Sunday, July 29, 2007

cheating (part 1) : the easy way (and why athletes are doping)

note: i'm writing this as part 1 of several--how many parts, i don't know, since the topic is proving quite a bit larger than i'd expected. but i'll try to get all the parts in a timely matter with this one...

we seem to be inundated with a rash of cheating in sports as of late, with athletes in various sports by various turns under various circumstances admitting use of performance-enhancing substances, being suspected of using performance-enhancing substances, or being caught with performance-enhancing substances. call it what you will (performance drugs, doping, cheating, shortcuts, etc.) it's quite something for those of who follow sports, especially for those of us who also participate in it.

the most recent, of course, is Michael Rasmussen, who was kicked out of the Tour de France and fired by his team Robobank while leading the race. you can reference some well-written articles:
he isn't the only one at this year's Tour. Alexander Vinokourov, Patrick Sinkewitz, and Cristian Moreni also failed their doping tests.

and it wasn't just this year. cyclists from past Tours have been incriminated with--or even admitted--use of performance-enhancing drugs: Bjarne Riis, Jan Ullrich, Ivan Basso, Laurent Roux, Tyler Hamilton, and (allegedly) Floyd Landis.

add this to the list of athletes from other sports charged or suspected with cheating: most recently in U.S. baseball--Barry Bonds, Mark McGwire, Sammy Sosa, Jason Giambi; as well as in world track and field--Justin Gatlin, Marion Jones, Jerome Young, Kelli White, Javier Sotomayor, Cathal Lombard, Lyubov Denisova, Olga Yegorova, Jason Ngugi; and even in triathlon--Nina Kraft, Brigitte McMahon Huber, Katja Schumacher.

these are just the known users, or at least the ones who've been caught. given the nature of probability, it is statistically likely that the actual number of athletes cheating is much higher.

looking at the accumulation of names and notable figures, it's too passe' to say this is alarming; it's been going on long enough and on wide enough a scale in living memory that very few people can honestly claim to be surprised or shocked by it anymore. it's even spreading outside of professional and elite ranks to children and recreational sports:
despite the jaded reaction to performance-enhancing substances, it can still be said that it is disappointing, and it is a sad statement on our times. particularly so given human tendency to idolize athletes as paragons of human achievement, human will, and personal character. there is little human achievement or human will exercised by those athletes who choose to boost their skills not by their own labor or own effort but instead by artificial enhancement. moreover, performance-enhancing substances do not indicate strength of personal character (e.g., the value we associate with sports: commitment, concentration, self-discipline, diligence, self-improvement, selflessness) but rather weakness (e.g., arrogance, desire, obsession, lack of diligence, lack of control, conceit, selfishness).

the apparent prevalence of abuse in current sports raises the question as to why it is so: what is it that motivates athletes to abuse performance-enhancing drugs? and is it only associated with the current era in sports, or really a phenomenon that has existed for awhile and we are just disclosing (or finding) it more often now?

