A reader/listener emailed me today with the following personal story, and I asked if could share it as a sort of counterpoint to much of the discussion going on currently. He asked that his name be withheld and I agreed. I did a bit of background and yep, he rode for a paid team and has a bit more than “moderate success” in ultras. In short, I’d loooove to have his resume and am intrigued by his perspective.
All emphases mine.
By way of background: I rode road bikes semi-professionally during college and thereafter.
I found moderate success there. My final year racing was my “find out how good I am and see whether I can make it a living.” The answers were moderate talent and no. I wasn’t good enough, dedicated enough and, in the end, wasn’t willing to take drugs (for a number of reasons) to bump myself up a level. I had an education, a back-up plan and left before I really had to noodle about whether or not to aid my performance.
Let me be clear: I did not, nor have I ever doped. But to say that the temptation wasn’t there would be a lie.
I didn’t want to and personally wouldn’t have been able to live with myself, but seeing folks who were riding with me one year and getting big contracts the next with massive improvements or starting up coaching businesses on their sketchy results always left me wondering “what if?”
Yes, I knew people who did dope; I suspected others–some of whom later were caught others of whom probably didn’t dope and I was wrongly accusing. I’m not proud of that, but that’s how suspicion works.
I had a coach at the time who also didn’t dope during his career and something he told me has always stuck with me: people who run up against that and have other opportunities get out, but those who have put all their eggs in the professional bike racing basket cannot. That’s neither here nor there, but what my time cycling taught me was two things: people dope for thousands of reasons money and glory being just two of the most obvious and, perhaps more memorably, people who dope run the gamut: they’re nice, they’re assholes and everything in between.
I suspect that Tyler Hamilton, Tom Danielson, Priscah Jeptoo, Mary Decker Slaney, etc. would make good neighbors. They’d probably be fun to hang out and have coffee with too. I bet they’d take care of and spoil your dogs if you went away on vacation. But they also doped. That doesn’t necessarily make them bad people, just…well…I’m not sure what. