I have been amazed at these comments. Gray area? Part of the game? Last time I checked there are specific rules prohibiting specific drugs. If you take them, you are violating the rules of the game. No gray area exists and if the rules prohibit the drugs then they certainly not "part of the game."
Today, I read a very interesting post by the author of Freakonomics, Steven Levitt, where he talks about doping in the Tour de France. He makes several good points about Floyd Landis and Lance Armstrong, many of which can be found in previous posts on this blog (click here or see labels with Lance Armstrong on the right). He also suggests that one solution may be to open up cycling to doping. Before I get to that, here are a few of his other points that I want to reiterate.
- Levitt suggests that the detail in Floyd Landis' story is indicative that Floyd is telling the truth. Levitt commented that he doesn't study research on cues to deception but I have studied the research and this observation is 100% consistent with that research. In a 2003 meta-analysis of decades of research on deception titled "Cues to Deception" by DePaulo, et al., published in one of the top journals in psychology known as Psychological Bulletin, the authors find some of their strongest results show that liars provide fewer details in their stories than truth tellers. Levitt's observation that Floyd's details are indicative that he is not lying is a valid observation.
- Levitt says that he has some research assistants looking at statistical evidence of doping in the Tour de France. He doesn't elaborate but I think a good study would examine the times up some of the major climbs before and after EPO was available. For example, if we could examine times to climb the epic Alpe d'Huez at the end of a race in the 80's compared with the 90's, I wouldn't be surprised to see the times dropping significantly. In fact, some sports scientists have done a fairly extensive analysis of some of the numbers and found some pretty incredible VO2 max numbers out there among Alberto Contador and others. This is suggestive of doping. Here are a few links to some of this evidence in case you're interested: Link 1, Link 2, Link 3.
- Levitt's last point that I want to cover is that he is surprised at how many people are eager to believe Lance Armstrong is not doping. He then explains that doping in cycling has huge benefits--more than in other sports that are plagued by doping such as baseball. As such, the probability of successfully racing against other cyclists who have been found to have doped, is extremely low. I think I said it on this blog that Lance is either a complete (and I will add unfathomable) freak of nature or he is a doper. Levitt also makes the point that Lance's record is tainted with other evidence brought against him (see this post for a partial list).
Now, what about the recommendation to allow doping in pro cycling? First, it strikes me that this would create the equivalent of Worldwide Wrestling for the sport of cycling. It reminds me of a Saturday Night Live skit titled "All drug Olympics." If you haven't seen it, check out the link. It's extreme but pretty telling on how absurd the sporting world would become if we made doping legal.
Comments on Facebook about making doping legal said doing so would make the sport more interesting. I'm not sure if everyone would agree with that statement. Maybe there should be two cycling leagues: the doping league and the non-doping league. We could then see which "sport" is more popular with fans and sponsors. Someone must watch Worldwide Wrestling but it's not me or anyone I hang out with...
Perhaps more importantly is to consider what legal doping would do to the athletes. Currently, the doping rules and tests provide some imperfect constraint on behavior. As such, cyclists carefully monitor their doping to not get caught. To do so they have to work with doctors who know how to avoid detection including being moderate. If no tests existed, I would imagine some athletes would follow the old adage that if some amount of a drug helps performance then a lot of that drug will help performance a lot. In doing so, I would expect to see cyclists falling over with heart attacks because their blood is too thick as what occurred in the 1990's when EPO first came out. Sort of like the weight lifter's arms in the SNL skit.
Another key consideration is whether we want pressure on young cyclists to have to get expensive drugs in order to compete against the established teams with million dollar budgets for doping. I know if my son was interested in cycling and had potential to move up to world class levels, I wouldn't want him to be required to take drugs to compete. All drugs have side effects and athletes shouldn't be required to submit themselves to these side effects.
Last, opening up doping to cycling would turn the competition from one of smart and hard training, genetics and teamwork to those factors plus the best scientists and pharmacists that money can buy. My friend's post on Facebook said that doping is "a competitive advantage that is universally available to all the top-tier athletes." This implies that all the athletes have the same drugs and same resources to buy and administer the drugs, etc. If doping was legal, teams would have scientists working on new drugs. The teams with the most money to support this research would have an advantage, etc. Is this what pro cycling is all about? Pharmacological research? The cyclists today that have the best doping resources are at an illegal advantage in comparison with those who don't have the resources to break the rules as effectively. Competitive advantage?!
I personally hope these comments about legalizing doping in pro cycling are comments made before considering all the implications. I am particularly troubled when someone as bright as Steven Levitt makes this comment though as he ought to think this through before saying something that is so absurd! Just my two cents...