The Explainer: Are we better off now than we were before?
I am probably as sick of it as you are when it comes to doping, but given that you’ve been writing about nothing but for the last few weeks, I thought I might ask one more question on the subject.
What has me wondering, though, is after all of this noise, do you think the sport is any cleaner? I mean it was pretty open back in 1998 when the Festina scandal hit, but is it just hidden now? I’m betting there was a lot of money spent on the effort. Was it worth it?
I really am sick of the subject, Steve. Indeed, I was reluctant to even answer this one, but I’ve been doing a bit of thinking about the same questions, both tied to the costs and benefits of an international effort, so I thought I’d throw this out as a last comment after writing about the Armstrong, Ullrich and Contador cases. Hopefully, this will be it for a while.
Is the sport of cycling any cleaner now than it was in 1998? You or others might accuse me of suffering from a chronic case of Pollyannaism, but I have to believe it is.
Of course, I have to admit that I was one of those who also said that the 1998 Festina scandal would do a lot to clean up the sport from that point forward. It was a question that the four passengers in our press car at the 1999 Tour — John Wilcockson, Rupert Guinness, David Walsh and I — debated for three solid weeks that year. If history is the judge, then my guess is that Mr. Walsh won that round.
At best, the changes have at least taken a lot more time than I would have every thought. What has changed is that the creation of the World Anti-Doping Agency has accomplished much of what it originally set out to do: namely, to provide a coordinated testing effort, equalization of penalties and an investment of resources into research, testing and enforcement. I think they’ve pulled that off, but the price tag has been pretty high.
Cleaner or just a narrowed opportunity to cheat?
When it comes to the question of whether cycling is cleaner now than it was 14 years ago, I have to maintain that it is significantly better. No, I do not believe that there has been some sort of moral epiphany in the sporting world in general or in cycling in particular. There have always been and will continue to be those whose egos, bank accounts or both push them toward trying to find an edge over the competition.
To see how far we’ve come, let’s look back to 1998 and before. First, though, let’s make a couple of observations about doping and cycling. One, because of its physical demands, cycling is the sporting world’s prime candidate for doping. Two, doping in sport really “came of age” with the development of drugs and methods designed to enhance the body’s ability to transport vital oxygen to muscle tissue. In other words, EPO and blood doping. Before that, amphetamines, steroids and other drugs were fairly crude and marginally effective ways to enhance performance. With an amped hematocrit level, though, you could make a real impact on performance, especially in a sport like cycling, where endurance and recovery over the course of a three-week grand tour count for a lot.
Now, it wasn’t until late 1996 that the UCI took even the most moderate steps to address the wide-spread use of EPO and blood manipulation methods, when it imposed a 50-percent limit on hematocrit levels. Before that, riders were said to be raising their levels to 60 and beyond. The 1996 limit basically provided everyone with a license to cheat within “reasonable” levels. It was another four years before the urine test for isoforms of recombinant erythropoietin was approved for use. Again, sophisticated users came up with a host of ways to beat the test.
To its credit, it was the UCI which really set a higher standard when it led the way to the development of the Biological Passport (see “The Explainer: The biological passport revisited”) The bottom line for me is that this sequence of developments has continued to shrink the benefits a cheater could derive. Back in the mid-1990s, a doped-to-the-gills rider could see a 10- to 15-percent performance benefit from taking EPO. These days, with even the most subtle manipulation triggering alarm bells, the benefits are considerably less. Weigh that against the potentially career-ending costs of being caught and the incentive to cheat is diminishing.
Keep in mind that the Court of Arbitration for Sport didn’t find an element of intent—or even negligence—on Contador’s part in the recent clenbuterol case. The guy was nabbed for 50-trillionths of a gram of clenbuterol per milliliter of urine. That is hardly the stuff of major performance-enhancement. The Court even dismissed some of the theories that many of us had at least considered, namely that his contamination was the result of a transfusion of blood stored from a time when he was using larger amounts of the drug. Without debating the merits of WADA’s strict liability approach to even the smallest levels of PEDs in an athlete’s system, no one can argue that Contador’s offense is the moral equivalent of his team director’s Tour win in 1996, when Bjarne Riis purportedly earned the nickname “Mr. 60 percent” for purely hematological reasons.
Another indicator of the sport’s gradual move away from enhanced performances is the gradual decline in those very performances. Case in point, the times of riders covering those famous 21 hairpin turns on Alpe d’Huez. The record – Marco Pantani’s 37:35 in 1997 – may stand for some time to come. Last year, the winner of stage 19 at the Tour, Pierre Rolland, took 41:47 to cover the same distance. Indeed, when he won the stage in 2006, Fränk Schleck became the first Alpe d’Huez winner since 1994 to cover the climb in more than 40 minutes.
Proof that doping is gone? No. But the trend is such that we may be seeing an improvement. Indeed, we may have crossed a critical psychological tipping point in recent years in that riders no longer feel like they have to dope just to compete. Yeah, yeah, I know, I do sound Pollyannaish, but I am—despite my often grumpy and cynical demeanor—actually something of an optimist.
At what cost?
This improvement—if there is one—has come with a significant price tag attached to it. The 2011 budget for the World Anti-Doping Agency alone was (drum roll, please) a whopping $28,396,856. Twenty-eight million bucks. That doesn’t include the respective budgets of the anti-doping agencies in individual countries, nor does it include the anti-doping budgets of individual governing bodies, like the UCI.
WADA’s budget has grown from around $18 million in 2002, when the bulk of its funding came from the Olympic movement and the governing bodies that make up the International Olympic Committee. These days, the load is shared about equally between IOC members and the governments that have signed on to the 2005 UNESCO International Convention against Doping in Sport.
Before the 2002 creation of WADA (the concept was approved at the 1999 World Conference on Doping in Sport in Lausanne, Switzerland), testing and anti-doping enforcement was made up of a patchwork of rules, testing and enforcement methods that differed from sport-to-sport and from country-to-country.
The biggest benefit of the coordinated effort and increased funding is that it’s probably getting to be just as profitable for a smart biochemist to devote his efforts to developing tests in an open and legal laboratory setting than it is to do the opposite in secret.
Again, call me optimistic, but I honestly think we’re making progress … and, yeah, despite the enormous cost involved, I think it’s money well spent.
Now, can we please get back to bike racing? Or maybe a discussion of a lawsuit or two?
Don’t hesitate to drop me a line if you have a comment, an observation, a complaint or—better yet—a question to be answered in next week’s column. You can write me directly at Charles@Pelkey.com.
Have a good week,
The Explainer is now a weekly feature on Red Kite Prayer. If you have a question related to the sport of cycling, doping or the legal issues faced by cyclists of all stripes, feel free to send it directly to The Explainer at Charles@Pelkey.com. PLEASE NOTE: Understand that reading the information contained here does not mean you have established an attorney-client relationship with attorney Charles Pelkey. Readers of this column should not act upon any information contained therein without first seeking the advice of qualified legal counsel licensed to practice in your jurisdiction.
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Image: John Pierce, Photosport International