Skip to content

Stop Persecuting Armstrong: Time for a Doping Amnesty in Cycling

By Julian Savulescu and Bennett Foddy

The anti-doping witch hunt being perpetrated by the US Anti-Doping Agency (USADA) is ruining cycling. There is a simple solution: an amnesty for dopers and relax anti-doping laws.

The Story So Far

Lance Armstrong has accused the USADA of running a vendetta amidst claims from a Dutch newspaper that 4 former team mates are witnesses against him, all of whom are riding in this year’s Tour de France. Speculation on what was offered to these riders in exchange from their testimony has focussed on a six month ban, delayed until after the Tour de France, though this has been denied. USADA has refused to name any of the 10 witnesses. Lance Armstrong, in a tweet, has labelled the anonymity and immunity offered in exchange for testimony against him as ‘selective prosecution’ and a ‘vendetta’.

Armstrong stands accused of doping violations between 1998 and 2005, and, if found guilty, will face losing all his seven wins, with accusations including the use of EPO, blood transfusions and steroids, following his treatment for cancer and throughout his Tour de France wins. His former team mates Hincapie, Leipheimer, Vande Velde and Zabriskie did not stand for consideration for the United States Olympic team. A two year federal investigation resulted in no charges filed and Armstrong has not failed any drug tests but has been dogged by rumours and accusations for many years.

The fact is though that every winner of the Tour de France has been implicated in doping since Miguel Indurain, except Cadel Evans and Andy Schleck.

Over 18 months after the race, Alberto Contador was recently stripped of his 2010 Tour de France title, and banned for 2 years by the Court of Arbitration for Sport, making Andy Schleck the winner of the 2010 race.

Contador’s ban is punishment for the traces of clenbuterol, an anabolic steroid were found in his blood. Initially cleared by the Royal Spanish Cycling Federation back in February 2011, Contador blamed the traces on contaminated meat brought in by a friend- indeed the traces were small- 40 times lower than the minimum rate WADA insists labs must be able to register to gain accredited status. However, it is possible that Contador was blood doping using blood taken during a training phase that had been insufficiently washed, leaving traces of steroids behind. Plasticizers were also found in his blood and can be a sign of IV usage, though the doctor who invented the test believes these tests may not yet be legally binding. Floyd Landis was also excluded with a similar pattern of steroid detected during the final stages of the race, probably as a result of contaminated blood doping.

Eddy Merckx said at the time of Contador’s ban to Eurosport: “Sad for him and cycling. I think someone wants the death of cycling. We’re going too far”

In the 2007 Tour de France race leader and likely eventual winner, Michael Rasmussen, was sacked a few stages from the end on an allegation of doping (without evidence). Pre-race favourite Vinokourov was expelled after blood doping and his team Astana withdrew. The Cofidis team withdrew from the Tour de France following the news that their Italian rider Cristian Moreni tested positive for testosterone. The eventual winner was in fact the now-convicted drug doper, Contador, and this victory has not been affected by his recent ban.

The Tour has moved from being the greatest test of human endurance to a petty media-fest of allegations, recriminations and scandals, with the world’s best athletes being expelled like shabby contestants in Big Brother.

For the competitors, doping is a part of the spirit of Le Tour. Since it began in 1903,riders have invariably used performance-enhancing substances in an attempt get through the gruelling 21 day test of human endurance. They have taken alcohol, caffeine, cocaine, amphetamines, steroids, growth hormone, EPO and blood doping. Fausto Coppi, who won the golden jersey in 1949 and 1952, summed it up when he was asked whether heever used amphetamines, or ‘La Bomba’, and replied, “Only when absolutely necessary.”  When asked how often that was, he said, “Most of the time.” (From Geoffrey Wheatcroft’s Le Tour: A History of the Tour de France)

 The 1967 Tour saw English rider Simpson collapse and die during the competition with amphetamines in his pocket.

The Tour requires a superhuman effort. Bjarne Riis, 1996 Tour winner, admitted taking EPO. The 1997 winner, Jan Ulrich, was later alleged to be taking drugs. Floyd Landis, 2006 winner, was disqualified testing positive for testosterone.

