Saturday, October 20, 2012

Doping - My thoughts, let me show you them. TL;DR

Be warned - this is long, and rambly and I'm pretty sure it doesn't really go anywhere.

I wasn't sure if I wanted to post anything about the recent revelations of doping in cycling, or about Christian Hesch the runner that has admitted to doping. But, the more I keep reading the more fascinated I became with all of it. Of course, part of the reason I got interested in science was because I when I was young, I thought it would be interesting to work for an anti-doping lab. Other people watched the Olympics for the athletics, and I was more interested in how they catch cheats. This career has sadly not come to fruition, however.

Anyway, I think the other part of the fascination comes from the fact I feel so far removed from it, that it seems like a completely different world. I ended up talking to a few people who said that we'd probably be surprised at what happens even on the local level behind the scenes. I can't help but wonder what they know that I don't, but no one was divulging anything. As an outsider, it seems kind of crazy to have someone inject you with something, claiming it's "vitamins" and not know exactly what it is. Or just doping in general. But then, these people are competing at a level I can't ever hope to be at, and I can understand having to trust the people around you. The idea makes me uncomfortable, but I'm so far removed from that sort of competition level that I don't know the atmosphere or pressure they are under.

Prior to the USADA Armstrong report I more thought of doping as an individual thing - more with individual track athletes than with entire teams of people. I knew in a vague way that cycling has had issues with doping in the past, but I had thought that it had more or less stopped, and if it was going on, it would be individuals not entire teams. I am still very anti-doping, but this whole affair has just made me...kind of sad. Sad for the people that felt that they had to dope to stay on the team, to keep riding, that were intimidated and bullied into doing it. I realize that they still had a choice, but not being under that sort of pressure, I am trying to understand how one could get to that point. I suppose you could argue that individual athletes have their own sponsors to keep happy, and to keep competing, but at least then it feels like the choice of the individual, and you are only bringing yourself down in the end. It's not like the domestiques in cycling get much recognition - who the hell remembers all the riders that were on Lance Armstrong's team when he won? I don't know, I guess in the end my thoughts are if you want to fuck yourself up, go ahead, but pushing it on other people is just not cool.

I find the argument that if people took drugs it was to level the playing field aggravating, because 1) it doesn't make it right, and 2) there are naturally gifted athletes that wouldn't benefit as much (like if you naturally have high hematocrit, EPO won't help you as much as someone who had naturally low hematocrit), so it's not really leveling anything. It makes less talented athletes able to compete with more gifted athletes, and possibly outperform them, or in the case of the runner, able to compete enough that he can make a living at running. For people that know that they aren't going to win any big races, being able to essentially cherry-pick some races that you are fairly sure you can place in because they small field, and a decent purse, I can see how it could be tempting to take something.

Admittedly I am a bit of a sucker for those that seem genuinely remorseful and admit to fucking up. In that, it was interesting to read the affidavits of the cyclists that came forward. I'm curious of those that came out as dopers in the case, what they will do next - will they go the David Millar route, and be an anti-doping advocate, or will they keep their head low, and hope to never answer questions about it. Myself, I'm hoping it's the former rather than the latter, because I think that in this case, it's not just about owning your mistakes, but showing how you aren't going to repeat them. Especially with the reputation that cycling has. Part of my issue with some track athletes is that they are content to serve their suspension and come back and no one ever asks them anything about it, they don't make any substantial statements about it, their regrets, how they want things to be changed etc. It doesn't make me think you changed, and that's what I want to see. Sponsors come back and everything is just swept under the rug, it's like no one cares.

I think it is that thought - that people are just trying to close their ears and not talk about it, how they "just want to move forward", that makes me frustrated. I realize it is in the past, and that people want to move on from it, but I think that there is some value in, at least, acknowledging it, rather than every time it comes up saying "we want to move on, it's in the past the sport is different now". Tell me how it is different. Tell me how your team is going to prevent doping. Simply put, prove your statement(s) to the casual fans because otherwise, why should they come back to the sport? Cycling is so damaged at this point (though why track isn't despite the numerous doping convictions is beyond me), that you have to show us that you changed. Granted I live in North America, so admittedly cycling coverage is scant, but google is a wonderful thing, and most of what I'm seeing is people shoving their heads in the sand and stubbornly not talking about it and saying it's because they want to 'move on'. I don't know, one the one hand I can see how being asked about in constantly, particularly if you weren't a rider during the time it was going on, how that could be annoying and frustrating, but on the other, it's not a topic that is going to go away, so at some point someone is going to have to find a more effective way of dealing with the topic when it comes up.

I'm not sure that Sky has the right approach here, having their riders and staff sign something that says they have never doped. While I appreciate that they want to be seen as a 'clean' team, I'm not convinced that this is the way to do it. If someone doesn't sign, they are fired, if they lie, and sign, if they are found out, they're fired. They aren't following up beyond interviewing their staff and having them sign, so it feels more like lip service than anything. I don't know. Put in that position, if someone on the team had doped, they're screwed either way. There is no benefit to coming clean, and if they have lied this long, what will prevent them from doing it again? I don't know. I kind of see both sides, but at the same time, Michael Barry showed that you can have doped, not been caught and be signed to a team that says they won't have riders that have ever doped. So clearly that system isn't fool-proof, and signing an extra piece of paper won't change that. I totally get where Sky is coming from -  how do you trust someone that has been involved in doping, how do you know if they won't bring it to your team, and athletes, but I also think people can change, and can offer some sort of support, knowledge and insight into it that can be helpful. It's a difficult situation to be in, I guess. But I think that if someone comes clean voluntarily that it means something. If they change, and advocate against doping - I think that means something. These people have knowledge of how athletes can get to the point where they have to dope, how they could hide it, how they could avoid positive tests, and that knowledge could be valuable. I don't know if there is a 'right' way for teams to proceed. I do think being public with your team policy is helpful, since it does show that you are trying to change, at least.

Anyway, this got long and rambly. I find the topic interesting though, and sad. It's easy to look in as an outsider and judge people, but if nothing else, at least now I have a glimmer of understanding of how some people could get to that point, which is more than I could say before. It turns out even elite athletes are only human. I still hate it though, and I want to think that most athletes are clean, but I know that every time I hear of any elite athlete being accused of doping, I'm less surprised than the time before. I'm going to try to be optimistic though that things will be better in the future.

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