Thursday, June 5, 2008

Doping and Realpolitik

It's commonly said that racers dope because it's a hard sport, but their sport is also hard precisely because they dope. The milieu of racers is a doper's milieu, and the serpent of doping endlessly bites its own tail. The lie is too old, and the hypocritical abyss they've allowed to open between the official line and real practices is too enormous ever to be done away with.

In the peloton, refusing to dope means refusing to 'do the job'; it's like refusing to train or get a massage.

Athletes have doped from day one. When the world was magical, dope was magical; when the world was chemical, dope was chemical; now that the world is biological, dope is biological; when, in the future, the world will be genetic, dope will be genetic....

Competition produces doping, just as taxes produce fraud....

- Paul Fournel, The Need for the Bike


I’m with Fournel.

I don’t support the use of illegal performance-enhancing drugs. I would love to see every sport rid of them forever. Unfortunately, that is a fantasy. A positive fantasy – but it’s important to grasp that, while we should work toward it, it will never happen. Never.

Go ahead -- argue with me. Problem is, I agree with all of your points: It’s bad for athletes. It’s bad for the fans. It’s bad for kids getting into sports. It embodies all that’s wrong with our bigger-stronger-faster, instant gratification, self-absorbed society.

You’re too right.

It’s also as old as sport itself. Endurance athletes in the early 20th century tried anything and everything to get an edge, from cocaine to brandy to doses of strychnine – yes strychine, the pesticide, of which just 5 mg can be lethal. Even athletes in ancient Greece took all sorts of stuff, including stimulants.

Journey with me now, as we turn back the pages of time: Somewhere on an athletic field, thousands of years ago, a trainer was the very first person in history to have this thought: "Hmm... That weird potion that my friend made for my horse to make him run faster… What if I gave that to my runners?’ Of course, the horses collapsed in foaming, bloody convulsions after the race, but our guy wasn’t thinking about afterwards. He was thinking about what he was expected to think about: Winning.

As he walked toward the stables to hide that potion bottle under his toga, he muttered to himself, “Apres moi, le deluge.”

There are parts of this soiled yet beautiful world that will never – never – be as I see them in my heart. I will never be able to admire without reservation the character of a national politician, no matter how much good she or he might do in the world. There will always be parents who raise their children with the most hateful distortions of love imaginable. There will always, until the last day of the world, be motorist who hate us simply because we are riding bicycles.

This isn’t a philosophical post; I’m not saying doping is right or wrong. And it’s not a political post; I really don’t have the answer as to how we should fix this magnificently screwed-up situation. This is a psychological post. It’s about a reality that I’m beginning to grasp.

Now in my mid-forties, I’m just beginning to calm down and simply accept those unchangeable things. They make me sad and frustrated, but letting them make me crazy is a sure road to an impoverished life. I get up every morning and work for positive change, I work toward my ideals of kindness and fairness. The work I do is directly tapped into those ideals. But if I cling to them, I’m doomed. Some days you just have to toss out right and wrong, put on your best kit, and go out and leave a 30-mile streak of melted rubber down the road. Somehow, everything in the world seems in its rightful place when you get back.
I ask you to seriously question, for at least a moment, the likelihood of cycling's governing bodies getting us to where not one person in our sport is doping. The mythical "level playing field," right? I will bet you my left hamstring that there would soon be at least one athlete who thought to himself, “I think I can dope and get away with it. Boy, what an advantage I'll have!”

Human nature has survived in its current form for millions of years. It ain’t gonna be changing a winning game anytime soon.

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