Looking at the ranking of the 10th Stage of Tour de France 2005 (Grenoble- Courchevel), Verner Moller in his excellent book, ‘The Scapegoat’ notes that of the first 25 riders placed on that stage, only seven are still uncompromised by doping allegations or convictions. And only one in the top 17 (Cadel Evans) is untainted.

Indeed with the ever increasing speed of the Tour de France, some riders have claimed it is now impossible without doping. In 1989, when advances were made in bike technology, average speed was 37.5kph. In 2005, it was 40.9kph, an increase of over 8%. Moller explains these apparently small increases in speed mask a large increase in effort- 8% increase in speed means 16% more air must be moved, means 16% more energy is required to go 8% faster. In the context of a race won by seconds, by athletes at the top of their abilities, this is a huge increase.
Jacksche, an ex-cyclist who has confessed doping, but after 1998 scandals rode 1999 clean, described his experience riding without enhancement:

“You hope from day-to-day that the speed goes down. You have to push yourself harder and your recuperation is slower, there was no way I could hang on, and I felt completely superfluous. In the end I was afraid of being left behind on a railway bridge.” He explains the catch – 22: “Only the one who dopes wins. Only the one who wins appears in the media. Only the one in the media makes the sponsor happy. Only happy sponsors invest new money in the team the following year.”

The Solution

Based on the obvious and abundant evidence, it would be unusual if a winner of the Tour today could recurrently win the Tour without doping. Of course it is possible but it is highly likely that most, or at least a very substantial proportion, of top level riders and nearly all recent winners of the Tour have been doping.

In such an environment, it achieves nothing worthwhile to attack the legends of the sport. It is arbitrary and unfair to single out high profile dopers from the past when we can’t be sure in any reliable way who was and was not doping, especially when all evidence indicates it has been, and probably still is, rife.

It is especially wrong to persecute past dopers when there is a better and obvious solution.

First, we need to stop all investigations into past doping. It is past. We can never fully and fairly investigate who was and was not doping in the past. We should create an amnesty for past dopers.

Second, we should relax the ban on doping. Much of the fuss in the Tour that is destroying its spectacle and credibility is related to the use of EPO to raise red blood cell levels and increase oxygen carrying capacity. Recently, riders seemed to have turned away from using EPO to using blood doping, transfusing back previously donated blood at that time of a race. Last year, one rider got renal failure from using blood that was too old. Blood doping is virtually impossible to detect.

But we could eliminate this whole problem with the stroke of a pen. If we allowed riders to blood dope up to a haematocrit level of 50 % where half their blood would be red blood cells, we could administer a safe, cheap, simple reliable test on all riders. Those over 50% would be out, those under in. There would be no more blood doping scandals. And such a level is already accepted by the international cycling union as safe.

What about other drugs, like steroids, growth hormone etc? Is there also a solution for them?

Three arguments are commonly given in favour of prohibiting the use of any performance-enhancing drug in sporting competition. That the drug is too unsafe. That it perverts the nature and spirit of the sporting competition. And that we should ban the drug simply because it enhances performance.

The last of the three ought to be dismissed out of hand every time it appears. Modern athletic sport is entirely focused on finding new ways to break the old records, and most of the effective methods are legal. Hypoxic training tents, which simulate the effect of training at high altitude by allowing the blood to carry more oxygen, are legal. Caffeine, which improves reaction time and fights fatigue, is legal. So are advanced dietary regimes, which maximize the amount of energy available to the athlete’s muscles on the day of competition.

The other two arguments, by contrast, provide us with good reason for banning certain drugs in certain situations. Some drugs do change the nature of a given sport, so that it changes into a less interesting or less valuable pursuit. For example, we tend to think that one of the most interesting things about boxing is that boxers need to overcome their fear of being hit to perform well. If they took a drug that entirely eliminated their ability to feel fear, or pain, this valuable aspect of the performance would be eliminated from the sport. Similarly, when archers or professional pistol shooters use beta-blocker drugs to steady their hands, that removes one of the most interesting aspects of those sports: the challenge of controlling one’s nerves.

