Monday, October 22, 2012
The last time I wrote about Lance Armstrong, I was in essence responding to a friend who was a fan, who believed Armstrong was being persecuted. Now, on the one hand, having seen the USADA report, there seems no room for doubt that Armstrong was essentially the ringleader in a continual conspiracy by his team to get away with using banned performance enhancing drugs and autologous blood transfusions. There also can be no doubt that he has been a habitual, remorseless liar throughout his career.
Could there be an "on the other hand"? Well, yes, sorta kinda. The fact is it's a more than fair bet that every elite cyclist in that era broke the rules, or at least the majority of them. The TdF will be very reluctant, I expect, to declare the second place finishers in Armstrong's races the victors. Note that baseball, faced with a similar situation, has not invalidated any records or games from its own era of pervasive PED use. That was just the reality at the time, and it cannot be undone.
That said, every elite athlete's extreme capabilities depend on all sorts of scientifically tested artificial interventions, from diet and training routines finely tuned by biological measurements, to surgery, high altitude training, computer enhanced rehearsal techniques, you name it. The authorities don't necessarily get around to banning some substances until after they've been in use for a while -- the rules can change. So the question is, why exactly are some methods of enhancing performance allowed, while others are banned?
Some people argue that performance enhancing drugs can be harmful to health over the long term, so we don't want to encourage young people to use them. Maybe so, although the evidence in the case of some methods is weak. It is true, for example, that excessive use of EPO over the long term is harmful to cancer or dialysis patients -- you want the right amount of red blood cells, not too many. However, there is no evidence I'm aware of that episodic use by fit young people is dangerous. I haven't heard of cyclists having strokes or heart attacks.
And the fact is, while it's good to exercise and be physically fit, the extreme training routines and competition of elite athletes are actually detrimental in the long term. When they get older, athletes develop osteoarthritis at a very high rate, and of course they may have sequelae of concussions or other injuries, depending on the sport. American football is just starting to make some efforts to reduce this toll but it cannot be eliminated. Heck, we even allow boxing and mixed martial arts -- just participating in those sports is far more dangerous than using steroids or EPO.
So there is something arbitrary about this. Many people have proposed relaxing the rules for professional athletes, perhaps banning only those methods that have good evidence for long-term harm. I'm not taking a strong position here, but the fact is, athletes take physical risks and make physical sacrifices knowingly, all the time. It's in the nature of being an elite athlete. In fact, that's part of what thrills us about them. We know they are courting danger and paying a price.
Yes, the rules are the rules and Armstrong broke them. But as long as the rewards for championships are so great, people will keep looking for a way.
Update: A commenter points out that apparently, there were indeed some deaths of cyclists linked with EPO use back in the 90s. So I erred about that. Apparently the reason it stopped is that they did start monitoring hematocrit levels (i.e. the red blood cell count). So if EPO use were to be allowed, that would certainly have to be strictly enforced.