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Why Does the USADA Want Convicted Dopers to Win the Tour de France?

Lance Armstrong may be stripped of his 7 Tour De France wins after he announced today that he will mount no defence against USADA’s charges of doping throughout his career.

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.

As Verner Moller has pointed out, it is difficult to understand why people dope if they are subsequently capable of riding clean and winning. Nor has the pace let up. The Tour de France winner’s average speed in 2012 was faster than Lance Armstrong’s 2000 win and than the infamous 2007 Tour which was marred by a string of doping scandals.

It would be one thing to watch the Tour de France and other sports in the knowledge that riders are competing using training, determination and talent alone. But all the evidence shows that is not the case, and will probably never be the case. New doping methods arise as old ones become testable, including gene doping. USADA themselves, in chasing Armstrong despite his history of clean tests, have shown a lack of faith in the testing system’s ability to catch cheats. They have allegedly relied on his team mates snitching on him for lenient treatment.

Under the current system, doping appears to be widespread, and only sporadically detected. It is also a danger to the athletes. In 2011, Riccardo Ricco was rushed to hospital, allegedly due to a poorly administered blood transfusion. A number of rider deaths and other damage have been linked to drugs . It will be impossible to ever know the extent of any damage, as there are no effective controls.

The war on doping has been tried and has failed. It has cost millions. The lives of the few athletes who are caught are ruined, whilst the culture of doping remains prevalent. However, more worryingly, many more young athletes are a victim of a system which demands doping in order to be competitive, to win races which will get a sponsor, who will pay for them to carry on competing. Yet the current system forces them to do so without any safety controls and under cover. Allowing doping, under the protection of a doctor who is responsible for the athlete’s long term health, and measuring key indicators to ensure they are at safe levels, will ultimately provide a greater protection for future generations than giving Lance Armstrong’s victories to a less high profile set of riders with doping histories of their own.

It is time for a moratorium on the witch hunt for dopers. It is time to set up a new harm reduction approach to doping that bans only very unsafe substances and interventions which are inimical to sport. But Armstrong, even if the allegations were true, never used any of these.

It is time to take a realistic, rational approach to performance enhancement in sport. The crusades and the witch hunts are ruining it for everyone, not the least the athletes themselves.

Additional Blogs/ Interviews on this subject:

We Need an Open Market in Doping, Der Spiegel

Stop Persecuting Armstrong: Time for a Doping Amnesty in Cycling

The Charade of Blood Dope Testing

Oxford Debates: Drugs in Sports

How to Win the War on Drugs in Sports

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10 Comment on this post

  1. I really appreciated this post. While I would prefer cycling to be free of doping, I think the USADA is causing far greater harm to the sport. Your suggestions of pragmatic reform seem to be the best course of action. Unfortunately, it seems to me that the USADA and its supporters employ an unforgiving rhetoric of absolutes that precludes any course of action that takes degrees of harm into consideration. I do have a couple questions:

    1. You write, “But Armstrong, even if the allegations were true, never used any of these.” Presumably, by “these”, you mean the “very unsafe substances and interventions which are inimical to sport” that you propose to ban. Where have you read this? I am quite certain Armstrong doped, and I’m guessing you feel the same way, so I’d be interested in learning a bit more about what specific substances Armstrong is alleged to have taken or not taken. Could you provide any relevant links?

    2. My only real worry with your reform suggestions is that allowing doping would shift even more dramatically the nature of athletic preparation from the “natural” (running laps around the track) to the “artificial” (developing new safe ways to dope). Could allowing doping incentivize the pouring of more and more money, time, talent, innovation, etc. into the development of doping agents and other “artificial” methods of training, thus taking away from the development of novel athletic technique, weight training regimens, or whatever it is that people tend to associate with “natural” training? Many opponents of the U.S. “War on Drugs” argue that legalizing drugs like marijuana or cocaine would reduce the number of drug related deaths by eliminating the need for a black market of supply. Do you believe the “War on Doping” is structurally similar? In other words, would allowing doping eliminate the market for ever new, yet safe, doping agents, or could it “shift” the nature of athletics in the way I’ve outlined toward an even greater market of supply?

  2. I don’t think I fully follow the argument here. I can see the problem with passing on tour wins to other dopers. However the case for allowing some kinds of doping was unclear to me. Are your key premises about (1) the inevitability of cyclists doping (‘the system demands it to be competitive’) and (2) the harm this may cause them? I think (1) is dubious. Might it not be that doping has been a short cut for a small group, rather than the majority? Unless you want to imply that most successful cyclists are not clean? surely, the improvement of testing methods is such that there is now too much to lose and too hard to hide? Bradley Wiggins’ piece on what he stands to lose if he dopes was v persuasive to me. What would be your response to that?

  3. I wholeheartedly agree with the points you have made. As a chemical engineer it has always disturbed me that supposedly educated people (running the USADA) are so ignorant of science and engineering (applied science) that they do not understand that all human development in the last 1000+ years has been made with “human performance enhancing drugs” and that the people driving such effort will always stay ahead of the people that do not understand it. The fact that pro-cycling is one of the leading edges of such development is only related to the fact that it provides suitable (i.e. relevant and available) test subjects and test conditions. The ethical issue is not about the existence and persistence of the development and use of “performance enhancing drugs” since those decisions were made many generations ago and cannot (without entering the “dark ages” again) be undone, it is about whether this provides a better future for mankind and whether it is relevant that test subjects are unduly harmed in the process. I can see why Lance Armstrong gave up – it is impossible to argue with illogical people who have no ability to reason.

