Thursday, July 17, 2008

Tour de France

I've been writing about movement, flying and of course training some, but with another rider busted in the Tour de France today my thoughts are on that event.

I used to really like watching the Tour de France. When Floyd Landis was busted for doping in the Tour I was pissed at Floyd. I had reveled in his stunning comeback, his guts, and his general down-home attitude. Then it turned out that he had doped (no real surprise for any Tour rider), and I felt betrayed despite feeling I should have known better. I followed Floyd's appeals and legal maneuvering as the case went through the courts, and at one point I became convinced that he hadn't been busted so much as framed by bad evidence. Then I read some more, and the reality is that nobody but Floyd will ever know exactly what happened. I expect that maybe in ten or 20 years the "real" evidence will come out as it often does. This year I followed the Tour a bit, but it's the same old game of doping violations. I've now just lost interest in the Tour; what does it mean to win an event that's so obviously drug-fueled? What it really boils down to for me is that the Tour is simply nothing more than a bad joke no matter what happened with Floyd and others. Either Floyd is lying like mad or the Tour is incompetent at drug testing. Either way my response is the same: I'm not interested anymore. My opinion matters little, but I suspect there are a lot of people out there who feel the same. Maybe drug testing is a dead end for athletics, maybe there are ways to test effectively, but the real problem is that high-end aerobic and strength events have big stakes, and someone will always try to cheat in that environment. It's human nature.

I've lived and worked with amateur and professional bike racers over the years and deeply respect the dedication and effort they put into their sport, but I can't respect the Tour as an event, nor can I find the confidence to trust any of the athletic performances I see on that asphalt stage. Football, baseball, hockey, any "huge" event has basically the same set of temptations and will likely produce the same behavior.

I do not know of one climber, kayaker or paraglider pilot who has ever doped to win a contest of any kind. I've heard vague accusations, but despite being involved in the high end of those sports at various points I have no solid, factual information that anyone has doped to perform at a higher level than any other competitor in any event. And even if someone had then I seriously doubt the podium reflected the doping effort; it's seldom the strongest who wins in any the sports I compete in. When someone wins a climbing or paragliding comp I can see the training, see the effort, and balance those factors against the luck everyone needs occasionally. I've had luck when I needed it and not had it when I would have liked some. I've seen competitors screwed by the "rules," and also given a break by the officials, but that's competing. Perhaps there just aren't enough rewards in my sports to inspire serious doping? That's OK with me, and I can look at the accomplishments of my friends and know that the results came from them, and not from who could avoid the drug tests the best.


Ernie said...

I'm with you .. mostly. I really enjoy the sport of cycling, and I hope these three positives are just unrelated idiots.

Performance enhancement seems like a thorny issue to me in general. It seems reasonable to assume there may be people with naturally high levels of X, whatever X is... concentration? VO2 max? fast-twitch fibers? money?

Sport isn't a level playing field, that's why we can have competitions. And I'm certainly not at your level, but I would be surprised if there weren't at least one or two people doping in the sports you compete in ... even if it's caffeine pills, beta blockers for relaxation, etc.

Malcolm Gladwell has an interesting set of posts on this ( The question he poses concerns how an illegal enhancement is determined. For example, why is it ok to go to altitude and increase RBC, but not to inject EPO? Or why are laser-eye surgeries allowed? Some athletes cannot afford an elective operation like this.

There is an element of navel-gazing to these discussions, I'll admit. Ultimately you'd like to see the guy who trains hardest and can overcome the pain win the thing.

Anonymous said...

To claim that the "your" sports are clean, while "their" sports are dirty is ridiculous! All competitive athletes feel enormous pressure to win (fame and/or fortune are good motivators). Many simply can't resist the temptation to take performance enhancing drugs. Perhaps if "your" sports were scrutinized as closely as "their" sports, some of the rumors that you have heard might prove true. Lest you forget, many banned drugs don't make you stronger, but they do help you prevent injuries and recover more quickly--valuable qualities for many of "your" sports!

Will Gadd said...

