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?