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Cycling's Contribution to Sports: Just Say No

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The biggest story around sports right now is the finding by the World Anti-Doping Agency that Russian athletes at the London Olympics were systematically doping to enhance their results. I am not immersing myself in all the sordid details, but since this is a watershed moment, I think it's time to say something about the Cycling experience and how, at long last, other sports can learn from it.

Backing up, since the issue of doping in cycling started blowing up in 1998, we have seen every imaginable angle on the subject. The excuses, the covering up, the technological cat-and-mouse games, the finger-pointing, the premature declarations of victory, the recurring nightmares, the near-death experiences of the sport and the actual deaths of individuals. And finally, we saw progress. Not victory, but certainly progress. Not a sense of security, but a sense of maturity -- namely, that required to admit that you can never fully win the battle, and can only stay ahead through eternal vigilance. In the war against PEDs, there is no finish line.

But 1998 was also the summer that baseball, for example, redeemed itself through the battle of single-season home run hitting exploits by two fun-loving characters, both of whom would go on to break a record that had stood since 1961, and even that had only bettered the 1927 record of Babe Ruth by a single homer. In July, 1998 -- at the very same time French police were raiding hotels and analyzing Willy Voet's luggage, as the Tour de France was sending Festina home -- at the same time a writer in St. Louis named Steve Wilstein was jotting down the name of a medicine bottle (androstenedione) in Mark McGwire's locker, all of America was celebrating the batting accomplishments of McGwire and equally obvious juicer Sammy Sosa. Slowly but surely, fans of baseball would come to terms with steroids and the extent to which Major League Baseball, under Bud Selig's used-car-style leadership, had sold its soul to bring back fans after the disastrous work stoppage in 1994 by declaring a steroid-fueled free-for-all that would lead to more homers. And fans love homers.

Well into the 2000s baseball's approach to steroids was a very un-funny joke, even despite the ugly spectacle of 1998 and even when Ken Caminiti, another obvious doper, died eight months after Marco Pantani, under similar circumstances (depression-fueled coke binge after a career built in part on toxic substances). The NFL also dragged its feet on its even more obvious PED problem. Soccer, swimming and other international sports spread the outbreak of heads buried in sand across the sports universe, not just in the US. All while people mocked cycling and its out-front battle with doping.

So you see, there is a long history of cycling having dealt with doping first. Cycling didn't have a unique doping problem; it was merely the sport that fessed up before the others.

Now comes track and field, and the Russians. To older Americans, with our Cold War biases, this story is red meat. People in the US have been joking about Eastern European athletes being doped since the 1980s, and if you think I'm making this up, watch Rocky IV.* There were actual examples to feed this paranoia, e.g. Heidi Krueger, but in the black-and-white 1980s we all ran with stereotypes right off the intellectual cliff.

Anyway, track and field has a problem. Russian sport has a problem. This is not a complete list of sports doping problems. If anything, it might be the start of finally putting together the real list of sports doping problems. But that's not the point of this post. The point of this post is that cycling has a solution: just say no.

What? Yes, it's another 1980s catch-phrase, this one straight from the mouth of Nancy Reagan, who offered it to America as a solution to a mounting cocaine problem. Drugs and gangs were ravaging our cities like never before, thanks in part (some said) to economic policies which were billed as "trickle down," only the trickle never got to impoverished places. "Just say no" was, to Reagan's detractors, a symbol of the heartless approach to poverty of his presidency. At a minimum, it was proven to be a non-solution to complex issues.

Ah, but in cycling, it is something more powerful. It is the actual solution to the endless cycle of performance enhancing drugs.