Do anabolic steroids and growth hormone make cycling and athletic sports like running less interesting? It is hard to see why this would be the case. Steroids enhance performance by allowing athletes to train longer and recover more quickly. They enhance the effect of training. Athletes on steroids still have to train hard, in fact they still have to overcome every challenge faced by their non-doping peers. If every Olympic sprinter or cyclist were using steroids, it would still be the same sport, just slightly faster.

Finally, there is the argument that drugs need to be banned because they are too dangerous. In the history of competitive sport several exceedingly dangerous drugs have been used to enhance performance. In the third modern Olympic games, the winner of the men’s marathon was given strychnine (a lethal poison) during the race as a stimulant. More recently, drugs have appeared that allows athletes to modify their genes to increase the performance of their muscles—but these drugs are nowhere near safe enough for humans, and their side effects are not well understood. It makes sense to ban drugs like these.

However, the dangers of any performance-enhancer need to be put in context. Nothing in life is completely safe, not even drinking water or going for a morning stroll. Athletic sport is especially dangerous—it causes more deaths, both in training and competition, than steroids do, and it produces millions of crippling injuries every year. If a performance-enhancing drug is significantly less dangerous than the training for that sport, or than competing in it, then the dangers of the drug may be so low as to make them insignificant.

In the case of cycling, the dangers of cycling at speeds in excess of 60km/hr vastly outweigh the risks of the use of steroids or growth hormone, when administered by a medical professional.

Anabolic steroids are nothing more than the synthetic form of the natural hormone, testosterone. To receive a benefit in sporting performance, ordinary athletes need to take a dose of the hormone that would be very unusual in an unenhanced body. But testosterone is not a poisonous substance like strychnine. In its naturally-occurring form it is a natural byproduct of heavy training, and many of its worst side-effects—immune deficiency, enlarged ventricles in the heart, and depression—are also common symptoms of overtraining. In this context, steroids are still dangerous, but perhaps not much more dangerous than hard training and professional full-contact sport.

We have good reason to ban certain kinds of performance enhancing drugs. Boxers should not be able to take strong painkillers during competition, and no athlete should be able to take truly dangerous or untested drugs like the new genetic medicines. But the case against steroids is much weaker.

The biggest problem with anabolic steroids is that they are obtained illegally, and then self-administered in secret by athletes who are not trained to identify overuse or to scale their dose appropriately. Like many behind-the-counter drugs, steroids can be taken safely but it is not safe enough to take them on your own. It would be much safer to take steroids for performance enhancement if they could be administered and monitored by a doctor.

For these reasons, we suggest that the legal shackles are removed from steroid and growth hormone use, and put in the hands of the prescription system. Athletes would be able to obtain steroids from their doctor on request. However, the moral and legal responsibility for the athlete’s health would be passed from the athlete, who after all is no expert on modern medicine, to the doctor. Any doctor who overprescribed steroids, or who prescribed any unreasonably dangerous drug, would be struck off the medical register.

We can preserve the nature and spirit of competitive sport as well as the health of athletes, and we can do it within the existing structures of the medical drug schedule and prescription system. Perhaps there is no need for an anti-doping programme at all, in cycling, or indeed in any sport.


This blog draws on some material from previous blogs and publications. For more on doping sport, please see hot topics

Share on

21 Comment on this post

  1. This is the most thoughtful piece I’ve yet seen on the Armstrong case. It is so refreshing to see authors actually think carefully about the implications and ramifications of so many angles. “Amnesty” is a brilliant idea; according to cyclists Tyler Hamilton and Floyd Landis, most if not all of the pelleton once you reach this level of competition are using PED and even exchange tips on how not to get caught. What will they do? Strip Armstrong of his titles and give them to the next cleverest doper, or the next one down the hierarchy whose blood samples they did not subject to such arduous testing.

    Thank you for writing this. Now we can say at least one really intelligent thing came out of this very sad chapter: this article.

  2. So is the hidden premise that it is impossible to track drug-use among athletes? Call me old-fashioned, but I would appreciate steroid and blood transfusion-free sport.

