Friday, January 9, 2009

Cycling and Doping--Response

Ophir's response to my previous post was so good I have to reprint it here on the "front" page:

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 North 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, it's 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.


SM Sprenger said...

I happen to think cycling IS different from most other sports given the tremendous emphasis on endurance. This explains why, for example, one finds doping in cross-country skiing.

As for job security: the college degree for most pro basketball or football players is a joke. College sports is the equivalent of the farm leagues in baseball: a place to bide one's time before being called up to the show. Many of the very best athletes jump ship before completing their degrees or get bogus degrees that lead nowhere.

And is it really that difficult to judge a good domestique from a bad one? The leaders can tell you right away who they like.

Getting mad at those who facilitate doping would mean getting mad at ourselves. We watch the Tour knowing full well about rampant doping. We get mad only because those who get caught spoil our illusion of a good spectacle. It's kind of like watching housing prices or stocks skyrocket: we know something's fishy but we're happy to buy into the illusion. In that case, #4 is perhaps the correct answer.

Anonymous said...

The history of competitive sport has consistently shown that whenever a finite amount of a highly desired product exists, be it $ or fame, people will try to skirt the "rules". we don't hear about the rampant use of performance enhancing products in other major sports largely b/c (1) players unions have negotiated far fewer and far less specific drug tests. If WADA administered the same volume and type of tests on the major US sports that it does for cycling, It is highly probable that you'd see a lot more positives. There also exists a profoundly different relationship among journalists in pro cycling as opposed to US pro sports which colors how doping is reported, not to mention leaks, informants, etc.

While i totally agree that college degrees are sometimes dubiously earned. Nonetheless, they do provide their owner an important and useful form of accreditation in our society. Regardless of it's quality or how it's acquired, i don't think there is any denying that a college degree significantly increases ones ability to get a job.

I must respectfully disagree, racing for over a decade here and a bit in Europe, as well as working as a cycling journalist, my experience has been that it is indeed difficult to determine who's done what during races. Team politics also play a major role. How well you get along w/ the management and team leaders can often influence if your contract gets renewed. Of course these interpersonal issues exist in every sport, but unlike other major pro sports, the vast majority of cyclists are not able to negotiate any semblance of job security and are thus far more at the whims of management than other sports.

You can love the sport but hate the game. As fans or participants we wield but a fraction of the influence that team Astana's 5.5+ or team CSC 8+ million dollar budget does. Or TdF owners Amuary Sports Association. Or WADA's 20+million budget for that matter. Cycling is free to watch and TV contracts are marginal at best in this country. Most $ comes from team sponsorship. My point is certain people have far more resources/power than those consuming the spectacle. They are to blame, not the everyday cycling enthusiast. Fans are not buying an illusion as it is still racing, the efforts are still they same, they are still suffering-the speed is simply faster. Does doping give a competitive advantage? Of course but so do lighter bikes, altitude tents and quality of medical supervision-resources that vary widely among teams. For those so concerned with fairness in professional sport, perhaps we should critique these forms of performance enhancement as they also create an "illusion" of parity. Ahh, but that's a whole other ball of wax...

Corry Cropper said...

Do you think the "morality play" issue is unique to U.S. coverage of cycling? I agree that's often how it's portrayed here and more blame should be laid on the team management and sponsors. Is the coverage more nuanced in Europe?

Corry Cropper said...

I think cycling is unique, but not because it's an endurance sport. Given that cycling is so mediatized (globally), and that a race is spread out to such an extent that it's impossible to charge admission, it's hard to compare it with other endurance sports (track and field, cross-country skiing). And since there are teams it's also different from triathlon and marathon. The organization does seem to give a lot of control to sponsors and team management, control that in a purely individual sport does not exist, and control that doesn't exist when there are paying fans contributing to revenue streams.

SM Sprenger said...

Are we talking about the same sport? Cycling, it seems to me, is almost solely about endurance. Sure, there are short crits, time trials and velodrome sprints, but the real « shows » in cycling, especially from the public’s perspective, are the long endurance races. Even a website like Wikipedia focuses on the extreme endurance dimension of cycling as its essential feature AND as the major cause of doping. The crowds have from the early days enjoyed seeing above all *pain and suffering*, which is why organizers have made races of superhuman lengths and impossibly steep climbs. Which, in turn, is why riders have felt the need for « supplements » to get them through the extreme conditions. The book *For├žats de la route* make this point plainly. I’m not sure how unionizing would change anything, except for providing temporary cover from drug testing, which in turn would create a cloud of doubt about who is or isn’t doping. Fact is : fans will always want to know if what they watching was for real or an illusion, which requires cleaning up the sport. People were outraged by Landis’s « win » precisely because they felt that they had been suckered.

The overriding endurance dimension of cycling is thus also linked directly to the (moral ?) outrage that erupts with doping revelations. Why ? Because all things equal, doping is a far more determining factor of a successful outcome in cycling than in other multi-dimensional or technically oriented sports. For example, it strikes people as less alarming if a soccer player, skier or basketballer is caught using because the complexity of technical skills required to be successful in soccer, skiing or basketball is greater than in cycling. It is blood physiology that reigns supreme in cycling, and any artificial enhancement of it strikes observers as obvious cheating. Hence the laser-like focus on it.

Finally, the money in cycling ultimately comes from the advertising potential of mediatizing the funding companies’ brand names. Even if fans don’t pay entrance fees and TV contracts are small, the funding companies eventually gain financially by having the leaders’ jerseys and helmets plastered with their names. Stop watching the big Tours on TV and the ratings will weaken and the money will eventually dry up.