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A Tour-de-France Inspired Comment on Drugs in Sport
By:  Tom McCarthy   (2007/08/06)


The Tour de France finished just last week, with Contador spinning his triumphant laps around the Champs Elysées. No sooner did he unclip from his pedals, it seems, did allegations surface of his involvement in the Operation Puerto doping scandal. Around the same time, Iban Mayo was revealed to have had a positive drug test during the Tour. I can’t remember how many big names that makes now, in this tour – Sinkewitz, Mayo, Vinokourov, and of course Rasmussen, who was wearing the yellow when his team pulled him out. It is enough, anyway, that this Tour became a bit of a farce – as a teammate said, you don’t move up the standings by biking fast, you do it by not getting caught, and hoping others do.

Skiing has its own share of problems with drugs. It’s not as public as the Tour, but don’t pretend for a minute that our sport isn’t laden with performance-enhancing drug use. But it seems, finally, as if public opinion may have turned on the acceptability of wide-spread drug use in sport; fans at the Tour were not complacently watching suspected dopers. They turned on Rasmussen, and television audiences in Europe, not to mention newspaper coverage, were down significantly over previous years. The legitimacy of cycling as an elite sport, and skiing to some extent, is in doubt. So maybe it’s time to take stock and see where we go from here. How do we keep the sports we love alive?

At a 50,000 foot level, here are some creative options for future direction with respect to elite endurance sport:
  1. Stop testing altogether. This option assumes that all athletes will dope. We will see performances that drop our jaws, speeds that blow us away, and feats of strength that boggle the mind. But we won’t be able to connect it to reality – athletes will assume roles of caricatures, each enhanced to maximize a specific skill. It’ll be cool to watch, no doubt – but it’ll further separate participants and spectators. Only those willing to sacrifice future health and long life will compete – participation will drop. Athletes will cease to be role models for clean and healthy living. They’ll be no more inspirational than Spiderman on the big screen.
  2. Begin collecting blood profile and physiological information at an early age. This option would involve a massive, global, multi-billion dollar initiative. When any athlete got to a certain (young) age – 15 or 16 – or when they first purchased a national or international racing license – they would have to begin submitting regular information on their blood profile. Then, any athlete that got to an elite level where testing occurred would have a complete blood profile history. This type of initiative would make it much easier to identify drastic changes in haemoglobin levels or other physiological changes that mark dopers. This would be a huge undertaking requiring global cooperation, but if it were successful, it could provide a physiological baseline with which to assess individual athletes against THEIR OWN physiological profile – not against an observed maximum profile, which is often how doctors ‘set the bar’ with respect to certain kinds of doping tests.
  3. Haemoglobin categories. This would be a controversial decision; divide elite sport into two categories. One category would be for individuals under a certain haemoglobin level, and the other would be for individuals over that line – and have no limit. The line would be set by a team of doctors, and this would quickly become the most controversial decision in the sport. The rationale, of course, is that many endurance or recovery-enhancing drugs increase the amount of haemoglobin-carrying red blood cells. Scientists think there is a natural limit to how high an individual’s haemoglobin level should be. There would be no testing of the high-haemoglobin group. In effect, this would be creating a ‘clean’ category vs. a ‘dirty’ category. There are several weaknesses with this concept: a) some individuals have naturally high levels that would likely place them over the line without any drugs, and leave them racing dopers, and b) nothing would stop individuals from doping to just under the line. Nevertheless, it is an interesting option to consider.
  4. Voluntary compliance – team or individual basis. Voluntary compliance is similar to what some teams seem to be beginning to do – invite doctors into their camps and team structure to monitor blood and other levels continuously. Jetstream and CSC, in particular, are two cycling teams that have invited doctors into their camps. The doctors are mandated to oversee the athletes and ensure there is no foul play. This voluntary team approach is only trustworthy if the team directors are committed to a clean approach – and that commitment, of course, has to be based on trust. Individual compliance would involve every athlete committing to be completely clean – this is similar to what is supposed to happen now, but the message would be reinforced – harsher penalties, more rigorous and frequent testing, and harsh penalties for missing tests. Many think a voluntary compliance approach is not working, as the temptation for glory and financial reward are still considered by many athletes to be worth the risk.
  5. Status quo. No consideration of options would be complete without a consideration of the status quo. This involves the maintenance of the current drug testing regimes and penalties. It also involves no change to the relationships between the national or professional teams, the international and national sport federations, the umbrella sport governing bodies, and race organizers. Often, these relationships are deemed to be too confrontational or too complicitous to be considered of great utility in the fight against dopers.

All of the above are only some chance thoughts, sparked by a wild Tour that could be the last one viewed by many, unless riders start coming clean – and racing clean. There are likely many more options out there, certainly more legitimate than my own.

What are your thoughts, on either my options, or on your own? Write in and we’ll post them!

Interesting Reading. . .
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