Tuesday, July 6, 2010

Should cyclists be allowed to dope?

Recently, a friend commented that he thinks cyclists should be allowed to dope freely. I've heard this before, including in a recent discussion with one of my competitors in the local cycling scene where I race. This friend who was advocating open doping told me that doping was a gray area anyway so even if pro cyclists are doping today it is no big deal in his mind. He reasoned that people take vitamins for performance so taking other drugs is not much different. Another friend who advocated no rules against doping said using performance enhancing drugs is just "part of the game in my mind." These are his exact words as posted on Facebook.

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...


  1. First off--I'm just proud to motivate an entire blog post. I feel so honored!

    You raise some very good points, and certainly the logic you follow in reaching those points is sound. There is no disputing that.

    I confess that my response will sound a little less cohesive. I'm speaking merely from what I think; I haven't done any extensive scientific research into the physiological long-term detriments of doping, or into the economics of legalizing doping.

    I would like to include a key point of my opinion that was conveniently excluded from this blog post: "I would prefer the sports world to remain clean and just base it off skill and training..." We all like to think Lance is the man, or we have thought so for so long, because despite the allegations, he's never been proven to have doped. We like that. I like that. I agree-it does make him seem "better" somehow. I would like it if nobody doped. It would focus the athletes on the training, the equipment, the nutrition, the sleep, and the mental game.

    However, we all know that some number of cyclists, probably a greater percentage than we'd like to admit, and probably more prevalently among the greater cyclists, dope. I don't know why we act like it's such a surprise when they are discovered to have doped--the technology exists (means), the motivation to win is there, and the perception most likely exists among the professional cycling community (I mean the TdF crowd, not just Cat 1 riders) that "if I don't dope, I don't beat those that DO dope" (rationalization). Don't forget that those who show promise are most likely contacted by those already in the know (opportunity), and yes, you have a prime breeding ground for fraud.

    But should doping be fraudulent? It wouldn't be such a catastrophic revelation when a rider doped if it wasn't against the rules. What you have now is people trying to go as low under the radar as possible to get an edge, all the while running the risk of serious long-term damage and possible death while racing. Do I think this is right? Certainly not. And if Lance has doped against rules that were in place at the time, then yes, he as well as all other dopers should be punished. I think we can agree on that.

    What if doping wasn't illegal though? What if the cycling federation had a doctor on its staff responsible for setting guidelines for what constitutes safe use of testosterone patches, what constitutes safe use of one's own red blood cells? Not that it need be regulated, per se, but that guidance is given to help the novice athlete know what is safe for the body.

  2. Will people still potentially abuse the guidelines? Absolutely. But if someone is so committed to their sport, their career, and their passion that they would rather go down in a blaze of glory than peter off slowly into athletic (and professional) oblivion by their mid-30s, then I say let him. Is that the choice that I would make? Hard to say, but I like to think not. Do I dope? Absolutely not. Do I think that people "should" dope? No. But do I think that athletes should be in charge of what they want to do to their bodies to excel? Yes.

    Cyclists already know that the guys at the top are most likely doping. New Rider A comes onto the circuit, a promising young rider who wants to make a living, maybe provide for a family, on his skill. Commendable. But he knows that he'll never beat Landis (and maybe Contador and Armstrong) if he doesn't dope. If he doesn't win, he won't earn nearly as much money, and if he doesn't make money, he can't provide for his family. He's more likely than not foregone getting a degree in order to become a top-tier cyclist, so while he might have a skill to fall back on, he probably is just relying on his legs to get him what he needs in life. Can you blame the new rider for wanting to dope? I don't think kids grow up saying, "I want to take testosterone patches and store my own blood in near-freezing conditions when I get older." But he does think, "I want to win the Tour. And I will do whatever it takes to be the best." Because there are those who dope, this kid is going to have to dope to be better than the best. If nobody doped, it wouldn't be a problem, but because it's so prevalent it has become a necessity. Instead of making people use a backroom, a hotel, or a bus parked on the side of the mountain, just have a med tent, make it permissible, and be done with it.

    Regarding the pharmacological research--some might look at it and say, "Oh no, my sport is being ruined." Fair enough. I look at it and say, "What creativity. These guys have taken a long time to learn how the body works, how it recovers, and what it needs to operate at its prime. Why don't we capitalize on their hard work and research?" Will it be expensive? Yes. Is it something that only sponsored teams are likely to be able to afford? Yes. So we will really only have to worry about the sponsored teams dealing with this. We don't need to worry about little Johnny who just got his first Crit win becoming a doper. We can teach our children what is proper behavior, and we can teach them what we believe--but when it's time for them to make their own decisions in life, we need to trust that we have taught correct principles. I'm not too worried about buying my son his first bike and having him start looking for needles as soon as I take the training wheels off.

  3. Okay, that was my rant. And I know we disagree on some of this. But at the end of it all, how would I summarize it? I don't dope, I won't ever dope, and I am more excited to see clean athletes succeed. But I think pharmacological advances are something to be embraced and used as we go forward, and I think we will see safer use of what we now consider to be illicit doping agents if we de-criminalize their use. If we find that something is detrimental to athletes' health, at least if improperly administered, then we can look into it a little more and determine an appropriate course of action.

