There are some who say that because almost every overall contender in the Tour de France was doping it doesn’t make much difference to the result. They were all at it so the results would have been the same if they were all clean right?
Only no, that’s not true. The idea of a “level playing field” amongst cheats in any sport is a myth so phoney that it has to be reviewed and shot to pieces.
Let’s start with the most obvious point: doping is not an egalitarian activity. Whilst there are rules to ensure bikes and clothing are relatively standard, this is not the case with banned substances or methods. There is no single syringe, no identical pill, no uniform dosage. To simplify, the cyclist that uses the most performance enhancing substances enhances their performance the most. By extension, this logic says the winner is the one who has doped the most as opposed to an equal field of riders each taking a comparable amounts of banned substances.
There’s an obvious health and moral point associated with taking more and more of these banned substances. Anti-doping controls first appeared in the Tour de France following the death of Tom Simpson in 1967. Fans weren’t outraged at the results being fixed, controls were primarily to protect the health of riders. So in an environment were many riders are taking banned substances they are also risking their health. We know several riders died from EPO abuse in the late 1980s and onwards and in more recent times some have withdrawn from races because of failed transfusions, bad reactions and more. Meanwhile steroids promote cancer and other means increase the risk of heart disease, pick your sport and you’ll find tragedy. A playing field is not level when it’s got dead bodies buried beneath it.
Next there is an asymmetric response. Having said there’s no single dosage, there’s certainly no single outcome. Our bodies are different in so many ways this is what makes sport, someone with big lungs gets an advantage in aerobic sports like cycling. But the diversity extends to our response to pharmaceuticals. It’s documented in medical journals and clinical trials but read cycling biographies too. Some riders find some banned substances work for them and yet others don’t. For example Tyler Hamilton says he never used much growth hormone but other riders have consumed extensive amounts of this, something testified by their oversized jawbones and jumbo forehead ridges. You see this well beyond rugby, see baseball or rugby. Similarly cyclists with a naturally high haematocrit count of red blood cells can’t consume much EPO before their blood data rings alarm bells whilst those with lower levels can take more.
EPO, growth hormone, cortisone… I took all the basic stuff that people were doing then. Everyone was taking this as a minimum. The biggest guys were using things that I just couldn’t afford. They were doing other things like synthetic haemoglobin, blood transfusions, which I could get hold of.
That’s my translation of Laurent Roux, these days a farmer but once a rider in the 1990s, in a statement in court as he demonstrates how sport is a winner-takes-all environment.
Win the Tour de France and big prizes, a large salary, product endorsements and more await whilst the combined income of the other two riders on the podium is probably less than the winner. The same logic means the top-10 earn far more than those outside the top-100. I’ve seen it said that Armstrong has a net worth of $125 million. Ignore the exact number but it means riders and teams with more money can afford more sophisticated and comprehensive pharmaceutical advice, creating a circle where more money funds more sophisticated doping which brings more rewards and so on. Armstrong kept Michele Ferrari was kept on an expensive and exclusive retainer. Other teams also had big schemes but as we saw over the years they were eventually caught. Similarly the UCI has worried about prosecuting big name riders in the past. When the UCI launched prosecutions with its bio-passport scheme it first went after shrimp-sized riders like Pietro Caucchioli and Tadej Valjavec to establish the precedent before tackling a potential millionaire like Franco Pellizotti. Like it or not the UCI has been cautious about tackling the biggest names, if only to take extra care before launching a prosecution.
Similarly money doesn’t just buy better drugs, it funds evasive techniques and supports subversion. A well-resourced team can hire lookouts to check for visiting doping controllers. It can fly riders to remote training camps where the testers can’t reach. It can use undetectable methods, “investing” in techniques at the cutting edge of doping. For example the logistics of transporting blood bags around Europe require significant funding; Tyler Hamilton recounts US Postal used a private jet; this gets more complicated and expensive if riders need to maintain a complex schedule of EPO microdosing, blood banking and infusion so that they can trick the UCI’s bio-passport with the illusion of stable values all year long. It’s not uncommon to see people refer to anti-doping controls as IQ tests, if people follow advice then they never get caught; meanwhile the little guys get rousted for bungling amateurism.
Also money helps you squash any critics. Cheating your way to vast fortune gives you wealth and legal firepower. As we’ve seen Armstrong has been able to deploy legions of lawyers and a spokesman previous infamous for helping scandal-hit Bill Clinton and Goldman Sachs shape the message in their hour of need. So the more money you make, the more you can squash any accusers, the more you can control the message.
Finally remember that not everyone was doping. They weren’t all at it. The fact that many were doing it doesn’t negate the fact that they were breaking the rules. Even if those who were cheating did it on an equal basis they’re still robbing those who refuse to risk their health.
Don’t look to sport for an equal universe. The variety of human DNA and upbringing mean big differences in ability and attitude. Cyclists train in rain, snow or baking heat to get an edge on rivals.
At the same time we codify sport with a set of rules. Anti-doping means exist primarily for health but they help level the playing field, or in cycling terms, to equal the gradient or headwind. It is wrong to imagine the results in cycling since EPO emerged in 1989 would be the same if the molecule was never discovered, or that the Tour de France during the last decade would be the same without blood transfusions. Take Bjarne Riis who seemed destined to be a useful helper for Laurent Fignon but was propelled into a Tour de France winner with the plunge of a thousand syringes. But don’t dwell on him as he is just one example amongst many.
The story of doping is not simply a tale of pharmacology, it is also one of resources, planning and deceit and we can see these cannot be equal. With Armstrong and US Postal and his subsequent teams the vast sums of money cited by USADA show a doping programme on a scale that few other teams could match. It was therefore an unequal contest.