Last week, shockwaves went through the sporting media as Nike officially cut ties with Lance Armstrong and Armstrong stood down as chairman of his Livestrong charity in the light of a massive swathe of damning evidence released by USADA, the USA’s anti-doping agency. Lost in the waves were the ripples of another doping story: little-known US runner Christian Hesch admitted to two years of EPO (erythropoietin; hormone controlling red blood cell production) use. Little needs to be said about the achievements of Armstrong, the most celebrated cyclist in modern sporting history. A ‘road warrior’, Hesch is a member of a sub-elite class of athletes who earn their living travelling from road race (running) to road race picking up small winnings, sometimes with a little travel/equipment support from racing teams. With a 3:58 mile best, he has never and will never make the Olympics; he is unknown outside of the USA’s running community where he made himself visible with flamboyant racing outfits and finish-line stunts.
In 2010, Hesch was hit by a car, picking up minor injuries and putting him ‘out of business’ for 5 months. With no workman’s comp, he turned to EPO to speed his return to racing fitness. While Armstrong was retiring from competitive cycling, Hesch was making trips down to Tijuana, Mexico, and smuggling EPO vials back into the USA, stuffed into his pockets. Armstrong was part of what USADA has referred to as “the most sophisticated, professionalised and successful doping programme that the sport has ever seen”; Hesch was architect of his own doping programme, injecting himself 54 times over the course of two years. He was rarely tested; eventually team-mates from Nike Team Run LA found evidence of drug use in his possession and presented him with an own-up-or-we’ll-tell ultimatum. They contacted USADA on September 6th and Hesch promptly confessed. While breaking the news himself on popular running forum http://www.letsrun.com, he posted “I want to make it clear that I don’t blame anyone for any & all feelings against me, it’s my bed that I’ve made and I will sleep in it… hopefully, someday I can earn your respect back.”
When it comes to the very top level endurance sport athletes, where the bar is set in terms of legal vs. illegal enhancements appears largely irrelevant. The current legal list currently includes altitude tents for the ‘natural’ EPO effect, high doses of caffeine, medication to correct previously undiagnosed asthmatic and thyroid conditions and a lot more. The USADA evidence suggests that in many cases where illegal doping is happening in combination with these legal supplements, it is being very closely monitored by medical teams. The argument for saying “make everything legal and be damned with it” is clear.
Is the same true for athletes coming through, and athletes on the cusp of the professional ranks? Is a scenario where, to compete with the pros or even be noticed it is a requirement to be on EPO and HGH, in the best interests of athletes; especially young athletes? Become a top athlete and you have a medical team to monitor you; until then, the choice may end up being between Tijuana, a syringe and a bathroom stall, or being an also-ran. Consider also the implications for athletes in developing nations like Kenya (where reports of more widespread doping are starting to appear); drugs with significant risks attached like EPO can be fairly cheap and easy to procure, medical supervision can be less so.
Given that we cannot protect all athletes with medical monitoring, is it better to protect them with a culture in which use of these drugs is wrong, and with the knowledge that even the mightiest and best-protected of cheaters can fall?
USADA have claimed this as a victory, calling the result “a reassuring reminder that there is hope for future generations to compete on a level playing field without the use of performance-enhancing drugs”.
If Armstrong is stripped of his Tour victories, the new list of “winners” will contain many names familiar to those who have followed cycling’s infamous doping scandals: Jan Ullrich (banned for doping), Ivan Basso (banned for doping), Andreas Klöden (accused of blood doping- the case was closed when he made a 25000 Euro payment to settle the charges, without an admission of guilt. NADA, the German anti-doping agency, have recently expressed an interest in re-opening the case), and Joseba Beloki (implicated though not charged in Operacion Puerto investigations). Of the new victors, only Jaan Kirsipuu has been neither implicated nor proven to be doping. If he is the hope that USADA is banking on, it is a slim one. Along with many who have previously been banned for doping, Basso and Klöden are still riding, still performing at a competitive elite level (5th in Giro d’Italia 2012 and 11th in Tour de France 2012 respectively). The Olympic gold medal in road cycling was won by Vinokourov, another convicted doper.
FIFA want referees to be tested for drugs: delegates at FIFA’s medical congress were told by FIFA officers that referees in the future might be tested for doping. “We have to consider referees as part of the game,” said FIFA’s chief medical officer Jiri Dvorak. “We do not have an indication that this is a problem but this is something we have to look at. The referees are a neglected population.”
One might of course wonder whether this is typical extension of regulations beyond where they make sense, perhaps driven by Parkinsonian expansion of bureaucracy. If there has not been any indications of a problem, it doesn’t seem rational to try to solve it. To investigate whether there is an undetected problem in the first place and then try to solve it if there is one is rational, but starting out with banning doping in judges regardless of whether it matters sounds a bit like a “everything looks like a nail when you have a hammer” mindset from the anti-doping organisations.
Maybe some doping of referees might actually make the sport better?
Nitrates in food reduces the oxygen cost of some forms of exercise and improves high-intensity exercise tolerance. So the researchers gave half a litre of beetroot juice (which is rich in nitrate) or a nitrate depleted placebo to club-level competitive cyclists. The nitrate juice produced better cycling performance when compared to the placebo. On a 16.1 km race beet juice reduced the total time by 2.7% – not much, but presumably enough to matter in a competition.
In any case, this is fun for doping discussions. Should we ban athletes from quaffing beet juice?