Richard O’ Donovan defends the sports of cycling and athletics, as they attempt to deal with highly publicised failed drug tests.
As my fellow SIE contributor Brian Barry discussed recently, athletics has been severely rocked by the failed drug tests of several high-profile sprinters, most notably former World Champion Tyson Gay and former World Record holder Asafa Powell. Cycling meanwhile has just emerged from its first post Lance Armstrong confession Tour de France and winner Chris Froome, simply cannot shake the shadow of suspicion after some devastating accelerations secured his first Maillot Jaune.
As Brian points out, the tolerance of sports fans has long been running thin with such sports. But as a lover of both the black sheep sports and the seemingly more angelic ones, I find it all just a tad ridiculous. No professional sport should be beyond suspicion, whether it has a history of (reported) failed controls or not. After all cycling and track and field police their sports for evidence of doping in a far more extreme manner than sports that most fans are quick to defend, such as Soccer, Rugby and Tennis.
“My personal experience of drugs tests, as a professional athlete, is that they have only ever taken a urine sample from me. Only urine, in numerous tests over 10+ years of competing at elite level sport. Seems strange to me after reading about cycling’s procedures. Where they frequently test by taking blood from the athletes. Sometimes storing that blood for years. I have never had blood taken during my whole career!”
As I’ve said before, it’s pretty hard to find what you’re not looking for.
It was all fine until we started testing for what they were taking.
For example, Tennis has not really been discussed as a potential problem sport in the fight against doping in sport, yet a mere few months after the sport’s governing body caved to pressures to bring in more blood testing and biological passports, (having conducted scandalously low amounts in previous years) two former top 15 players (Marin Cilic and Victor Troicki) were provisionally banned for doping offences. I’m guessing this is the tip of the iceberg.
But for finally beginning to get its act together and police its sport, should we now lump tennis in with the other problem sports as a haven for cheats? Is Tennis at crisis point too?
Put it this way, for years now, despite the fact that cycling and track and field have undeniably been trying to be better, the mere catching of a cheat is still seen as another stick to beat the sports with. This is just plain regressive. If catching cheats irreparably tars your sport, then what incentive has the governors of sports to report failed tests. This is quite simply the kind of attitude that maintained the myth of Lance for so many years. It may also be the attitude which is protecting all our other favourites in their supposedly angelic fields of play.
Is there any logical explanation as to why doping or other forms of cheating would be more prevalent in cycling and track and field?
“Battles in academia are so vicious precisely because the stakes are so small,”
Henry Kissinger, former US Secretary of State
The above quote was put forward as an argument by renowned author and athletics enthusiast, Malcolm Gladwell, on a recent podcast discussing the 30 for 30 documentary, 9.79*. (For those unaware, 9.79* explores the doping controversies (told and untold) from the 1988 Olympic 100m final, when Ben Johnson had his gold medal stripped and awarded to Carl Lewis.)
Gladwell’s aim when using the quote was to demonstrate why he felt sports such as athletics and cycling (besides the usual arguments that endurance sports and doping are obvious physiological matches) had suffered more doping set backs then the more lucrative and more team orientated sports such as basketball, association football, American football etc.
Or in simple terms, what he was trying to say is that in sprinting there is the title of “World’s Fastest Man” and then there’s everybody else. Similarly in cycling, there is the Yellow Jersey and at least to the casual fan, there is everybody else.
The drop off in earning power both within the sport and outside of it commercially, is inexorably linked to the wearing of their sports symbolic crown.
In athletics, Usain Bolt eats first, in cycling for the greater part of a decade, Lance Armstrong did.
Meanwhile in Soccer, as an easy example, Lionel Messi, Cristiano Ronaldo, Zlatan Ibrahimovic and a host of others eat at mostly the same time. Thousands of others eat incredibly well too. Messi may be the perennial Ballon D’or, but his success doesn’t (relatively speaking) impoverish the competition in the same way as Usain Bolt’s does say the world’s 10th best 100m sprinter.
So by Gladwell’s logic, in athletics and cycling, as the pie is much smaller, or in other words as the “stakes are so low”, the competitors are incentivized to compete exponentially more fiercely (read, pump their bodies full of everything and anything) in order to gain whatever advantages they can. There is only so much room at the top.
Meanwhile in soccer as the unforgettably fierce competitor Winston Bogarde once proved, you can have Chelsea pay you £40k a week for occasionally trotting out for the reserves and more or less living in your native Netherlands in the final year of your contract.
So there’s quite a lot of room at the top!
But what Gladwell’s point also quite correctly hints at, is that cyclists, sprinters and other endurance or power athletes are not born dramatically different to soccer players, rugby players, tennis players or whoever else.
In many ways he argues that they are functions of their surroundings and the rules (written and unwritten) of their games.
Or put simply, the quote argues that there is no inherent evil in cyclists, sprinters etc, before they take up their sports, that is not present in other athletes, and it is simply ridiculous to assume otherwise.
Where Gladwell’s argument falls down however, is that it is really just an unsubstantiated rule of thumb. A heuristic that can satisfy our need for an explanation, without really digging into whether it is the correct explanation.
What is the correct explanation? I’m not sure, but we undoubtedly have to begin to entertain a wider ream of possibilities about our sport stars.
If money is the only motivator in soccer then Gladwell’s quote may provide a more satisfactory explanation, but for the players (and clubs/managers) who are motivated by titles, there can still be only one king of the mountain. One winner of the World Cup, one winner of the Champions League. To give yourself the best chance of reaching the top, there will always be those looking for an edge. It is just up to the rule makers if they want to, or have the means to catch them.
A case against soccer?
“You’ll be disappointed in sports people. I guarantee you – because they’ll always try to find that edge”
Gary Neville, commenting on the Gareth Bale diving accusations
While Gary Neville’s comments were not directly about doping in soccer, they were about cheating or gaining an edge, which is really the endgame of doping anyway.
But If you think it is a giant leap from one form of cheating to the other, then it may be worth further digging into the Gary Neville quote vault.
“When the 1998 World Cup started, some of the players started taking injections from Glenn’s favourite medic, a Frenchman called Dr Rougier. It was different from anything we’d done at United, but all above-board, I’m sure. After some of the lads said they’d felt a real burst of energy, I decided to seize any help on offer. So many of the players decided to go for it before that Argentina match that there was a queue to see the doctor.”
Gary Neville – speaking about England’s 98 World Cup campaign under Glenn Hoddle in autobiography Red
Now the above doesn’t prove that doping is endemic in soccer even if there are numerous other incidents (recent trial of Emiliano Fuentes in Spain, spate of failed Nandralone tests by top players in late 90s/early 2000’s, ruling against Juventus juggernaut of mid to late 90s, again the simple lack of blood testing in the sport) that would seem to give at least some weight to such a thesis.
All we can really say at this point is that some sports are policing their sports stronger than others and are suffering for doing so.
Others are not really policing them at all, potentially because they are afraid of what they might find or what they know is already there.
At the end of the day, if all sports tackled doping as cycling is doing, then some of the most entertaining sporting events of the past may not have been possible. If that is the realisation then we may well have to make another choice.
To return to the Colosseum or to not?
That question is for another day.
Sport Is Everything. Richard O’ Donovan.