Doping in Soccer

Thursday, 16 December 2010

I get a bit tired when cycling fans try to point out other sports have doping problems. It’s understandable that cycling fans think the sport can victimised. For example the recent arrests in Spain haven’t generated as many headlines as the original Puerto busts. But it’s not an great comparison, Puerto happened on the eve of the Tour de France and the very biggest names were involved. By contrast the revelations in Spain don’t yet involve many big names and it’s not on the verge on the Olympics.

Cycling is a sport where performance-enhancing drugs make a big difference. Put simply a doctor can change the results of a big race. This holds true in athletics, swimming and cross-country skiing but it’s something less evident in sports like soccer.

Still, it’s obvious that other sports have big problems. Frankly where there’s money there’s doping and there’s a book out by Jean-Pierre de Mondenard. The author of several books on the subject of doping as well as the former Tour de France doctor, his latest book is “Dopage dans le Football” (Doping in football).

It makes some pretty clear allegations. He cites German “legend” Franz Beckenbauer who once said “I have a particular method to stay on top of my game: re-injecting my own blood“. It’s worth remembering blood doping wasn’t outlawed at the time. Nevertheless, it sets up the book for a series of accounts. None are new, for example Italian club Juventus had an “intensive and systematic” use of EPO. Similarly a quote from Irish player Tony Cascarino is cited, “after these injections I felt sharper, more energetic… if they’d discovered an illegal product I would have taken the ban. It was a risk I was prepared to take“.

De Mondenard’s biggest accusation is that FIFA, the sport’s governing body, is simply storing up problems. Weak testing and an institutional tendency to deny the problem is giving some players, teams and coaches carte blanche to use EPO, blood doping and other “heavy” methods. It’s here that the cyclist can get involved as there’s an interesting overlap here. The shyster-medics involved in doping cyclists have often been linked to soccer clubs, none more so than Dr Fuentes, who has reputed told a cell mate that if he were to talk, Spain could lose its title as World and European champions.

If this is true then there’s a cross-over between cycling and soccer that goes beyond coaching. We saw exactly what happened when cycling tried to hush up the problems. My quiet advice would be for FIFA to take control of the problem before it blows up in their face.

These days if cycling has big problems, it also has big solutions. There are grounds for optimism and at least a lot of the problems can now be discussed in the open. Yet this only happened after a lot of problems, the sport and many involved had to dragged kicking and screaming into admitting the problem. An anecdote: one-time French rider Jean-Cyril Robin once said there was “a two-speed cycling“, ie clean vs. dirty, only to get UCI President Hein Verbruggen threatening him: “Jean-Cyril Robin will have a chance to correct what he said, but if he does not, he’ll have to stand in front of the UCI discipline commission“. Yet Robin was right and today in his recent interview with L’Equipe, the President McQuaid now openly admits “at one point, there was, it’s true, a two-speed cycling“. Other sports can now benefit from the pathway hacked clear by cycling but the first step is still a big one.

In summary
It’s no good accusing other sports. Soccer might have a problem but finger-pointing doesn’t help anyone. Perhaps instead we should instead be encouraging other sports to learn the self-taught lessons that cycling has undergone? Whether it is procedural matters like testing or getting WADA on board, or other cultural matters like showing that riders can win clean, other sports should be beating a path to learn from pro cycling. This isn’t to say everything is fixed, far from it, rather that awareness and policy in cycling are miles ahead of other sports.

Julien December 16, 2010 at 11:02 am

Yes, cycling has had the problem and other sports just say there is nothing problem. It makes some think cycling is the only problem sport.

TheInnerRing December 16, 2010 at 4:57 pm

Julien: that is the problem, that in being forced to confront the problem in public, cycling has got a terrible image. But it is partly a self-inflicted problem, for too long problems were swept under the carpet. And today there is still a prickly and defensive attitude. But I prefer this to the head-in-the-sand style adopted by other sports.

Anonymous December 16, 2010 at 5:25 pm

Doping is rife across many sports. Sometimes the products used are changed but they are still banned. Only cycling has the bio passport and habitual blood tests.

TheInnerRing December 16, 2010 at 5:32 pm

Anonymous: I think Nordic skiing uses a bio passport scheme too but could be wrong. Other sports are certainly way more reluctant to use blood tests, citing costs. Indeed it's not uncommon for some sports to say out loud "we won't be having blood tests" ahead of a competition which is like saying to the cheats "load up, we can't catch you".

Paul December 16, 2010 at 8:01 pm

I believe it's about narrative.

Cycling's narrative – it's story – is one of doping. Individuals are aware of doping regardless of how little they know about the sport. This is the lens that cycling is seen through; by the fans, the non-fans, and the media.

In the same way, the narrative of football, in the UK at least, is that they're all over paid divers. If you know next to nothing about football, you at least know that! It doesn't matter if they're all doping week-in week-out, or that the players in the lower leagues might be on a fair wage; that's not the story; that's not the angle.

TheInnerRing December 16, 2010 at 9:28 pm

Paul, I'm with you there. If these stories can go too far, they are also don't spring out of nowhere, the sport has to pay for its problems. Sadly for all the efforts cycling has made and is continuing to make we get stories like Contador which fit the pattern implied by the ongoing narrative.

Still in my PJs December 16, 2010 at 10:49 pm

There have been some recent (near) deaths in Spanish football as well, no?
The clubs now legally have to have medical equipment on hand in case of heart-attack…

Alex Murray December 18, 2010 at 1:02 pm

I'm fairly sure bothe rowing and Nordic ski have been using blood work and some form of bio-passport in their antidoping programmes for some time now. Culturally rowing has a very strong level of disapproval of doping, certainly in the UK.

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