  3. Strange how an amnesty is being suggested now Dopestrong looks like he’s gonna be exposed. Don’t remember too much sympathy for Contador, Landis, Rasmussen, Ricco, Hamilton, Vinikourov, Virenque, Ullrich, in fact the list is endless. They were pilloried as filthy cheats, ruining a noble sport.
    Time for the arrogant one to be judged the same as the rest of them, if it shatters the dreams of a few sheep then so be it.

  4. So…at what juncture in their careers should aspiring professional athletes be allowed to legally dope? Should it be totally disallowed until, say, an athlete starts drawing an actual paycheck, or graduates from collegiate sports? Do you think college athletes could be dissuaded from doping if they know it would be legal post-grad? Should PEDs gradually be phased in throughout the life of any competitor, of any age, who dreams of someday becoming a pro? What about barely pubescent, but Olympic level, gymnasts? Would younger and “amateur” athletes be sanctioned for drugs that would be okay as soon as they made the commitment to turning pro?

    I just don’t see how any kind of delineation could realistically and morally be made and enforced. “No, kids, you can’t take this stuff — yet. Sure, it would make you faster & stronger than your opponents now, but that’s only okay for the professionals.”

  5. So fine, we all know most cyclists are doping but then to legalize it? I don’t know. As an amateur cyclist I like to watch these races and think about the amazing hard work and dedication it takes to ride at the elite level. Call me selfish but I don’t want my dream destroyed by knowing positively that all of the athletes are doping. I just think that is the wrong message to send the sport and anyone who strives to be great. If your proposal were to succeed, I’d want to see a new jersey created for the best clean rider. I’d root for that guy every year.

  6. This is ethics? Maybe lack thereof. Your essay is based on the premise that USADA is ruining cycling. Lance Armstrong will be responsible if the sport is brought to its knees. Revealing him for the cheat and fraud he is can only heal the sport in the long run. Since your premise is wrong, your entire piece is off. USADA wants sport to flourish. The most ethical and moral way for that to happen is for it to be clean.
    I gather you’ve never yourselves been involved in professional sport (didn’t bother to read the entire piece since the premise is so off). Drugs in sport hurt the clean athlete who couldn’t have a career in their sport.
    History repeats itself if it’s forgotten. Where there are drugs, there were crimes committed. Yet you ignore this buying into Armstrong’s talking points of a so-called Armstrong said “vendetta”. Let me get this straight: first the French hated him due to jealousy, now his own country hates him because _______(fill in the blank) merely because they want the truth to prevail. Mindless robots touting the Armstrong mantra. Says more about your morals and ethics – or lack thereof – and the cultural decay of our society when illegal and unethical acts should be tolerated and accepted as you suggest.

  7. Amnesty is maybe a logical thing to do (though impossible to do for lance now) but there is no reason to NOT insist on clean sports. I’m OK with a Clean TDF and a Dirty TDF, two separate races and we can let the audience pick which one they want to watch…

    I for one might enjoy watching EPO and steroid crazed people on amphetamines hit the alps. But I certainly would not have much respect for them, nor would I want my kids to participate in a drug-addled sports spectacle.

    Clean is good, clean is noble, clean is fair.

    1. Hallelujah to that. Let them cheat in their own race. I’d rather see a race 20% slower where there was zero tolerance on drugs. Of course some might cheat, but they would know the cost, to careers and reputations.

      Allow a certain level of haemo in the blood? People will just push the level, wherever it is. They do it with drink-driving, they will do it with this. Human nature.

      Lifetime ban for proved drug use. Make the penalty harsh enough that they have to change career. Any teams proven of conspiring, no-one on them that can be proved to have had knowledge, who did not walk away – banned from the sport for life.

      I believe there are quite a few successful riders who have not doped. And it is a shame they are not more celebrated, because of the cheats.

  8. Such emphasis on what MAY have happened in the past takes focus away from what is happening now. If a test didn’t catch it, it should be done, over. Develop better methods for detection in the future but stop the endless whisper campaigns. End the extortion of current bikers to persecute those no longer in the sport over races done and finished. Move on. Go forward. Concentrate on the here and now. If the test for the race is clean, that’s it. Once results are declared, don’t go back. This endless quest to nullify past results will ruin the spot. Get better at detection but stop focusing on the past. Look to the future and move on.

  9. Amazing, how forgiveness, a term used by almost all religions, is borrowed, re-branded and used by the 2st century ethicist(s).

