The slippery slope to doping. “Hey John – what do you think? Is Lance guilty? What about you? Were you ever tempted by doping?”
Over the years I’ve been asked many times about doping in cycling and Olympic sports and for those many years I have always responded the same way: that I’d never seen, witnessed, or heard directly about anyone in my sports or on my cycling or skating teams taking performance enhancing drugs.
But, over time, and after recent admissions by people I know admitting to the use of steroids or of EPO and other banned protocols I’ve been forced to re-examine my past to determine if there was a hidden side to the sport and associated preparations that I missed. Was there a secret handshake to the club of cheaters that I was unaware of?
First a comment on the latest in the ongoing Lance Armstrong affair. Did he do it? Is it a witch hunt? Like the ephemeral puff of smoke from the grassy knoll, it appears that “lack of resolution” is now the outcome being pursued by the Armstrong camp while expressly drawing out conspiracy theories. 10 witnesses were drawn from the tenured and elite of the sport – likely including 3 riders in the pro peleton I know: Vandeveld, Hincapie, and Andreu. These 10 riders were slated to testify under oath against Lance that he used illegal performancing enhancing drugs (PEDs). Any chance these 10 guys, who considered Lance “friend” would testify unless A) under some sort of duress (i.e. also caught?) and B) it is actually true? In my book both are unlikely: These guys appear to have nothing to gain and much to lose by testifying YET they apparently did. Lance most likely systematically applied a doping program to his entire team and also created an ethos or honor system where the only thing worse than cheating was breaking the code.
So sure, it has been going on and sure, some athletes, particularly in cycling, made distinct moral and ethical decisions to engage in the practice. However even the worst of them probably used a twisted moral compass to justify it (only serial killers don’t pretend to justify their “cause”). Most likely it was the “level playing field” argument used most recently by Jonathan Vaughters.
Rationalizing is easy, but, depending on the banned substance, the path to doping truly is a slippery slope. For example, training at high altitude helps the body produce more red blood cells that in return helps an athlete process more oxygen. As it turns out, these effects are nearly identical to EPO.
A few years back, at the Tommy Thompson center in Milwaukee, the national speedskating team used to sleep in an artificial “bubble” of high altitude next door to the Petit Center Olympic rink. Neither EPO nor sleeping at altitude have any significant health risks, and both are a “slightly unnatural” manipulation of blood counts. Turns out high altitude shelters at low altitudes have subsequently been banned, so U.S. Speedskating moved their camp to Utah where they train at the 4,675 ft Olympic Oval but sleep at the “perfectly natural” 7000 foot altitude of Park City – a 45 minute drive away from their primary training facility.
Grey areas exist and I believe there is likely a whole additional cadre of athletes who differ from the cynical and baldfaced lying presented by the cycling pro peleton, or Alex Schwazer (the race walker who tested positive in the 2012 Olympics who flew to Turkey to buy EPO on the open market).
After reviewing my own past I now believe it is possible that it was only a series of small decisions and subtle reactions to innocuous sounding questions that kept me from A) doping and B) (who knows?) the top of the podium. Here’s, perhaps, how it goes: You’ve made national team, you’ve demonstrated some serious talent and are invited to the national team training camps in Colorado Springs and Calgary, Canada. One of your coaches, well loved despite his accent, is from the eastern block. One day, as many are fading under the incredible workload of 3-a-day workouts, he suggests that you start taking a special ATP supplement he’s ordering from Europe. He suggests that it speeds recovery and helps your muscles naturally pull more energy. It sounds good, but you don’t put much stock in supplements or nutrition and anyway you don’t have any money for these $35 a container supplements (You were on a 4 boxes of $0.29 cent Mac & cheese a day diet) so you pass.
A few weeks or months later, and again another suggestion: take vitamin B12 shots in your legs after a hard workout – you’ll recover quicker. Again, the cost makes it prohibitive, and you also don’t like the idea of shots. It never, honestly, occurs to you at the time that these things might have included steroids, epo, coritcosteroids or other banned substances – you assume those things stayed in your system and no one would intentionally lead your towards them without telling you. You know damn well you can’t even take Nyquil or any over-the-counter cold medication because it would get you banned. So again you pass. You knew others could afford it others and did not pass. You don’t worry about it…
So… maybe… this is how it works. You have a coach that you trust. You are working really and I mean really hard. You start to fade. He wants you to succeed. He knows of “something” that might help. He orders it sent over from Poland or the Ukraine. It helps. You use it. You believe it is innocuous. Then you take the B12 shots. At first they don’t work, but one day you are on fire. Another day and you are taking your lap times down towards world record pace. Is it the powder? Is it the B12 shots? What’s in those anyway? Why is the B12 a different color now? You ask some questions and it makes you more anxious: “better you don’t know” seems to be the answer. And so it goes – you start designing around a regimen without asking questions and in so doing you become complicit.
A sad story, and still one with the potential for moral outrage, but now add in one more counterbalancing factor, the ever important question, “What about my family?”
Add to the mix that you are a gangly, unpopular rakish cyclist from a 3rd world economy with no prospects who has made a miraculous leap to be riding for one of the big cycling teams, but still making little money. You have a wife and a child at home and one on the way. You are on the bubble about to be fired from the team, barely hanging on for the big events much less supporting your team powerhouses. Now the option of taking on some shots and powder come along and again, without full knowledge, you partake. Suddenly you have million dollar potential – even as a domestique. After a season of that leaves a sour taste in your mouth, you stick with your morals and ethics and stop taking the mystery powders and are quickly shelled and are useless on big stages and at risk yet again of being fired. You do not have even a high school education and if fired will go from a six figure salary to becoming unemployed or a minimum wage worker in a country where minimum wage is in cents not dollars. Your wife, your child, your unborn child, your parents and others are dependent on your ability to compete, to win. Everyone, you think, is probably doing it anyway.
What would you do?
I’m proud that I never used any banned substances or performance enhancing drugs. I’m also lucky that I was too poor to pay for potentially banned substances, while also too (relatively) rich to be forced into harder decisions. It makes me sad that we have to wonder about our heroes and it is unfair to those that labored and succeeded innocent of performance enhancing drugs.
Still it sticks in the craw that someone might have positioned for hero status, proclaiming a drug free approach to performance while manipulating an entire system and series of other athletes into his wake. All heroes are flawed, but when the flaw is one of the defining components of the hero’s ascendancy, it might just be enough to fill those “in the know” with enough righteous indignation to pursue a “witch hunt” against said hero – even if it is unpopular and drags on for years...