In the wake of Lance Armstrong's revelations/confession confirming what had long been suspected -- that he did indeed use performance-enhancing elements to aid in his remarkable seven Tour De France victories -- words like "cheater," "doper," and "liar" are ringing through the news world and Twittersphere. And Dick Pound is even suggesting that cycling be dropped from the Olympics, especially if it is shown that the governing body, the UCI, was complicit in the cover-up of doping by Lance and others. Yet, where was this chorus of outrage as the evidence mounted in recent years about the astounding number of Olympic champions who were chronic users of prohibited and dangerous hormonal aids. Major League Baseball even recently considered Hall of Fame status to three celebrated steroid-juiced stars. And the ranks of the NFL bulge with steriod-injecting, gun-wielding, coke-snorting malcontents.
These leagues can afford to overlook the drug issue (or at best make ceremonial acts of policing) because they derive their financial livelihood from television and gate revenues. And the lure of the spectacle of chemically-altered Ubermenschen battling, gladiator-style, remains attractive to large numbers of viewers for whom FOX is a synonym for entertainment. Cycling is unique, however, in that it receives its financial backing from corporations looking for public visibility for their company or brand names. Cycling events like the Tour and the Giro bring the added advantage of having that logo stretched across the chest of remarkably fit athletes in sleek formations and atop expensive technology defying the limits of human physical capabilities. But the tests of those limits is so daunting, so taxing that cyclists search for ways to help their agonized bodies to recover and heal. It has always been this way. And as rest days became more infrequent, and stages became longer and harder, the search became more vital and more sophisticated.
As far back as the 1920's, the Tour and drugs were linked arm-in-arm. The legendary Pelissier brothers pulled back the covers by revealing the multiple bottles of pills and vials of cocaine they depended on. In 1967, the mighty Jacques Anquetil crushed the world hour record, but it never made into the books due to his refusal to submit to a drug test. As he famously put it: "you can't ride the Tour de France on mineral water." But it came at a cost, as his sudden onslaught of health problems, in the 70's, showed (he died of stomach cancer in '87). And that same year, '67, saw the death of an amphetamine-juiced Tom Simpson on the climb to Mont Ventoux. This was deja-vu as just 7 years earlier, Roger Riviere crashed on a descent, and in his pockets, handfuls of amphetamines.
Amphetamines and cocaine were the drugs of choice back then, to ward off the consuming fatigue of continuous physical strain and to provide a rush of energy when needed. Two years later, Eddy Merckx scored a positive drug test in the Tour of Italy, and the 1970's remained scarred by scandal. 1977 champion Bernard Thevenet's (ab)use of cortisone rotted away his liver, and he spent the following winter in a hospital bed. And of course there is the famous and rather comical story of Belgian Michael Pollentier who strapped a bottle with a fake urine sample to his arm with a tube running down to his crotch (he was caught when it didn't work and he began shaking his arm in the air).
By the 80's, virtually every pro team had, on staff, a soigneur who was basically a pharmacologist with secret resources and even more secret elixers. This was no longer just uppers and pain-killers, these were hormone and blood-boosters. The very chemical make-up of the riders' bodies was being altered.
Of course, the same thing was going on in other sports, especially in international athletics where not just east European athletes, but a large portion of the American national team, were rampant abusers of steroids (but it took 15 years before they would be exposed). But while Olympic organizers advanced their testing practices and diligence, cycling was slow to react. 1988 TdF champion Pedro Delgado tested positive for a masking agent, prohibited by the Olympic committee, during the Tour, but avoided punishment because the UCI had yet to ban it. By this point, pharmaceutical aids were commonplace in cycling, and it was only the Festina affair in 98 that really made fans aware of it. And since then, the parade of the guilty has included Ullrich, Virenque, Riis, Pantani, Hamilton, Landis, and now Armstrong. And looking on from the wings, innumerable other champion cyclists who managed to keep their pharmaceutical aids hidden/masked.
However, before we condemn all these legendary figures of the sport, it is worthy remembering what we are asking of these men. The Tours put incredible demands on the human body, beyond what is actually healthy. Endocrinal imbalances begin to take hold, and pain that would send anyone else running screaming to the emergency ward for relief must be ignored because even some over-the-counter medications and ointments are forbidden to pro cyclists.
For this reason, the riders and tour directors had an unspoken agreement similar to the American army's attitude towards gays in the military. Don't ask, don't tell. But times have changed. Attitudes have changed, primarily due to the high-profile crusading of Dick Pound and his like. Suddenly sponsors are fleeing from bad publicity (for obvious reasons). And because everyone from Ben Johnson to Mark McGuire vehemently decried their innocence in the face of clinical evidence, the practice of blood-doping and the like is seen to be sinister -- like Dr. Frankenstein hidden away in a mountain-top castle, meddling with the laws of nature. And great champions of the tour are now seen to be, not the best, but the best-juiced.
However, it wasn't EPO or testosterone-boosters that made Jan Ullrich or Bjarne Riis or Jacques Anquetil or even Lance Armstrong amazing cyclists. They had immense talent and even greater determination. All the great champions, from Anquetil to Merckx to Hinault to Armstrong had this in common: they all had an almost pathological hatred of losing, and would push their bodies beyond acceptable limits in order to avoid it. So, when the body begins to lag, pain and muscle fatigue seep in, and it seems impossible to go out and do that next stage, or next round of training, is it any wonder they reach for something to ease that pain or boost that oxygen-starved blood so that they can go back out and compete?
Understand that performance-enhancing drugs CANNOT turn an average athlete into a great athlete. But they can (and do) enable a very determined good athlete to achieve heights of greatness. Indeed, it is their concentrated determination that first allows them to become good at their chosen sport, and then also leads them down that shadowy path of questionable ethics.
This is not an argument for liberalized doping/drug restrictions. Nor is it meant as an pardon for Lance Armstrong who bullied, threatened, and publicly humiliated anyone who opposed him. His conduct in that regard is, to me anyway, far more reprehensible than his blood doping.
This is, however, a plea for a level-headed view of a way forward. If you have ever suffered on a bike in a race, or in any physical activity, remember that pain. Now times it by about 100, and one just might comprehend what these riders go through. And once a rider has succumbed to the temptation of alleviating some of that suffering through the wonders of modern pharmacology, and then faced with the public stoning of those caught using, what is left but to deny its use for ever more, or else face loss of livelihood and being publicly vilified.
Testing methods will improve, but so too will the multi-million dollar industry of avoiding detection. The doctors and labs working on the dark side of sports medicine need to pursued and prosecuted. And that will only happen with the help of the administrators of these sports who have managed to duck attention behind the public stonings of high-profile athletes. The brotherhood of secrecy must end. But that can only happen IF the public and organizers stop acting as though these athletes have been selling children into slavery. Currently, cycling -- not international athletics and certainly not billion-dollar soccer and baseball leagues -- is in fact leading the way in stamping out doping.
To me, cycling will always be a beautiful unity of man and machine, and one of the purest tests of human endurance. It only becomes impure when millions of dollars are introduced for performances and spectacles that the human body cannot endure…, without aid. And those administrating the millions actively mask the "cheating."