  10. To begin with, I completely agree with the comment that the USADA (“You Sad-a” How appropriate!) is engaged in a “witch hunt” against Lance Armstrong. If they were legitimately interested in cleaning up the sport, they would be investigating ALL American cyclists, past and present. You cannot go after Mr. Armstrong, who is no longer a professional cyclist and not investigate Greg LeMond from the past as well. Next, I also believe that the past is the past. Once a race (stage or final day) is over, the drug investigation should be over as well. There should be a statute of limitations on investigation for several reasons: First, financial resources for testing should not be squandered. Second, scientific inquiry requires replicable results. Once, the “A” sample is cleared, it is not good science to hold the “B” sample for ten years in hopes of a new test to catch doping because there is no “C” sample for fairness. Third, we are not stalking mass murderers here. There needs to be a limit to how long we investigate an athlete. Lance Armstrong has passed over 500 drug tests during his career. What anybody else thinks about it doesn’t matter. Opinion is just that—opinion. After that, the comment that ” For the competitors, doping is part of the spirit of the Le Tour” is also true, again whether or not anybody likes it. Changes in culture come slowly and, in this case, internationally, which means even more slowly. Whether or not USADA likes it, American cyclists are competing on international stages against athletes of other nations who may not have the same American holy zeal for a clean sport. That puts huge pressures on the athlete, squashed between USADA and the existential need to please financial backers who, also in good American tradition, demand winning seasons, as observed in this essay. If doping is caught, perhaps it would be more to the point to fine the financial backers themselves. Always start where the money is. Finally, I cannot yet comment on the concept of releasing athletes almost entirely from drug controls—Tom Simpson dying on the slopes of Mont Ventoux from a combination of amphetamines and alcohol is too much in mind. However, no one has yet been able to explain to me why a transfusion of your own blood is doping. It’s your own blood! They give transfusions of glucose solutions at the end of marathons to replenish liquids. That’s a “foreign substance.” Cyclists take vitamins, another “foreign substance.” As observed in this essay, caffeine is legal—another “foreign substance.” Yet your own blood is not allowed. Rubbish. It’s time to hear more from the doctors and from those who have NOTHING to gain or lose from a connection to sport or government.

  11. Lance Armstrong compared to the head of the mafia? My, we are into hyperbole today, aren’t we?

  12. “There are of course some drugs that are harmful in themselves —for example, anabolic steroids.” (Savulescu, Foddy and Clayton, 2004)

    So, are anabolic steroids inherently harmful or not?

  13. Christophe Bassons and Filippo Simeoni. Both bullied by Armstrong for the simple act of speaking out and breaking omerta. They had their careers ruined not only by doping, but deliberately ruined by Armstrong. To say Armstrong was just “doing what everyone else was” is disingenuous. He went further than the others. He team-wide program that meant he pushed drugs on his team-mates. To make sure this wasn’t caught out, he bribed the authorities and abused his position as the sport’s superstar. Funny that over his 7-year dope-fuelled reign, everyone else who shared a podium with him got popped at one time or another, but when his number is up it is time for an amnesty. Not buying it at all, give me a break.

  14. Very interesting piece. Most of its arguments are surprisingly simple. Another ethical restriction on rules for doping: one can only outlaw substances that can be tested reliably and quickly. If an organising body imposes rules that it cannot enforce sufficiently (that is, it bans substances but cannot trust the tests), the concept of a clean competition faces the equivalent of the “tragedy of the commons”.

    In short, the rule should be “if the drug test after the competition is negative, the result stands”. Part of the appeal of sports is that decisions are instant. Another point, doping is (used to be?) a foul, not a crime.

  15. “(CNN) — Two doctors and a trainer associated with Lance Armstrong’s former U.S. Postal Service team were suspended for life Tuesday by the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency.
    Dr. Michele Ferrari, a consultant; Dr. Luis Garcia del Moral, team doctor; and Jose “Pepe” Martí were part of a large-scale doping conspiracy, according to the USADA. The agency says Armstrong, who won six Tour de France championships while with U.S. Postal, was also involved in doping.”

Comments are closed.