Hi Ernie, yes on the Gladwell comments, I've read that and agree. I've pondered Lasik so I can see better many times... There is an element of navel gazing for sure too, my navel is my mirror or something like that.

Anon, yes also. I've had a host of injuries in the last year. If I were the centre for the Calgary Flames I wouldn't still be battling these injuries, and I know enough sports medicine to know there are better cures out there than what I can access legally or easily.

Maybe "my" sports are generally clean because there isn't enough of a reward being flashed. I could agree with that. But that's part of why I like them--you have to do these sports not because you'll be incredibly rich in cash, but because you really want the feelings the sport itself provides. I don't think that's purely being "smug." I don't believe my sports are better than other sports in an absolute sense. My sports are dangerous, socially retarded and often completely and totally pointless, I suffer under no illusions of the sanctity of any of my sports. But I do think it's interesting and downright cool that high levels of performance do not require taking performance enhancing drugs.

No solutions that I can see, but time to go out and do a slow hike with my kid on my back before teaching flying this weekend, yeah!



William said...

I wonder about how "clean" outdoor/adventure sports actually are. On the one hand, they're almost totally clean - but only because there is no organizing body to control what one can and cannot put into one's body. If nothing is forbidden, then how can one be "dirty"?

There is the exception of competitive sport climbing, which I believe tests competitors to some degree. Didn't Sharma get busted some years back for testing positive for weed? Sure, it's not a performance enhancer in the traditional sense (at least, I don't think), but it was a banned substance for that competition and he did test positive.

But ignoring illegal drugs taken for non-performance related reasons, are we sure that no one takes supplements of some kind to improve performance? I'm sure that there are some drugs commonly banned in other sports that would be beneficial to climbers. Drugs can do more than just beef you up like Arnold.

But still it seems unlikely that usage is very common in climbing - there probably isn't enough $$ in the sport to justify shelling out cash to a doctor. Performance enhancers don't come cheap, nor do the doctors who provide them. If you're already living out of your truck, even with a podium finishes and/or sponsorship deals, are you really earning enough to afford chemical supplements?

It wouldn't surprise me that if there was drug usage in climbing it occurred more among the weekend warriors with a larger paycheck; those who could pay a doctor willing to dish out supplements (many which are legal with the proper 'script) so that they can crank harder in their limited free time and recover from injuries faster.

But still we have to ask, as ernie brought up, what would count as an illegal enhancement were there a governing body?

Based on my one trip to high-ish altitude it seemed pretty common for folks to be gobbling diamox. But seeing as one of the central challenges of high altitude climbing is, you know, the altitude, wouldn't something like diamox be the first thing to be regulated by a high-altitude mountaineer's governing body?

What about asprin, garlic, or hot-sauce? I've used all three at different times to try and improve circulation in my extremities when ice climbing. (Then I learned to dress better, drink more water, and stop over-gripping) Hell, Twights book has a few suggestions on various supplements one should consider.

When considering drugs/supplements in the climbing community, we first have to ask: What would be an 'unfair advantage'? Is there even such a thing for those who are not explicitly competing in an organized event? Isn't the classic climber "roid" supplemental oxygen?

Paul Raphaelson said...

Just some food for though about Floyd Landis ...

If you require hard, factual proof before believing that climbers have doped, then I think you should extend the same courtesy to Floyd. And the evidence presented against him was so shoddy, so riddled with holes and so generally unsupported, that I consider it a travesty that he was stripped of his title.

I don't claim to know whether or not he did anything wrong. But I followed the whole case prettty closely. It resembled a witch hunt if it resembled anything at all. The standards of evidence (and evidence handling) used by the anti-doping authorities are incredibly low. Their evidence would not be accepted in any North American court in a civil or criminal trial. It doesn't even meet the most basic standards of peer reviewed science.

Not to mention that in spite of the rules being incredibly lax, they didn't even follow them.

But still the appeals were all thrown out.

Pro cycling is in a sad state, definitely, but this whole charade is sadder to me even than the doping.