  4. Strange illogical article – I would have regarded it as troll bate however on the assumption is is clueless

    The title is obviously wrong along with the first half of the article. USADA does not want convicted drug cheats to win the tour and the quandry about how to deal with this moral dilema will be passed over to the UCI and tour organisers.

    The second part of the article is about it being impossible to test for drugs, and argues that they should be permitted. This is just ill informed. It is now very possible to test for drugs and with biological passports cyclists are under a huge amount of scrutiny. It is also possible to win clean and go faster as the 2012 tour proved. So it is not the moment to bring in regulated drug taking.

    People die from taking performance enhancing drugs and a ban is the easiest way to operate.

    There is a much bigger and more pressing practical ethical problem which is what to do with all the people that lose Olympic medals and results because they accidentally took a very small dose of a baned substance. Every year athletes get their reputations distroyed over mistakes that were not drug cheating but inadvertantly taking either over the counter medicine or contaminated foods, which results in micro quantities of banned substances being found normally in 10-1000x less than the amount required to be performance enhancing. This is the by product of the professional cheats and stupid anti-drugs administrators.

  5. I have several issues with the reasoning presented in the article.

    First, the reason that athletes (cyclists and others) are doping is to give them an edge over other athletes. If you allow certain kinds of drugs/performance enhancers it will not solve this issue. There will still be athletes looking for an edge over others albeit this time the bar is higher.

    Secondly, you write “The war on doping has been tried and has failed. It has cost millions.” This is no valid reason, should every war or campaign against a cause be disregarded because it is unsuccessful?

    Lastly, I do believe that there is a place in the near-medium to consider sporting events for 2 kinds of people – natural and enhanced.
    Where the ‘enhanced’ can be chemically enhanced (drugs), biological enhanced (genes) and/or technological enhanced (blades, exo-skeleton, etc.)
    In this case let the best technology win.

  6. I agree and understand what lies beyond your post: money rules sport because ‘show must go on’, and social/system hypocrisy tries to serve it as a drug free rivalry among peers applying screening tools that are only detrimental to those poorer/slower/clumsier in hide from them. And this is far more unfair/unethical than giving everyone the chance to dope assuming the (informed and consented) risks.

    By the way, when you talk about Kirsipuu I presume you’re indeed meaning Zülle, aren’t you? The former has never finished a Tour de France, as far as I know, whereas the latter was runner-up in the first of seven (for the moment) LA‘s Tours

  7. I am somewhat surprised by how ill informed your article is. It appears to me your admiration for the legend of armstrong is clouding your thinking?

    As outlined above it is likely that no one will end up winning the Armstrong tours ( as your requirement for an open market for dopers was essentially achieved in cycling in the 90s. With the result that those with the biggest chequebooks won more easily. Furthermore the deaths you outline above largely occurred amongst those riders who were trying to break through who had and no access to medical support. How on earth could you provide this medical support to this group and reduce the “millions” spent on policing drug taking under your scheme.

    Furthermore the assertion that the 2012 tour was quicker than the tour in 2000 does not give an accurate reflection of the effect of epo. The critical point is how quick the climbs are ridden. You may wish to visit this site for more information.

    Surely the rational way forward would be to test for the effect of drug taking (blood passport, power analysis) and drive those who enforced drug taking (Armstrong, Bruyneel and the US Postal Doctors) from the sport.

    In any case I would suggest you need to do a considerable amount of research prior to posting on this subject again

    1. James, I think your comment is a bit unfair! Firstly, look at the dates– this post was up *before* the French Cycling Federation’s statement on 30 August. And was made precisely *because* of the ridiculous situation as outlined here…

      The article that you quote re. the speed of climbs itself says:

      “Now, an important disclaimer. None of this disproves doping, and none of this proves doping either. When a rider produces performances that have “alien” physiology implications, it’s a strong flag for doping (I’m gratified to read that cycling’s governing bodies are actually looking at this approach now). But when the physiology is “normal” or at least, not suspicious, then it doesn’t necessarily vindicate the rider. Why? Because doping helps with far more than on-the-day performances – it also aids recovery and thus enables consistency. ”

      Clearly the point is that speeds *are* consistently high. Yes, superhuman performances will be looked at carefully now, so any sane rider would not produce one. They may not be using EPO any more as it is quite testable now. But doesn’t mean that blood transfusions are not used- and that has been put forward as a possible explanation for Contador’s positive test as the amounts were low and platicizers were allegedly present.

      Riders who have admitted cheating have saidthe blood passport system is actually beneficial for cheaters as it gives them markers to work to.

      Personally I think the only way to ensure low levels of doping would be lifelong bans for anyone caught- Contador is already back and winning grand tours. It is clearly very little deterrant at present.

  8. IMHO, the current system is flawed in only one respect – it does not have a strict and reduced statute of limitations. The motivation to dope will never go away since the money will never go away. Indeed the efforts to catch dopers has and always will be the tangential cat and mouse game we’ve all heard about. But if the effort were focused much more strictly on current riders, then sparse resources could be much better allocated and the effects would be much more clear. The thought that one a$$hole can waste all our time going after another a$$hole 13 years after the fact is patently absurd. It does nothing to discourage most athletes today who will never win the tour seven times because it says you have to win the tour seven times for anyone to care!!

    It’s a sad commentary that if you got away with it then you got away with it but that’s life. Discovering ten years later that an athlete doped says more about how weak the enforcement protocols are and how much better they should be today.

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