Thursday, January 8, 2009

Survey on Cycling and Doping

A recent poll conducted by the Vs. television network contained the following question:

Which of the following statements best describes your view on the doping scandals that are publicized during the Tour De France?
I am disappointed when I hear cyclists are doping, but it personally does not deter me from watching

How would you answer this?

I didn't answer A because that response strikes me as hypocritical. "I watch and enjoy the spectacle, but prefer not to know that the great entertainment I get is powered by EPO."

B is even worse. "Just ignore it, focus on the positive and the bad will go away." Sounds like Rumsfeld trying to describe Irak.

I probably answered C, even though I don't like that answer either. I do think turning to doping is more understandable (not justifiable, but understandable) in cycling than in other sports, but only partly because of the grueling nature of the sport.

Finally, D would be a defensible answer, I think, but it also ignores the complicated history of doping and the Tour de France.

The fact is that doping, in one form or another, has been around since the Tour began. I have argued before that doping in cycling is linked to the fact that cyclists, from the beginning, have been considered more machine than man: the bike--and what it represented in terms of technological progress--was (and perhaps still is) more important than the rider.

Pearl Izumi's Winter 2008 catalog declares on its cover: "The Superiority of the Human Machine. It's the most perfectly designed machine the world has ever known. It can turn pizza and powdered donuts into massive kilowatts of mountain-eating horsepower..." etc. So improving the human machine with something more effective than donuts doesn't seem like much of a stretch.

And doping was around before the Tour de France and before bicycles were invented.

A twelfth-century song tells of a young man who must carry his true love to the top of a mountain in order to earn her father's approval for their marriage. The young woman sends him to meet with her aunt who provides him with a special drink in order to give him enough strenght to complete the impossible task (the strongest in the land had already tried and failed). He makes it to the top, but like Tom Simpson, collapses and dies from the effort.

It seems doping and mountains stages have always gone together.

So my answer to the survey question is "None of the above." I watch the Tour de France knowing that riders are trying to get the most out of their bodies any way they can. I just hope they survive the climbs.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Interesting choice of "options." Suppose that's the inherently limited nature of fixed choice responses... I'm not convinced that cycling as an athletic contest is all that unique from other professional sports. What is unique however, and i do think goes a long way in explaining doping, is the widely unequal representative structure of professional cycling. In no other professional international sport do athletes have so little voice or representation (i.e. union). This power imbalance makes for insecure workers willing to take additional risks to secure employment. Unlike pro N. American sports where athletes enjoy strong union representation and usually a college education to fall back on, cycling does not have this college to pro pipeline where additional educational skills can be acquired which gives athletes more options post-pro career.

The dynamic team nature of bike racing makes judging individual performances of all but the top team leaders very difficult to quantify. Unlike other races where the first one over the line is the strongest, its hard to quantify all the early-race grunt work done by domestiques. This makes evaluating contract renewals very subjective and makes for very insecure riders.

The question I often ask myself is why are folks not more upset at the sports governing bodies, the sponsors and race organizers? Each of these organizations have directly contributed to a climate where doping comes to be seen as a form of job security.

Rather, doping gets framed in the US (predictably) as a moral issue. Distilled, reduced and grossly simplified to a modern day morality play of good and evil.

Thanks for the interesting post. Interested to hear what others think.