Did Lance cheat ?
by SevenStrings, Mon Aug 04, 2008 at 10:46:45 PM EDT
This diary is about doping in sports... or the use of performance enhancing drugs. This is an appropriate topic, made all the more appropriate with the upcoming Olympics.
Doping has a long history in sports, obviously. Many athletes have been caught, and there is a cloud that hangs over every sport as a result.
But how pervasive is the problem ? What is the underlying origin of the problem ? And can something be done about it ??
Michael Shermer (of the Skeptic Society had an article in the April issue of Scientific American on that topic recently (unfortunately, you need to be a subscriber to get the pictures; but the fulltext is available). His arguments sound really compelling:
First, there is a very strong incentive to take performance enhancing drugs. The rewards are significant ~ a million (or multimillion) dollar contract; and the risks (both the probability and the impact) are minimal. The probability of getting caught is small because: (a) not everyone is tested...testing is somewhat random. (b) even if you happen to be tested, it is relatively straightforward to fool the test.
Michael Shermer lists the example of r-EPO (a drug used to boost the red blood count in your blood). Until recently, the presence of r-EPO could only be tested by the increase in blood count. Thus, one easy way to defeat it would be to inject yourself with saline solution (which decreases your red blood count) in the 20 minutes you are given before you must report for a blood test. Even today, when there are tests that can detect r-EPO, there are several ways to defeat the test that I am personally aware of (I used to be a marathon runner... I was never good enough to even consider the use of drugs, but I know the deal =).
Now, let us consider the impact of getting caught:
It is minimal. You don't go to Guantanamo. You don't go to Alcatraz. You don't even go to your local police station. You are merely stripped of your title (if you had happened to win a high profile title) and banned for life. You are merely deprived of what you should not have won to begin with... and you still have the opportunity to write a tell all book and follow it up with a sequel
The probability of getting caught is small, and impact of getting caught is also small, and the rewards for cheating are high: it would be a wonder if anyone refrained from cheating.
Michael Shermer presents data from the Tour de France, where the average speed of the winner had steadily increased over the years, and took a big jump in the period 1991-2004 (r-EPO was not available prior to the late-80s). In 2004, stricter testing regimens were put in place, but the speeds continued to increase in 2005 and 2006. It was only in 2007, when several top riders were caught and disqualified, and the eventual winner was eventually banned for life, that the winning speed decreased back down to 1990 levels.
Doping at the Tour de France has had a long history. Here is a list of Tour winners, and their associations with doping accusations.
2007 Alberto Contador status: Clean
2006 Floyd Landis status: Banned for life, stripped of title. He tested positive for high testosterone to epitestosterone ratio;
1999-2005 Lance Armstrong status: clean Associated with Michele Ferrari, who is suspected of prescribing doping agents. Allegations by former assistant for Androstenine use. Alleged EPO use in 1999 Tour de France. Tested positive for glucocorticosteroid hormone without prescription given in advance.
1998 Marco Pantani Banned (deceased) Failed a blood test in 1999 Giro d'Italia; Insulin found in his hotel room in the 2001 Giro d'Italia
1997 Jan Ullrich Banned Tested positive for amphetamines (off season, not taken for athletic performance gain)
Involved in the Operacion Puerto case
1996 Bjarne Riis Confessed Confessed having used EPO in 1996
1991-1995 Miguel Indurain Tested positive Tested positive for salbutamol in 1994, which was not yet forbidden by UCI.
Connections with doping-doctor Conconi
1989-1990 Greg LeMond Clean
1988 Pedro Delgado Used doping Tested positive for probenecid in the 1988 Tour de France, although it was not illegal for cyclists at that time
1987 Stephen Roche Involved in case According to an investigation in Italy into the practices of Francesco Conconi, Roche received EPO in 1993
1985 Bernard Hinault Clean
1983-1984 Laurent Fignon Tested positive In 1989 Fignon tested positive after a team time trial
1980 Joop Zoetemelk Tested positive Tested positive in the 1977 (pemoline), 1979 (steroids) and 1983 Tour de France (nandrolon, although that was retracted later)
1977 Bernard Thévenet Confessed Admitted using steroids in the 1975 and 1977 Tour
1976 Lucien Van Impe Clean The first Tour winner since 1966 never connected to doping
And doping was prevalent even before 1977. As recounted by Michael Shermer,
Many riders took stimulants and painkillers from the 1940s through the 1980s. But doping regulations were virtually
nonexistent until Tom Simpson, a British rider, died while using amphetamines on the climb up Mont Ventoux in the 1967 Tour de France. Even after Simpson's death, doping controls in the
1970s and 1980s were spotty at best
And, in addition to the documented cases of tour champions, there is plenty of circumstantial evidence around other champions. As Michael Shermer recuonts,
"For years I had no trouble doing my job to help the team leader," said Frankie Andreu, who was the superdomestique, or lead pacer, supporting Lance Armstrong throughout much of the 1990s. "Then, around 1996, the speeds of the races shifted dramatically upward. Something happened, and it wasn't just training." Andreu resisted the temptation as long as he could, but by 1999 he could no longer do his job: "It became apparent to me that enough of the peloton [the main group of riders in a cycling race] was on the juice that I had to do something." He began injecting himself with r-EPO two to three times a week. "It's not like Red Bull, which gives you instant energy," he explained. "But it does allow you to dig a little deeper, to hang on to the group a little longer, to go maybe 31.5 miles per hour instead of 30 mph."
What can be done
Basically, one needs to alter the system such that an individual athletes motivations to cheat are smaller than his motivations to be clean. Michael Shermer makes 5 recommendations:
(1) Grant immunity to all athletes for prior violations.
(2) Increase the rigors of testing ~ including the use of independent testing agencies, and the testing of all athletes, all the time
(3) Establish an X-prize to devise better tests
(4) Increase the penalty for failing a test
(5) Disqualify all team members if one fails a test
Why should anyone care ?
Well, this is where you stop and go... so what ? I still enjoy the sport, and I like having a new world record be set at each athletic event.
I cannot ask you to care, if you do not. Truly, there are worthier things to worry about. But, I contend, corruption in sports is a cause worth worrying about for 2 reasons:
(a) sports is what keeps many of us sane.
This applies both to the athletes, and to the spectators. I remember that when I used to run, I used to look forward to the 5.00 am and 7.00 pm time slots during the day (that is when I used to run)... and I was liable to go berserk if I was prevented from running for more than 2 days in a row.
(b) sports is what enables the elites to keep the riffraff in check.
The Romans were good at many things...but the one thing they did better than anyone else was providing a spectator sport to amuse the masses, and precluding the masses from asking uncomfortable questions. Obviously, the modern American system of segregating the year into 4 seasons ~ football, baseball, hockey and basketball, serves the same purpose. And if you corrupt sports, you run the risk of depriving the masses of their primary source of amusement. You then run the risk of the masses asking uncomfortable questions, and bringing down the empire.
Okay, maybe reason #2 is not such a great reason on a progressive blog!