there are several good, reflective sources that deal with the modern prevalence of performance-enhancing drugs, two (the Slate and Observer articles) are more general and the other (Slowtwitch) is more triathlon-specific. you can read them at the following:
regarding performance-enhancing drugs in triathlon, the latter article argues that cheating in terms of doping are less likely to occur in triathlon than in cycling, claiming a number of reasons (which i question...see below):
  1. triathlon originated in America, which culturally tends to have a negative view of using drugs to aid performance
  2. top triathletes come from swimming and running, which have a much lower incidence of drug use than cycling
  3. triathlon is not a team sport, meaning that are no peers or team-mates to ask for information about acquiring performance drugs
  4. triathlon is an individual sport, which provides much poorer economics for performance drug distributors, who instead prefer the team-environment of cycling, where a single distributor can easily access an entire team of potential customers
personally, i see some issues with all of these arguments, and as a result tend to discount the argument that triathlon is more immune to the presence of performance-enhancing drugs. in particular, i can see the following rebuttals to the above:
  1. it is doubtful that American culture views performance drug use any more (or less) than any other culture...if this were the case, then why are there so many American athletes suspected or convicted of using performance-enhancing drugs?
  2. it is also doubtful that swimming or running are as bereft of performance drugs as might be believed. in particular, an article in Runnersweb (reference: Runners Web) cites a survey taken of 100 runners asking them if they would use performance drugs that posed no side effects--to which more than half (!!!) said yes (compare this to the same survey of 198 athletes, of which 103 said yes: BioMedCentral). i would also point to the commentaries of sports commentators that directly contradict the arguments that swimmers and runners don't use performance drugs (reference: CBC, Coach Science, Run Washington, Let's Run, Steve Sailer).
  3. triathlon may not be a team sport, and so less full of peers to provide information on how to acquire performance drugs, but that doesn't mean it's impossible. triathletes, being athletes, are still surrounded by medical professionals, athletes, friends, and groupies, any of whom can just as readily provide help in gaining performance-enhancing substances
  4. triathlon, as an individual sport, may offer poor economics for a distributor, but it's entirely plausible that a triathlete--just like any athlete--who is desperate enough will pay a sufficient amount of money to make the sale worthwhile to the dealer...and a dealer is likely unwilling to refuse a sale.
whether or not performance-enhancing substances are a problem (or are becoming a problem) in triathlon, steps thankfully are being taken, and the community is becoming aware of it. you can sense it in the statements of athletes, commentators, and official organizations in the following sample of articles:
all commentaries, editorials, interviews, research, and news articles aside, it is still a mystery to me as to what would drive an individual athlete (much less any triathlete) to use performance-enhancing substances. i'm not talking about their competitive level (i.e., elite v. mediocre talent or skill) or their culture (i.e., socio-economic, sport, or otherwise) or environment (i.e., peers, family, etc.). i'm talking about their motivations internally as individuals and the factors that lead them to make the decision to start doping. i'm talking about the things which change human nature.

i've heard a number of plausible explanations, which i suppose can work individually or in combination with each other. the ones i've heard include the following:
  • sloth--more simply termed laziness, it's an unwillingness to put in the required time, energy, and resources to achieve the desired athletic result. it's all too easy, given the level of sacrifice that athletes have to make to improve themselves, that they want to do what so much of the rest of modern society does and just take things easy. and performance drugs offers the ability to achieve better results in less time with less effort, meaning a shortcut allowing an athlete to take things easy (or more easily than before)
  • fear--fear of the sport, fear of the self, or fear of others. it's conceivable that a person would 1) fear the magnitude of work involved in training and racing, and search for some solution that would alleviate the prospect of pain, suffering, and sacrifice needed for the sport, and find that solution in drugs that reduce such prospects; 2) fear the prospect of their own limitations, particularly in terms of finding that maximizing their own human potential may still leave them short of their competitors, and that this fear would be mitigated by usage of substances that expand their athletic potential; and 3) feel pressure from other competitors, inducing paranoia regarding their own position relative to their rivals (e.g., that rivals are getting better than you, no matter how hard you try), and leading to sufficient desperation to try solutions like doping (either because the rivals are doing it, so you need to as well; or, your rivals are too good, and the only way to get an edge over them is to use drugs)
  • impatience--an unwillingness to allow the time to develop athletic ability. this is all too common. racing often revolves around speed, meaning athletes who race hold an innate desire to go as fast as possible. this often carries an attachment for instant results and immediate gratification, things which are further encouraged by the consumer-driven nature of modern capitalist society. doping allows athletes quicker results and greater performance gains, tempting them with the lure of better gratification in less time
  • anguish--the emotional and spiritual devastation that comes with failed expectations. especially in sports, where countless hours and huge amounts of energy and so many relationships are sacrificed, for nothing more than the mere opportunity of the single moment when we might have the chance to achieve the fleeting accomplishment that is victory or reaching a often, it ends up seeming like everything lost for nothing in return. it's a lot that to give for something that is not guaranteed. doping, by increasing an athlete's abilities, gives the athlete a greater guarantee of successful performance, meaning a greater chance of getting something (victory or personal goals) for all the effort of training...and less danger of failed expectations
  • cynicism--the process of corruption, the loss of faith in values and ideals. in sports, it can happen when a person sees their body of work and energy result in failure. this can be traumatic, especially for those taught the principle that work and energy are always rewarded. an athlete can become disenchanted, disillusioned, even resentful over their personal failures, especially if rivals keep winning, and especially if those rivals win with less effort...or with cheating via the aid of more drugs. things like this make a mockery of sports ideals professing victory is the reward for effort. an athlete who then abandons those ideals finds it all too easy to turn to the things which oppose them--like drugs
  • obsession--the extreme form of desire, in which attraction becomes greed becomes lust becomes fixation leading to exclusion of all other things or responsibilities...or people. it is, in essence, a loss of perspective. most athletes are involved in sport because of desire; they have a desire to win, to appease their vanity, to gain glory, to find personal improvement, to find fulfillment, to make friends. it's innate to sports, and it's one of the things which drive athletes to compete for victory. but too much of a desire to win leads to an obsession that makes the athlete prioritize victory over everything else (like family, personal and professional duties, or values and ideals). this is a loss of perspective, wherein the athlete forgets how everything (winning, losing, achievement, failure, competition, training, a race, a season, even a sport) fits together, particularly within the context of life...there are other reasons for sport than victory, other objectives for competition than sport, other motivations for life than competition. without this perspective, a person sees only training and racing, and the temptation of those things which make training and racing result in victory--like drugs
these are all negative emotions, and they are ones that we all as human beings must deal with. but this is what makes the scenario scary. because if athletes who cheat do so because of such emotions, then what is there to stop the rest of us who share these emotions from succumbing to them as well? what is there to stop the rest of us from cheating?