The turnaround in cycling is probably debatable, but I'd argue that Operacion Puerto got things really started. The sport bottomed out when Eufemiano Fuentes got busted in Spain and inadvertently began naming names, all the way to the top. It included a lot of riders that had lost to Lance Armstrong, which hiked up the pressure on the all-time Tour winner to maintain his lie in the face of mounting obviousness, only to crack at last and give up the ghost. The year after Puerto broke, Linus Gerdemann won a Tour stage and then cracked -- like a clean rider would, as Gerdemann was thought to be. A year later team Slipstream-Chipotle was racing in the Tour, with its out-front declaration that it would be a refuge from doping. I'm being biased and cryptic, because I don't have the capacity to say in a few sentences exactly when the tipping point happened, but cycling went from a place where you had no option but doping to one where, by 2008, you could free yourself of the shame and maybe make a living.

It was about the riders saying no. Nobody was going to say it for them. People around them all had an interest in their success, and the sponsors or coaches or doctors were unlikely to be sanctioned or go to jail. Even the federation leaders refused to say no, just as MLB did, because Pat McQuaid and Bud Selig weren't going to jail for overseeing a corrupt yet profitable system. Yes, a few non-athletes were eventually singled out, but mostly the risk was on the riders. That risk included long-term health problems as well as shame, and maybe even death (by heart failure). The riders needed a climate where it was possible to refuse, and then they needed to go for it.

It also helped immeasurably that fans began to say no. Fans began to tune out what they saw as doped sport, and races began losing money. Sponsors began to shy away and teams went under. None of that happens without fans recognizing the problem and showing an unwillingness to accept the status quo. It had to hit everyone in the wallet to really change the culture. It had to show riders that maybe there wasn't fame and fortune waiting for them if they just took this new experimental substance that nobody's testing for yet.

Eventually that system came into existence. There are plenty of holes in the net, but fortunately France -- the sport's ancient heartland -- set a strict tone on its athletes, and eventually other countries became sufficiently vigilant in tracking down cheaters so that riders began to think they could ride clean and win. France, specifically its national Tour, held the power to hit everyone in the wallet, and did so enough to incentivize a new way. Again, how much progress you think has been made is debatable, but this much is not: Cyclists are saying no to PEDs of their own accord, with minimal fear of retribution or loss of their career. They and only they have the power to save the sport, and for the most part they are using it.

So there you go, track and field. You too baseball. [I won't bother trying to preach to the NFL.] Just say no to doping. Say it a lot, loud as you can, until the sponsors and organizers hear it, and decide to create a safe haven for clean sport, then say no to the temptation that will never go away. You can do it. Even if you lose some of the glory, or even your whole sports career, there will always be far worse things in life, such as living with shame, hiding a terrible secret, or not living at all.

Too simplistic? Maybe, but this much is true: cycling has been through it all, and for sports who want to heal themselves, cycling is a good place to look for some do's and don'ts.

*****

* A short list of things I did NOT say in this post:

  • You should watch Rocky IV. This is demonstrably untrue. You should not watch Rocky IV.
  • Eastern Bloc athletes were dirty and everyone else was clean. Yeah, but Ben Johnson got caught cheating in real time. It wasn't til 2003 that Wade Exum's report on some 100 American athletes who failed doping tests from 1988 onward saw the light of day.
  • Ronald Reagan caused the drug problems of the 1980s. Some people definitely believe this. Others definitely do not. And I can't think of anything less enjoyable or appropriate to sort out in this space.
  • Team Slipstream was the purest team ever. Eh, except several of its founding members had skeletons in their closets. Same with the owner. On the plus side, the team has had next to no issues with guys while they were under contract with the team. So yes, it's complicated, but they have been a very positive force overall. Before Slipstream, team-based doping controls were largely a sham, where they existed at all. Other teams contributed to the change. Again, there isn't enough time and space for that discussion.
  • There is no fame and fortune waiting for riders who dope. Well... we'll see. There can certainly be temporary fame and fortune, but the risk of being caught is high enough that the fame and fortune doesn't look so good anymore. Some will still lunge for it, as we see every year, but it's safe to say the numbers are way down... from a virtually automatic acceptance of the risk ten years ago.