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Why Legalizing Sports Doping Won’t Work

Yesterday, I posted a short piece called “Should We Just Let the Tour de France Dopers Dope Away?” It wasn’t an outright call for legalization of sports doping, but I wanted to put the idea on the table.

Well, Joe Lindsey, a contributing writer for Bicycling magazine, wrote in to say that there are a lot of compelling reasons to keep the idea off the table. Joe, who has written widely on doping in cycling, was good enough to write up his argument in the guest post below.

Guest Blog

Why Legalizing Sports Doping Won’t Work
by Joe Lindsey

The irony of the recent report that the Olympics are considering kicking out cycling because of its doping probems is that it was then-International Olympic Committee president Juan Antonio Samaranch who floated the idea in 1997 of a “gladiator class” of sports – where doping was acknowledged and allowed.

It’s worth considering, as the Tour de France practically grinds to a halt as one after another top competitor is removed from the race under suspicion of doping, whether we might just throw the doors of the pharmacy wide open and say have at it. “Pure cycling is just an illusion,” said Francesco Moser once. Moser is a former top cyclist who now heads the professional riders’ union. “There comes a stage when a rider must be told the effects of a medicine. Then if he wants to, let him take it.”

Or is that such a good idea? If we play Prometheus to cycling’s mortals, what happens?

First, let’s set aside two logistical problems.

One, not all cyclists dope, nor do they want to. Jonathan Vaughters, a former pro who now runs a domestic cycling team called Slipstream Sports, which performs its own anti-doping testing, has characterized the doping dynamic as the dragged and the draggers. (This is an unpublished quote from a personal interview with Vaughters for a Men’s Journal article on Floyd Landis.) The vast majority of cyclists who would prefer to race clean (the dragged) are instead tempted to dope simply to keep up with the small minority who aggressively dope for a competitive advantage (the draggers). Modern oxygen-vector doping is so effective, a rider has two choices: dope and keep up, or stay clean and fall behind. “I guess, after years and years and years of standing on the start line and feeling like I was a mile behind, it finally got to me,” said nine-time Tour finisher Frankie Andreu of the experience. Andreu succumbed, temporarily. (This is from a Dec. 2006 Men’s Journal article, not available online.) But it is possible to race and even win clean, if you’re smart and work hard. So some racers never dope, even if their careers suffer for it. But if most riders want to race clean, then legalizing doping puts them in an impossible position: dope, or quit the sport.

Second, not all doping techniques are created equal. The most effective regimens are also the most sophisticated and expensive – according to a der Spiegel interview, German pro Jorg Jaksche paid 37,000 Euros one year for a “medical program” that was slightly less than comprehensive. Star riders such as Tyler Hamilton and Jan Ullrich are alleged to have paid 50,000 Euro or more, a substantial chunk of the average pro racer’s contract but a mere tithe to riders of Hamilton and Ullrich’s salary range. So if doping is legalized, the sport’s richest riders and teams will have access to techniques that lesser lights don’t. The playing field, never level, would be tilted permanently.

If you can somehow manage to get past those two little hurdles, there is a third, much more formidable one: what to legalize, and how to enforce it?

One of the serious allegations against Michael Rasmussen, who was yanked from the Tour while leading the race, is that in 2002, he attempted to use a synthetic blood substitute called Hemopure.

We can’t legalize Hemopure for sporting use. It’s only approved for human medical use in one country: South Africa. If you transport it to or use it in France, Italy, the United States or virtually any other country outside of a government-approved clinical trial, you’re breaking federal law on the transport and possession of controlled substances. Trenbolone, which Game of Shadows authors Mark Fainaru-Wada and Lance Williams say Barry Bonds used, is a veterinary-only product, intended for use in cattle. Don’t even mention designer steroids like BALCO’s infamous The Clear.

Medical laws and medical ethics prevent us from letting athletes use these substances outside of a clinical trial. But athletes, who eagerly seek out anything that will give them a competitive edge, will still try and get them. H. Lee Sweeney, a professor at the University of Pennsylvania, was shocked when, after publishing research in an obscure scholarly journal on an experimental gene therapy technique to inhibit myostatin (as a therapy for muscular dystrophy), he began receiving inquiries from athletes, and even a high-school wrestling coach, on how to use the technique to boost performance.

Simply put, wherever you draw the line, something, some technique or substance, will always be off-limits. And so you’ve merely moved the line, not erased it.

Finally, none of that addresses the moral problems involved in legalizing doping. Doping in sports isn’t inherently wrong; it’s wrong by the value system with which we judge sports. Sports themselves are by their nature civilized: everyone agrees to follow a certain set of rules. If you don’t, that’s cheating. Legalizing doping doesn’t change those rules as much as remove them altogether, and then it’s no longer a sport, but merely entertainment. Right or wrong, we look to sports and to athletes for an inspiration that mere entertainment cannot provide – there is an implicit contract that the sweat and effort we see before us is real and natural. Do you want to see who’s the best athlete, or just who had the best access to pharmaceutical enhancement?