skulls in a Red Kite Prayer for this dude. The same for Tomeke.

  5. Jim

    The urge to be completely non-judgmental is very admirable. In practice, however, I think we need to be careful to preserve the social stigma attached to doping. Culture is often a more powerful motivator than laws. Remove the stigma and you remove a barrier that prevents riders from doping. Given governments’ lax attitudes generally toward performance enhancing drugs – Puerto and Balco and Festina notwithstanding – the only other barriers to doping are possible penalties if caught, rider conscience and social stigma. We shouldn’t unwittingly kick one of the legs out from under the stool on which anti-doping efforts rest.

  6. Marco Placero

    I think Da Robot may be getting an understanding of how social stigmatization– beginning with public glorification of race results and ending with banishment for drug use that assisted race results– could lead to opprobrium, shame, humiliation, self-blaming, proceeding to reinforcement of self-justification for doping transferred to illicit drugs; a psychological tautology strengthening addictive behaviors. In other words, the enabling may be occurring on several levels developed from a risk-reward nexus into a humiliation-escape syndrome.

    How’s that for sidewalk psych counselling?

    Read Frankenstein: we all create our own monsters.

  7. Flahute

    Graeme Obree was very much against performance enhancing drugs, which is why he was fired from Le Groupement before ever riding a single race in their colours.

    On the other hand, he had a terrible problem with alcohol, often drinking to the point of blacking out which he documented in his book, Flying Scotsman.

    Having had my own issues with illicit drugs, I can certainly understand the appeal … and find myself saddened rather than angered when I find out about an elite athlete’s drug use.

    1. Padraig

      Jim: I agree with you; stigmas are great for keeping ordinary folks in line. They can keep us from kissing our cousins or running red lights. Unfortunately for the subjects of Da Robot’s post—addicts—their brains have been hijacked by their drug use. It’s hard to fathom how they can turn their backs on seemingly rational solutions to their predicaments until someone shows just how their brains believe continued use of their drug is key to survival. Addiction is an illness and stigmas are as powerless to change addicts as Kryptonite is over Spider Man.

      Marco: Very, very well said.

      Flahute: Each new chapter in Obree’s life is a success. He’s a great guy and every time he pops up in the news, I am encouraged by his tenacity and courage.

  8. Jim

    My point, Padraig, is not about helping the addicted. They need a different kind of help.

    At the risk of sounding like Fitzjames Stephen, my aim is to deter the law abiding, who may otherwise be tempted to make the initial leap, from clean to cheat. It would be hard to say that we stigmatize those who cheat, but not those who cheat as well as abuse non-performance enhancing substances.

  9. Jim

    Adding on to that, yes, I think we need to embrace the dopers with some tough love. Force them into rehab. Make them have a moment of clarity and reflect upon where they are. Give them an opportunity to save themselves and maybe a helping hand.

    But don’t let our desire to forgive and show compassion overwhelm the necessity of setting a standard and holding fast to it. Conflicts between the written law and unwritten law only encourage lawbreaking.

    Bottom line – hate the sin, show love to the sinner.

  10. Robot

    Thanks everyone for feeding back. You’re almost as good with it as Neil Young.

    I would say that stigma is not something you control. Behaviors are stigmatized by the collective, not by the individuals, and I think, on some level, stigmatizing self-destructive behavior is ok. I can tell you that, when I was using, it exerted some small influence over my behavior, not as much as say, malt liquor, but some influence.

    On a slightly more serious note, I think consequences are the best tool in the fight against doping. At this stage, dopers are being punished. That’s a consequence. They lose money. That’s a consequence. Are they deterrents? I don’t know. Maybe. A bit.

    I’d like to see a more comprehensive rehabilitation program from the UCI. I’d like to see convicted dopers getting educated about what they’re doing to their bodies and what they’re doing to their sport. In recovery parlance, we do a searching and fearless inventory of our shortcomings and make amends for them. There is a process of recovery.

    Many of the addicts I know have been to prison. Very few of them have gotten clean there.

  11. matty o.

    This is a fine post.

    I bristle a little bit when cyclists that I know rail and rave against dopers – cheaters, liars. The invectives are endless.

    The empathy and understanding that you express – I like that. I don’t care much for doping, but I don’t care about notions of purity of sport more than I do for people who spiral into addictions.

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