    As for Landis, I think Rick Reilly wrote a good article on it. http://sports.espn.go.com/espn/news/story?id=5355929

    And I hope that if we disagree, this won't be negatively reflected in my grade in Fraud this coming year... (:

  4. Parker, where would you draw the line? What would be you litmus test, so to speak, for acceptable doping?

    Also, you argue that perhaps doctor supervision would help prevent younger athletes from suffering adverse consequences, but can we really rely on doctors to enforce doping restrictions? I would expect you would end up with an environment similar to the whole medicinal marijuana situation in California, where just about anyone can get certain doctors to give them a prescription for pot. Even if doctors do enforce doping restrictions, the idea that you might have some level of "safe use" of doping agents seems like a stretch to me. Most (if not all) doping agents are going to have adverse consequences, and some of those consequences may not be known until years after a substance is considered for doping purposes.

    Another point I don't think you have addressed is how you would interpret competitive results. Imagine a financial reporting environment where companies could use whatever accounting methods they wanted, as long as they disclosed their methods. Comparing performance across companies would be very burdensome, and perhaps even impossible for most if not all financial statement users. I would liken such an environment to competitive cycling where doping is permitted--even if we knew exactly what doping methods cyclists were using, it would be almost impossible to say how much a given cyclist's performance was due to the efforts and genes of the cyclist, as opposed to the talents of the cyclist's doctor.

  5. Parker, nice rant! One rant for another seems reasonable to me. Let us know next time and you can do a guest post instead of just the comments...As for your grade, I'm only keeping track of points lost for grammatical errors--not differences in opinion.

  6. Reilly's article on Floyd makes some very good points. Here is a link to my thoughts on Floyd as posted on this blog: http://fraudbytes.blogspot.com/2010/05/what-about-floyd-landis.html

  7. Aaron,

    I agree with you in terms of competitive results. There has to be some standard somewhere to provide, if nothing else, consistency in determining results. If that is the prime consideration (and it is most certainly an important one) then the anti-doping stance makes complete sense, and I am inclined to agree.

    As for the safe levels, and doctors' advice, the key there for me is that the doctor is just there to provide an analysis of what is considered safe, given the knowledge of the medical community at the time. The athletes wouldn't be forced to stay within the "safe" range, because in this example they can do whatever they want to their bodies, even if they die of a heart attack at age 26.

    As a shorter person, I often feel disadvantaged when I compete in athletic events. My taller friends are just more readily equipped to compete, with nothing to thank but genetics. Should they not also have an asterisk next to their achievements, for being abnormally tall? I think that doping almost becomes an equalizer.

    With this all being said, it is nice that the governing bodies of sport have decided to just say, "We aren't going to deal with the potential mess of allowing doping, so nobody can do any of it." I hope that the athletes can abstain from it, and I hope that those who DO remain clean will have their day in the sun. Ken Griffey, Jr. just retired, and what is most remarkable about him is his extreme success despite not being a part of the steroid era in baseball. If cycling can become as clean as Griffey, I'll be a pretty happy camper.

  8. And I would love to make a post some time on the blog proper. That would be fun.

    Landis' use of detail does some consistent with someone who is telling the truth, and what he said did make a lot of sense (except, of course, as refuted in Rick Reilly's article), but don't you think he knows this? He's had years to figure out how to bust Armstrong, how to develop a detailed, consistent story. I would think that the level of detail is also related to the amount of time passed since the incident. Landis is no dummy (well, at least not all the time)--he almost certainly knows that if he wants to be more credible he has to provide extensive details. If he was coming out with all these details in 2003, shortly after an Armstrong victory, it might be more believable. But since he's waffled more than Aunt Jemimah, and he's waited how many years since Lance's last win to make his accusations, I can't help but wonder how much of his "detailed factual evidence" is merely a well-designed fiction.

  9. Parker, it could be that Landis created this story up. If so, what about all the others such as Frankie Andreu and his wife, former teammates Jonathan Vaughters and Steve Swart, James Startt, Emma O'Reilly, etc. Are all these people making up these stories?

    Also, I'm confused because yesterday you ranted that basically everyone who rides a bike knows that those at the top of cycling are/were dopers. Today, Landis is lying when he tells details about Lance's doping?

    For more on those who have talked about Lance doping see:



  10. I guess I'm just trying to be contrarian. Or maybe I'm just a Lance fan who would hate to see that we've been misled for years. Lance is probably doping, but until we have concrete evidence, it's just speculation. Landis could very well be telling the truth (finally), but all I'm saying is that we need samples, bags, and pictures, not word-of-mouth. Until we have that, we have a rumor mill. I'll take a look at those links a little later once I get some more free time at or after work. I know Lance keeps getting accused, but either he's been good at dodging the law for 11 years (or however long it has been), or he's been good for 11 years and people are doing what they can to try to discredit him. I'm not sure which is more likely.

    Could I be wrong that most people are doping? Absolutely. I sure hope so. If they all are, then Lance is almost certainly doping. If it's just a handful, then maybe he isn't.

    So while I don't care if people dope (as it relates to people being in charge of their own bodies), I DO care for keeping the rules as constituted at any given time.

  11. Parker, in addition to your comment that either Lance has "been good at dodging the law for 11 years or he's been (clean)", I would add that if he's been clean he is also an incredible-super-duper-freak of nature because over that 11 year period most of his top competitors have been found to have doped including Ullrich, Basso, Tyler Hamilton, Landis, etc. I personally don't think we need samples, bags and pictures. Enough circumstantial evidence can convict him. If, for example, Jeffrey Novitzky gets enough people to testify including his former wife and some current pros (supposedly two have already cooperated), etc., there will be more than a preponderance of evidence for a civil case which is probably what Novitzky will pursue.