Friday, June 02, 2006

A Boil Lanced?

Today's report into the allegations made by L'Equipe seemingly exonerates Lance Armstrong from having used drugs during his first victory in the Tour de France. That's what the Armstrong spin machine has proclaimed, at any rate. On a further examination of the words used by the expert, it seems to me highly likely that the samples did indeed contain traces of EPO, a banned drug. The head of the report team certainly pulls his punches in many of his statements - "It may suffice for research purposes but as a valid doping result - no way."

For all the proclamations to the contrary, it is a technicality that exonerates Armstrong. A pretty hefty technicality - that is, that the way the sample was tested in no way correlates with the official doping policy of either the world cycling authorities or the World Anti-Doping Agency. Yet there isn't actually a denial that the samples contained EPO. That must surely be the acid test of whether the claims are valid or not? It may not qualify him for a ban, or other punishments. But the suspicion must surely still linger here - avoiding a negative dope test is a game of skill, not a game of keeping clean.

Perhaps more pertinently, should it surprise us that Armstrong was taking drugs? Should it surprise us that people in any sport would be taking drugs? The endurance and the sheer physical capacity needed to compete at such a level in the Tour de France is often described as superhuman. Not without good reason either - man is not made to compete at such speeds, such physical hardship, day in and day out. Cycling is constantly surrounded by doping incidents, with riders competing at a much lesser level to Armstrong convicted of doping. Is he really so much better than his opponents that he can beat them so thoroughly when they are doping and he isn't?

And, ultimately, does this matter? Can it be construed as 'unnatural'? The body still has to respond to the stimulus of the drugs to enhance performance - in exactly the same way that more traditional training techniques work. The way the current rules operate, it is only the honest and the stupid who lose out. If you've got a brand-new designer drug, or a pretty powerful masking agent, then you can escape the long arm of the sporting law. If some newspaper stories are to be believed, sometimes all you need is friends in high places. There's a culture of cheating in certain sports, and it's cheating necessitated a) because everyone's at it and b) the endurance/ability required to compete at the top level is nothing short of wildly unhealthy.

Can a baseball pitcher really throw a ball at 100mph 100 times every 5 days and not feel the pain over a career, without taking steroids to artificially strengthen his shoulder? Can American football linemen be bashed into repeatedly over a three-hour period once a week for four months without having unnatural strength? Can a cyclist haul his body over mountain after mountain for three weeks without needed an artificial stimulant? I doubt it.

Pretending that drugs only exist with positive tests is an attitude of breathtaking naivete. Why can't we accept that if there are artificial aids to performance, then people can take risks with them? Seek a doctor's advice and it should be safe. I would bet a fair amount of money that people are cheating in sport the entire time. Some get away with it, others don't. But the pious morality of the indignant journalists sticks in my throats at times. There's a real debate to be had about the role of drugs in sport, and it's about time we had it.