Doping in Sport, Lessons from Pro Cycling

Going by Twitter, yesterday’s story in AS, the Spanish newspaper, that Dr Fuentes was working for a Spanish soccer club seems to have delighted some cycling fans keen to see the scandal shared beyond our sport.

Twitter’s an imperfect judge of opinion at the best of times. Even if it’s a minority activity there’s something unnerving when cyclists point out other sports have doping problems: they might be right but there’s the sound of glasshouses shattering when calling for footballers and tennis players to be outed.

Still, with football being forced to confront some problems are there lessons other sports can learn from cycling’s dodgy past?

First, a question of context. Doping in ball sports surely alters results but it doesn’t necessarily determine them. The addition of EPO to cycling overwhelmingly changed the terms: a clean team in, say, 2002 had no chance against one resorting to EPO and blood doping. Still in Spanish futbol recovery matters, so does strength. And EPO can mean a player is still fresh enough after 80 minutes to kick the ball with relaxed precision or just run faster for longer.

I have a particular method to stay on top of my game: re-injecting my own blood

It’s not new either as the quote above from German “legend” Franz Beckenbauer cited by sports doctor Jean-Pierre de Mondenard in his book “Dopage dans le Football”. The practice was not illegal during Beckenbauer’s time but de Mondenard used it to show that strange things have gone on. He also describes the “intensive and systematic” use of EPO by the Juventus team in the 1990s. 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 most serious point is that we’ve seen this all before in cycling. Instead of learning lessons from cycling’s scandals, 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. And this is before we remember football won’t sign up in full to the WADA Code. It all sounds like pro cycling a decade ago.

Shoot the bike messenger?

For years cycling denied there was a doping problem, adopting a policy that tried to sweep bad news under the carpet. Even after the revelations of the Festina Scandal the sport tried to pretend things weren’t in mess. Ask Jean-Cyril Robin, a French pro who spoke of a “two speed cycling” in 1999. His public warning… saw the UCI threaten disciplinary action and demand an apology. He was right of course but the anecdote shows attitudes at the time.

Similarly the media have a role to play. As this blog showed the other day Armstrong’s story was so big that rules and protocol were sidestepped and sections of the media who raised the alarm were labelled as “spiteful” in print by others. In time cycling’s media became a lot more sceptical, first with coded words but in time going much further. By 2007 Michael Rasmussen was days away from winning the Tour de France but media pressure acted where the UCI would not go and colluded to get him thrown out of the race. It’s hard to draw direct lessons but perhaps there are some football writers who’d like to avoid the hand-wringing mea culpas endured by the cycling media in recent months.

Lessons from the glasshouse
This isn’t to say everything is fixed in cycling, far from it. Cycling can hardly lecture other sports on anti-doping when the Fuentes trial is providing new revelations about our sport. No, it’s just to say that there are lessons to be learned from cycling’s past.

  • Testing: anti-doping controls can’t solve everything; in the past people have compared them to IQ tests where only dummies fail. But think of it as a net and the more you test, the smaller the mesh. Cycling might not be catching all the cheats today but testing has contributed to significantly slower racing today. Quality and quantity.
  • Reassure: it’s cynical but Lance Armstrong’s phoney “most tested athlete” line worked for years. A sport that tests often can cite how many tests they’ve conducted to defend against accusations of laxity. Some sports can’t play this card, for example tennis players are left to defend their sport’s testing regime to the media
  • Cooperate: the UCI’s been fighting with WADA but at least it’s signed up. FIFA and UEFA need to mend bridges with WADA and sign up to the Code in full
  • Act, don’t react: cycling prides itself on cutting edge anti-doping measures but often it was bounced into adopting these. Far better for other sports to adopt these measures
  • Culture: from governing bodies to the media some curiosity works well. Football is different because you can imagine supporters of one team deluging an anti-doping hotline with calls to thwart a rival team. But still, shooting the messenger rarely works. Watch out in the coming days if the soccer press-pack attacks Spain as a substitute for probing the past
  • Staff: who are the staff tasked with “preparing” players in other sports? We’ve often seen the doctors working with cyclists have had clients in other sports, for example before Dr Fuentes, Dr Del Moral has been linked to tennis players and Dr Ferrari was involved with track and field athletes.

Of course there’s a very different lesson too: don’t bungle in public. If scandal is bad for business then you could say other sports should work hard to ensure bad news doesn’t appear. Don’t bother testing or cover-up positive tests with news of retirement or long-standing injuries. But there’s a fine line between sweeping this showbiz and sweeping problems under the carpet. As we’ve seen with baseball’s Hall of Fame recently it’s almost impossible to make the problems go away, once fans don’t believe what they’re seeing the damage is done.

It’s clear Dr Fuentes was working with athletes beyond cycling but how far this went remains to be seen. But it’s clear that doping isn’t exclusive to cycling.

Our sport can’t lecture others but pro cycling’s been on a rough journey and other sports can learn lessons from the messy episodes. Shooting the messenger, ignoring problems, jurisdictional turf wars and clumsy attempts to mop up after a scandal, there mistakes that other sports would do well to avoid.

The reductive lesson is that it’s better to act before you’re forced to but will other sports learn the lessons?

36 thoughts on “Doping in Sport, Lessons from Pro Cycling”

  1. I used to play rugby and you can see the problems in many sports. This is not a sports problem, it’s a risk for society. Kids taking steroids and all that.

  2. It will be interesting to see if any football clubs take the matter in their own hands in the same way Slipstream did. Seeing some overtly clean-won success has clearly had a very profound effect on cycling.

  3. Professional sport has a win at all prices aspect, as at the same time it is important to win for the prices. (Although football just shows with the betting scandal lose to win money is an alternative)

    Talking about methods, everything good for recovery should work in almost any sport. EPO or any kind of blood booster, as well as transfusions, should work in endurance sport or any sport where the aerobic border is a limit. Based on this in my opinion most sports are dirty.

    So it all comes back to the old Romans “Bread and games”, sport is a show either to keep people happy (political) or sell products (commercial aspect).


    Dr. Ko

  4. As the current match-fixing scandal shows, football has bigger problem than even doping. In some ways cycling is much more straightforward. Cycling fans can hurl stones at football for ignoring doping, but I’d bet that football fans would rather clear up the other modes of cheating (diving, deliberate handballs, bribes – all the way up to match rigging) before they got excited about doping.

  5. I think it’s OK to throw stones from inside a glasshouse if its windows have already been broken by others throwing stones from outside.

    Cycling has put up with this doping crap for long enough whilst enduring other sports ‘holier-than-thou’ attitudes.

    • i still find myself asking cyclo-bashing friends who like their football round and played with the feet (as opposed to the various forms of australian hand-egg we are subjected to down here) what it is about diving that they find so much more palatable than doping. even if we were to ignore the evidence of widespread doping in football, the impact of diving is arguably (i said “arguably”) just as influential on results as any ped’s are on cycling.

    • Hear hear. Sponsors are leaving, or have left, cycling while hundreds of millions of euros are still poured into football. Tell me football wants to confront doping and risk all that cash.
      Cycling will struggle to attract sponsors while it is the ‘dirty’ sport. Look through your country’s news sites in a week and see how much coverage there is of the football match fixing scandal, for instance. Of football, tennis player, etc in Op Puerto, for that matter.
      I’m not advocating silence, but geeze it’s galling sometimes.

      • It may be reassuring to hear it’s not just cycling, but I’m really not a fan of this attitude though. We know our sport has a cancer, so what if other sports also have this cancer, it’s still there.

        I hope sponsors do leave our sport in the next few years, a re-birthing is needed, starting with flushing out DS’s like Riis, and those at the top of the UCI (and probably a fair few steps down the pyramid as well).

        • You have to remember that there are cultural factors as well.

          In many countries (some in Europe, many in S America, for instance), diving is seen as a ‘skill’, to outwit defenders, so it’s not just a question of saying it’s bad. The UK’s better at punishing than some others, but only tough sanctions (yellows, reds) will really stamp it out. In rugby, it’s pretty cracked down on in league and union, and with citing after matches, there’s no recourse if it’s not spotted at the time. I wish football had that.

          But with cycling as well, culturally, though not on an industrial, scientific or advanced scale as it was with Festina, Puerto, USPS, doping’s always been around. You only have to read about the last 50 years from the greats to realise it’s more than just better controls. Cycling’s been a mess but at least many are now saying doping is unacceptable, rather than just pretending it doesn’t go on.

  6. Football has too much money and influence and it can lavish this on the media . Manchester United claimed it couldn’t afford drug testing. Still, drugs aren’t neccessary if the result can be ‘arranged’ beforehand. Makes Vino’s Liege win seem small as that was an agreement between two riders not a syndicate with financial leverage and influence

  7. Sport is competition, so athletes will do what ever it takes to win. So why not let everything go? Take away all the bans, and let the individual athlete decide what to do with his/her own body. Surely the public doesn’t care what happens to athletes once their ten minutes of fame in the limelight are over. The level-playing-field argument would become null because anyone could boost if he/she had the money and the fool-heartiness to do it. Without the bans, I bet there would be more takers than objectors. Was that too cynical and sarcastic?

      • A ‘level playing field’ has been discussed by INRNG on here already and rightly proves that it is anything but a level playing field.

        Obviously at the professional level there is a lot at stake and extreme levels of gain are sometimes sought, but if one rider in an Cat 4 race was doping and winning races as a result I’d be thoroughly pi$$ed off and rightly brand him a cheat!

    • I care very much what happens (including before atheletes become famous, when they are and after they have retired). All of the athletes competing were once children (in some sports they still are children). As a parent who has had children involved in sport I want that sport to be clean and fair. Yes sport is a competition but it is also much more than that as well in the role it can play in development and education. Win humbly lose graciously.

  8. Totally agree cycling should not cast stones. There is a big difference between cycling and sports like football or tennis.

    EPO turned donkeys into thoroughbreds, because at the end of the day cycling is basically a numbers game. Produce 6.7 Watts/kg day-in-day-out and you win the Tour de France, assuming a basic professional level of bike handling and a competent DS.

    Football, tennis and some of the other sports, even AFL, are far more dependent on what we might call creative skills. The striker who is in the right position at the right time, the player who anticipates the opponents’ shot. As Wayne Gretzky said “A good hockey player plays where the puck is. A great hockey player plays where the puck is going to be.”

    Yes PEDs should not be used in those sports because they give an unfair advantage in terms of fitness, training and recovery/rehabilitation but no amount of EPO or blood infusion will turn you into Franz Beckenbauer unless you were already him.

    • But they already are (Franz B). And now they’re on PEDs. So they can be top footballers at top speed for longer each match, day after day, week after week. And that’s the game at the top. Lots of games, frequently. Fast PED-driven recovery allows players and teams to play domestic, cup, Champs’ League, etc and win.

  9. Of course football is full of doping. As full as cycling. With no blood tests, and inconmensurably a lot more money at stake, what would you expect?
    On the Beckenbauer quote, and remembering the 1984 L.A. Olympics, where most endurance medal swere won with the help of blood transfusions, and much as I dislike this very distasteful practice, is there a good reason for banning it? What’s the health hazard?

  10. FIFA is incredibly reluctant to fix some of football’s obvious problems with existing methods such as goal line technology, video refs, post-match sanctions for offences missed by the ref during the game, and so on. I can’t see them embracing a proactive approach to anti-doping. If there is a problem (and all that money surely suggests that there might be) FIFA will just let it fester until it explodes. UCI 2.0.

  11. Surprised to read that Man U. could not afford ” Doping Tests “? Glasers are gutting the club and by the MILLIONS !

    Reading of Essendon & Geelong , brings back memories , never could get the hang of that game , nor why it is more popular than Rugby .

  12. I watch an awful lot of sport, from College Hoops to Darts. And I can safely say, no other sport’s competitive edge has been ruined as much by doping as cycling. Possibly Weightlifting and the Heavy Throws in athletics, but who cares about them. Lionel Messi, Lebron, Drew Brees – their performances may or may not have been enhanced by EPO, but I’ll give you a cast iron guarantee that they still would be world class with or without EPO. The only difference is that they may flop in the last 10 minutes of games. Lance Armstrong? Winningest cyclist ever who would have been an average rider if not for ‘World’s Greatest Doping Programme’.

    Now I’ll grant you that there probably is a widespread problem with doping in Spanish and Italian football. I look at players like Pirlo and I’m suspicious. Hes got stronger and has more stamina now that 10 years ago. But still, doping in soccer can only take you so far. In cycling it can take you wherever you want to go, literally.

    If people want to bleat about other sports, it’s frankly pathetic. Imagine if someone came up to you and said ‘look, your kid is taking load of drugs.’ Would you say ‘So what, that crackhead down the street is too!’ No, you would get your own house in order and not look for excuses by pointing the finger at everyone else.

    Cycling is the pro sport worst afflicted by doping. It’s also the birthplace of doping in sport, and has been a consistent innovator. In a strange way I’m actually proud of this. It’s one of the reasons I find cycling so mind-blowingly fascinating and intense. I’m also proud of the fact Cycling will (hopefully) lead the fightback against doping. Cycling has led the way in doping and must continue to do so.

    One question might remain for some, and that is ‘WHY is cycling the dopingest sport ever’? The answer may lie in cycling’s origin. As many have pointed out, the TDF was started to promote a newspapaer. So the element of competition was, right from the start, much less important than the endurance-as-a-spectacle element. Now see how this differs from other sports – Basketball and American Football, both created as collegiate, amateur sports. Soccer, Cricket, Rugby – gentleman amateur sports. You get the picture.

    The fact is, doping is killing cycling and I simply can’t see the value or use of pointing out someone else’s house is burning down whilst our own house is ablaze. If pro cycling dies, what satisfaction will it give you to see soccer on it’s knees too? Soccer’s got a lot more problems beside doping. Apart form doping, Cycling’s fucking perfect. So sort it.

    • But it’s not my kid on crack. But if it was, I’d be pissed that the police kicked down my door to arrest him while a crack head was passed out in the street outside.
      And it’s not a burning house. But I’d be really puzzled if the firefighters ignored the blaze next door while they put mine out. Particularly if the guy next door was toasting marshmallows and laughing at my burning house.
      And we can have drugs testing in other sports. It’s not either/or. Why do we have to clean up cycling before we move on? Or… will we not move on? Gentlemen style, nudge, wink, etc?
      There’s a difference between ignoring cycling drug problem – it’s there and it’s written in huge letters in the news every day – and pointing out how the problems of other sports are completely ignored.
      Puerto is the perfect chance to see how other sports deal with it. Other sports don’t want to know. Jan Ulrich ended his career without a test based on a code name (fair enough, it turned out to be what was suspected) and athletes from other sports haven’t been, and wont be, named.

    • nice post, though i tihnk you miss a couple pretty important factors – in cycling, doping is pretty much the only opportunity you have to cheat (short of hanging onto team cars and the like), in sports like football there are plenty of other avenues to cheat, from the excessive foul play of yesteryear to the embarassing diving of today. on balance i’d say that cycling looks damn clean compared to football.

      also, messi might have been a champion without epo, but it’s hard to imagine how he’d have done without the hgh that barca pumped into him as a growth-stunted youth (and as an aside, continued to pump into injury prone palyers like xavi).

  13. Chrisman, nice post

    Chris, I think that you are not hearing Chrismans point. He is speaking to his inner sense and his
    love of cycling and how in his minds eye cycling transcends criticism of what others are doing.

    I don’t mean to speak for Chrisman but I do agree with his thoughts.

    • Fair enough if that’s what he’s saying, but his “If people want to bleat about other sports, it’s frankly pathetic” sounds like it’s pointed at others rather than his inner self. Oh well, all good.

  14. Big news out of Australia today. Keep in mind that Australians (AS A MAJORITY- I am Australian) have hated on cycling since the early 2000’s. Their comments in newspapers and online articles have been so far against cycling they have called for the sport to be banned.
    Not that I want to see ANY sport affected by doping, but this does make me feel good…

  15. I think other sports can influence levels of doping by reforming their games. Sports that have interchanged players have an ability to increase the number of players available for interchange thus reducing the effects of doping for endurance. IR’s (what is your name by the way) comment of ‘relaxed precision’ really resonated with me. Why can I throw, serve, kick etc so well when I’m relaxed? Tiger Wood’s putting was pretty relaxed before he hit the fence. The stimulants that allow you to remain composed during the heat of battle must help a lot but do they help a cyclist. Deciding when to attack or even staying composed at full gas definitely would help.

    I think a lot of other sports are buggered because of doping but cycling is not one of them. For my mind we are close to achieving great things, we have had our big wake up call. Change is in the air and our testing is better, our only problem is to bring the UCI along for the journey. If the UCI demonstrate an ability to reform themselves (get rid of dead wood) cycling will be the envy of all sports.

    I think there needs to be incentives for the independent labs who catch dopers (out of UCI control) and give them access to which ever rider they want. Let them statistically analyse performances and target their suspects as well as randomised testing. If the nerds are rewarded it will drive innovation thus keeping up with the dopers. Is it dangerous to reward the scientists who stand to benefit from positives? I think not since the dopers definitely benefit from doping. The laboratories need to be research facilities of high regard, a lose of reputation within scientific institutes is no small matter. All teams could be forced to pay a bonus to the lab that detects a positive, this stimulates more research. The peloton might start to sort out the problem from within which is what should of happened. Dopers should not be tolerated from within.

    • Wow, your last thought is a really innovative one. We can all suspect who is doping. Recognition and monetary rewards to the people who identify and catch the dopers.

      Frankly, this is the type of thinking the sport(s) need at this point.

  16. For many years I played field hockey in the dutch league, classed as the best in the world. I was routinely screened by the club doctor, as were the other athletes, but the dutch national players at the time got some ‘extra’ treatments. I was once sent to a horse doctor for ‘treatment’, completely unfathomable.

    So it turns out some of the doctors used by my club and others – had strong links to pro level cycling.

    Anyway, I was fit as a butchers dog at the time – almost completed the dreaded bleep test, which is no mean feat! It always baffled me at the time how these players could play at such a high tempo for 70mins and how i couldn’t get anywhere near them!

    Doping is rife in all sports – it’s a sad sate of affairs but that’s the way it goes! Hockey’s not that high profile either…

  17. Well, let’s hope this will stop all the football fans from throwing their rocks at cycling fans :/
    I rather doubt it.
    And one very little thing in cyclings defense, for 70 years it was legal to dope, TDF toughness was dertermined on whether you had to take doping or not.
    If the cyclists could complete it without doping, then it was clearly not hard enough.

  18. Cycling is my main passion these days, but I also love international futbol and ice hockey. I don’t want to see other sports ruined. But, I get extremely annoyed when red-blooded Americans, who love football and baseball, point the finger at cycling as the dirtiest sport there is, while ignoring what goes on in their own sports. It just bothers me that cycling has a terrible image right now but other sports, because they refused to test and see the problems, go on as if nothing is wrong.

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