Doping and Uncertainty

The Tour de France is over and, for the eighth year in a row an American stood on the top of the podium in Paris. Floyd Landis finished 57 seconds ahead of Oscar Pereiro, his nearest competitor. The victory was made all the more impressive by the news released by Landis and his team, Phonak, during the Tour that Landis would have to undergo surgery on his hip after the Tour concluded.

All this has now nearly been swept away by the announcement that Landis tested positive for doping during the Tour. The levels of testosterone in Landis’ blood sample were abnormally high. His positive test came after his impressive win in Stage 17 that brought him back from a deficit of more than 8 minutes to third place and less than a minute away from the overall lead. After each stage, that stage’s winner, the current overall leader and a handful of randomly selected riders are tested for illegal substances.

Reaction from various quarters has varied. Some anti-doping officials have all but condemned Floyd as guilty, his team management is waiting for the results from a back-up, or “B” sample, and Floyd’s mother has been widely quoted as believing that her son was the victim of some strange chance rather than guilty of doping.

Since a well-publicized doping investigation in Spain implicated a large number of top riders causing them to be expelled from the Tour right before it began, doping was an ever-present theme during the race. Jan Ullrich, former Tour winner, Ivan Basso, second place finisher in 2005 and other big names were told they could not compete in 2006 because they were connected to the investigation though not conclusively shown to have doped.

And that, really, is the crux of the matter. Uncertainty is the most defining feature of the doping question. Lance Armstrong has been dogged even into his retirement by accusations of doping and claims that his success can be credited more to pharmaceuticals than to hard work. Tyler Hamilton is an American cyclist who finished fourth in the Tour in 2003 despite riding most of the way with a collarbone broken in an early stage. He is also a cyclist who tested positive for blood doping in the Olympics the next year and was saved from having his medal stripped because of a mishandled “B” sample. Without the “B” sample, his medal was allowed to stand. He later, however, tested positive for blood doping in the Vuelta a Espana, the Spanish grand tour and is now serving a two year suspension from cycling. He still maintains his innocence and claims that a little known medical circumstance leads to his blood seeming to have been doped when that is not the case.

Other examples can be given, but the general climate has become one of suspicion and distrust and this most recent accusation against Landis only deepens the sense that nothing is what it seems in cycling. In the style of old-fashioned witch-trials, the only way to prove your innocence to the satisfaction of the world at large is to fail to be successful. If you win, you’re dirty, if you’re clean, you can’t win.

And it isn’t just cycling that suffers from this taint. Baseball, most notably in the person of Barry Bonds, is also under the same cloud of uncertainty. Do the big home run hitters “juice” with steroids or not? Is your favourite player’s talent enhanced by drugs or is entirely a product of practice and innate ability? Basketball and football have not come in for the same media scrutiny, though why they should get a pass is difficult to fathom. The greater strength and endurance so prized by baseball players and cyclists would be just as useful in other sports. It may be that players in those sports have managed to be more discreet about about the use of illegal substances to enhance performance, though, at least in football, their use is assumed to be widespread by some people.

Ultimately, however, this uncertainty is here to stay. The benefits brought from doping will continue to allure and the doping methods will get ever more sophisticated. For the foreseeable future then, we are going to have live with the fact that athletic heroes, while crowned with honor, may well have feet of clay.

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