Did Lance cheat ?

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:

The motivation 

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.

The statistics

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[68]

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!

Tags: Cycling, doping, Epo, Olympics, sports (all tags)



Re: Did Lance cheat ?

I'm sure he did, just as I was convinced that Clemens was juicing.  Competitive bicycling is rife with doping.  I am against doping for several reasons: 1) it makes it impossible to compare athletes of the present with those of the past; 2) it often leads to untimely death and/or violence; and 3) it encourages children to use performance enhancing drugs.

by rfahey22 2008-08-04 11:04PM | 0 recs
Re: Did Lance cheat ?

The risk of testicular cancer goes up a lot with use of anabolic steroids (e.g. nandrolone).

My guess is that Armstrong's "heroic" 1996ish fight with cancer resulting from doping early in his career.  He then was probably able to sneak the EPO use that was part of his cancer therapy into his biking.  He's always been devious in giving explanations of his performance.

Yes, it's been sort of annoying to watch bicycle racing and realize that all the pros do doping of some kind or another.  That was a pretty well known view withing competitive biking in the late Eighties and early Nineties- cosi fanni tuti: everybody does it.  I suspect the big corruption in the sport began with Eric Hayden and "blood packing" for iirc the '84 Olympics in L.A.  That was the big green light in the sport.

On the other hand, pro biking has been a pretty good laboratory experiment: a couple of hundred pretty good athletes, all of them with no serious budget constraints (yeah, like the sponsors have no idea where all that mysteriously large "medical expense" budget goes), obsessively competitive, and notorious for taking risks (many of them bad).  And if you lose a few, chances of losing a future Nobel prize winner among them is zero.  (My semipro biking roommate's assessment. :) )  

by killjoy 2008-08-04 11:51PM | 0 recs
No evidence / no exam / no proof -

but smear him with the question.  Nice.  Be proud.

by kosnomore 2008-08-05 04:35AM | 0 recs
Re: Did Lance cheat ?

Ok SevenStrings as you say we learn from history.

I think this year's Tour  and some of the new teams are making a real effort to learn from the past. They have seen how doping has hurt the sport... taken the sport out of it. Hurt the ability to attract sponsors and driven down spectators

So Teams like Garmin Chipolte have come along who have instituted their own stringent drug testing program. Really promoting not only on their team, but throughout the sport the idea of riding clean. Team Columbia is another pushing heavily the riding clean mantra.

I believe the other  riders and other teams are learning there is much more pride and honor accomplishing the super human task of riding the Tour clean as we move forward.

As to whether Lance was clean or not, sans proof all are we are doing is perpetuating a rumor.

ps: I thought it was a great tour this year.

by jsfox 2008-08-05 05:12AM | 0 recs
Re: Did Lance cheat ?

I agree.  There was a huge difference in the Tour this year, and to a lesser extent last year (especially after Rasmussen was booted).  You can tell that the riders are human again (and that the cheaters ARE getting caught now).  This year's massive breakaway by Carlos Sastre that won the Tour came on Alpe d'Huez on the last mountain stage of the Tour after the other top riders like Evans and Menchov already had 2 1/2 weeks of racing in their legs and only gained as much time as it did because of the work of his 2 teammates sowing confusion among the 6-man chase group and slowing the overall pace of the chase.  In other words, it took a whole team working together on the stage where everyone had hit maximum exhaustion to execute what one doped up Floyd Landis or Marco Pantani used to do by himself.  

As for Armstrong, it's completely unfair to him to accuse without proof, although the things that he did were things that only the dopers of his time could match.  My personal opinion, and this is opinion only, is that he probably was using HGH or something like that early in his career that contributed to the cancer, and certainly used EPO for its intended use as part of his treatment, but whether he continued that use for training after his treatment and, if so, for how long is less certain (again, in my opinion only).  Ball cancer would certainly scare me straight if I were in his shoes, that's for sure.

by NJIndependent 2008-08-05 06:13AM | 0 recs
Re: Did Lance cheat ?

 Some people would also believe that Rush Limbaugh's deafness was the result of his abuse of oxycontin, and that Rush didn't have a legitimate reason to be traveling to the Dominican Republic with a suitcase full of Viagra. (and they'd be right)

by QTG 2008-08-05 05:14AM | 0 recs
Seven Strings

Great diary, as usual.

Did you see Bigger, Faster, Stronger, the documentary about steroids that came out this year?  Best take on that complicated issue I've ever seen.

by Koan 2008-08-05 07:50AM | 0 recs
Re: Seven Strings

No, I was not even aware of it.... We havent done very many movies in the last 3 years with young kids in the house.. but I am going to add it to my list.

Thanks for the tip =)

Michael Shermer's article was pretty good too!

by SevenStrings 2008-08-05 08:18AM | 0 recs
Re: Seven Strings

I can't recommend it highly enough.  Funny and entertaining and most assuredly not a Chicken Little story about steroids.

And IMDB tells me the correct title is Bigger Stronger Faster*

by Koan 2008-08-05 08:21AM | 0 recs


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