The Grand Illusion: doping has changed

This is part of a series of posts on what I think are illusions that have grown up over the years around cycling. For further reading, you can do no better than read the section in Roland Barthes Mythologies and Benjo Maso’s excellent The Sweat of the Gods: Myths and Legends of Bicycle Racing.

Doping is doping. It is deception, it is dishonesty. It is immoral and occasionally unhealthy.

No matter what the substance – be it the commonly available, over-the-counter, amphetamines of the 1950s or the illegally imported synthetic blood products of the 2000s – it is all just doping.

There is a school which applies a moral relativity to doping along the lines of “Ah but it was different back then.” That is a lie.

The act of taking a doping product is always an immoral decision, a deception against the ideas of fair sport, no matter what the method or the time of its taking. A rider decides on seeking illegal advantage long before they devise the method of doing so.

Transporting boosted blood round Europe in refrigerated panniers remains the same act of deception as when Maurice Garin hopped on a train: It is a moral decision where the issue of health and cleanliness is but an afterthought.

Read Christophe Bassons, the unwilling poster boy for clean cycling, in his interview on cyclingnews.com where he refused to judge:

“… it’s a mistake to fight the war on doping in terms of health – because, if you actually analyse it, doping responds to a need there too, because you can be healthier doing the Tour de France on drugs than without anything.”



“Everyone has their own sense of legitimate and illegitimate, which is different from what is licit and illicit. For example, I might think it’s legitimate to drive my car at 90kph in an 80kph zone, if me being late means that my son will walk out into the school playground and not see his dad. For Richard Virenque, doping was legitimate because, for some reason, he needed the love and admiration of the public. For some riders from Eastern Europe it’s legitimate because they need money for their families – which is hard to condemn.”

Viewed in these terms, the only way to combat doping is to render illegitimate the moral arguments, not the sporting ones.

The cutting edge has always bled

Some would say that EPO and blood doping have massively changed the results and have a far greater effect than amphetamines, Pot Belge or testosterone ever did.

Blood doping has occurred since the 1960s – see the account of Gastone Nencini being caught attempting a rudimentary form by the Tour doctor in 1960 – and it’s hard to imagine that it was an isolated incident or that the top riders were not seeking similar advantages from the products available during their career.

Coppi, Anquetil, Merckx all took the best products available to them. If it was amphetamines, it wasn’t bath tub speed, it was pharmaceutical quality.

It was rife and it was organised, in so much as there were different tiers of product based on affordability and dealers who supplied the best gear. Maybe not systematic at a team level – as Banesto, Cofidis, Festina were – but nonetheless is was no amateur undertaking.

A question of survival

But, say the defenders of the romanticised past, they were only doping to survive the gruelling life of a professional back then. What else could they have done?

What then of the riders in the EPO era who have doped solely to be able to compete, to keep bread on the table and their dream of winning alive? Is their battle for survival any less justified?

And there were, anecdotally, very few who refused to sling their ice-filled flask of EPO into their pack and march to the front as willingly as they had made friends with “Pepe” and the rest – Kimmage relates, in Rough Ride, how willingly some riders would dope at the slightest provocation, right down to a criterium.

We know domestiques doped to carry their leaders “back when”, we know that they do it now. Nothing has changed about the process by which they came to dope, merely the delivery.

Doping hasn’t changed, nor has its outcome. No matter what the zealots tell you, the offences of the past are still the same offences as those of the present.

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