athletes are not different from anyone else. in fact, fundamentally, they are the same: technically, anyone of us who aspires and works to compete in sport is an athlete, regardless of ability. meaning any one of us is just as susceptible to the lure of cheating as any of the high-profile athletes so highly publicized in recent scandals.

obviously, not everyone is cheating. but you see the point: the temptation of performance-enhancing substances is real, and something that affects everyone--otherwise you wouldn't have articles on how performance drugs are permeating high schools and recreational sports.

just because cheating doesn't seem as prevalent in some sports (i.e., triathlon) as in others doesn't mean it isn't a threat to those sports; just because you don't see scandals publicized within a community (i.e., again, triathlon) doesn't mean that community is not vulnerable. we are all human beings, and as human beings are creatures of our emotions, making all of us susceptible to the foibles preying upon those emotions. this is regardless if we are athletes...or perhaps, given the intense nature of competition and its ability to magnify emotions, especially because we are athletes.

like i said, these are all factors that i've heard from various sources, and admittedly they are all conjecture and rumination. how much of this is true remains to be seen. whether or not these motivations truly are the ones driving so many athletes to use performance-enhancing substances is something that can probably only be definitively proven through empirical research (interviews, surveys, psychological evaluations, etc.). that kind of work is something outside the scope of this blog, and probably something better conducted by more expert sources.

still, it makes sense to me, and something that i can all too easily see as plausible. it would certainly help explain the apparently increasing levels of cheating via usage of performance drugs in sports today. triathlon may not yet be affected to the same extent that other sports are, but i am afraid it's only a matter of time.

if the link at the beginning regarding the Velo News article about Michael Rasmussen doesn't work, the full text is below:

Rasmussen pulled out of Tour, fired by Rabobank
By Charles Pelkey
Filed: July 25, 2007

After 10 days in the yellow jersey, Michael Rasmussen appeared to have beaten back all challengers in his pursuit of the top spot on the Tour de France's final podium in Paris this coming Sunday.

On Wednesday, he handily dispatched his nearest challenger - Discovery Channel's Alberto Contador - winning the Tour's most difficult stage and adding to his already-formidable lead as the race made its final trip into the mountains.

But Rasmussen was apparently unable to defeat the growing skepticism surrounding his performance and his behavior over the past few months. On Wednesday evening, when the Dane should have been celebrating his all-but-certain victory, his own team withdrew him from the Tour and fired him.

