Map of life expectancy at birth from Global Education Project.

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.


robin andrea said...

Makes me wonder how athletes performed before all the performance enhancing drugs. Maybe there should be two leagues, athletes who don't do drugs and those who do. I expect the elite to do all they can to strengthen their bodies for their arduous sports, but I'm not sure it's fair for non-drug users to compete with drug users. I don't know why, but I think it matters. OTOH, if everyone is doing drugs, then it's time to declare it so, and then get on with it.

Anonymous said...

Many cyclists died of EPO use in the 90's until the rules changed and people with a hematocrit over 50% were forbidden from racing for 15 days. This was before they developed an EPO test. There were exceptions for those who could show they had naturally higher levels.

It looks like they will strip Armstrong of the wins and but not award the win to the 2nd place. There will be no official winner.

Cervantes said...

Right you are anonymous, here's a bit of info about this. I was not aware of it.

roger said...

winning trumps honor and principles. in sports as in politics.

Anonymous said...

If you really look into this, the idea of a drug and drug free leagues is a really bad idea.

There was no level playing field (access to drugs and doctors was not uniform and the response to drugs vary wildly). Lance paid the Ferrari not to work with other cyclists. He also destroyed the career of many who went against him as well as those who refused to dope.

You don't want a sport where willingness to take risks to ones health and to getting caught define who wins.

The damage done to people's careers and lives is huge. Read the USADA report and the many interviews with the riders who were pressured to dope. There are lots of links and articles at for starters (there have been multiple articles each day, or just do a search).

Most of the main stream sports writers have opinion pieces where it is clear they have no idea what they are talking about.

--Same anon as above

Cervantes said...

Well as I said, or at least meant to suggest, it would be very hard to argue against banning training interventions that pose a high risk of serious harm. My point is that where you draw the line between acceptable and unacceptable methods gets difficult after that.

Anonymous said...

Yes it is difficult, but the line needs to be drawn somewhere.

The WADA and various sports governing bodies define what is legal and what is not. They have a big rule book and long list of banned substances.

It is often a very messy processes, but it doesn't mean we should try to do it right.

Anonymous said...

7 cyclist mysteriously dead in 1990....
from the article....

But Armstrong's ex-teammate Tyler Hamilton has argued quite convincingly that different bodies cope differently with the drugs, and the wealthier an athlete, the more likely he is to get optimal treatment. Armstrong, according to the USADA report on cycling, paid more than $1 million to Michele Ferrari, the Italian doctor who oversaw his training, during their working relationship.

That kind of cash will buy not only premium performance, but probably better precautions. Poorer people trying to get ahead in a sport won't have that luxury.

The dilettante “Just Say Yes to Doping” crowd always seems to forget that health care is not distributed equitably. I once participated in a televised panel discussion with young athletes in the audience, posing questions. A slight football player from one of the most disadvantaged high schools in San Francisco implored the adults to remember athletes like him and protect his right to compete clean.

That kid knew what he was facing. If he took steroids or growth hormone and they hurt him, no one would help, or care, or even notice.

As Bonds awaited trial on perjury and obstruction charges, cyclist Tammy Thomas was convicted of similar offenses. Nobody paid attention. She was never a superstar. She had tested positive twice and been banned for life from cycling.