"He broke team rules," explained Rabobank spokesman Jacob Bergsma, who said team officials believed Rasmussen had lied to them regarding his whereabouts in June of this year, when UCI and Danish Cycling Federation officials had been unable to locate the rider for out-of-competition testing.

Bergsma said the team officials learned that when Rasmussen had said he was in Mexico - where his wife lives - he had actually been in Italy, working with an as-of-yet-unnamed doctor.
"It is not even sure if the team will carry on in the race," he added.

Late last week, Danish federation officials announced that Rasmussen had been ejected from that country's national squad and would not be representing Denmark at the world championships or at next year's Olympic Games.

To add insult to injury, Rasmussen was also forced to fend off charges that he had attempted to trick a friend into transporting a cutting-edge hemoglobin replacement from the U.S. to Italy in 2002.

Ultimately, it was the missed-tests issue that finally brought the controversial Tour leader to his knees. Rabobank, sponsored by a leading Dutch bank, had been under increasing pressure since Rasmussen admitted to making an "administrative error" by missing random doping controls by the UCI on March 24, 2006, and June 28, 2007.

Rabobank director Theo de Rooy said the decision to pull Rasmussen - and to fire him - came down to a matter of trust.

"Several times he said where he was training and it proved to be wrong," he said. "The management of the team received that information several times, and today we received new information."

Last week's revelations about the missed tests frustrated Tour director Christian Prudhomme, who said he would have fought to keep Rasmussen from even starting the Tour had he known about the issue.

"What I regret more than ever is that we didn't have this information on June 29, or on the following days before the Tour started," Prudhomme told AFP last weekend. "We would have made the Rabobank team face up to their responsibilities."

Prudhomme - who at one point had phoned UCI president Pat McQuaid to berate him over not informing organizers about Rasmussen's missed tests - said that there was not much more he and his co-directors of the race could have done.

"We did all we could do to get rid of him," Prudhomme told AFP.

"One cannot mock the Tour de France impunitively like those riders," he added, referring to Rasmussen, Cristian Moreni - who also exited on Wednesday after failing a drugs test - and Alexandre Vinokourov, who was thrown out on Tuesday.

"I cannot comment on the matter now as I have not been notified by Rabobank," UCI president Pat McQuaid told Reuters over the telephone on Wednesday. "I am just a little surprised that they did not discuss it with the UCI."

Rasmussen had won two stages during the Tour, though, his presence at the race was questioned by several officials and from the race organizers as well. Mocking fans along the racecourse and a chorus of boos at the finish line indicate his lack of popularity with fans as well.

His departure leaves the young Spaniard Contador in the lead with Australian Cadel Evans (Predictor-Lotto) in second and American Levi Leipheimer (Discovery Channel) in third.

The news, however, was not welcomed by Contador and Leipheimer's team.

"We just heard the news 20 minutes ago," said Discovery spokesman P.J. Rabice. "Obviously, this is not good news. We are in no way celebrating. It's a major disappointment for us. It's going to reflect very negatively on the whole sport. We are quite shocked and upset about it.

"Riders were just getting to bed when they heard the news. They have all heard the news now, and not one of them had a smile on their face. This is a sport they have all done for a number of years, and nobody is very happy about this."


tridoc said...

As an american who lived and participated in triathlon in the 80's and 90's while attending medical school in Bologna, Italy , I disagree with a few of your points. Triathlon is not immune to doping. In fact it's was quite prevalent during my time. With few or no controls, and small sponsors available to those who achieved results even on a regional level, doping went on. The same people who supplied cyclists supplied triathletes. I used to think that triathlon was above it all, but I was very wrong. In fact Michele Ferrari was one of the early triathletes in Italy. I'm sure if you look hard at some of the top U.S. age groupers some have used performance enhancing drugs. Just remember , we have very few controls. When you think a sport is above it all, thats when your vulnerable.

jonathan starlight said...

Actually, that was the argument I was making--triathlon is vulnerable to doping. The arguments that triathlon is immune were all made by the article at Slowtwitch. I was writing in response to that article, since I see that it's only a matter of time before we start seeing bigger scandals in triathlon.

Thanks for the feedback, though!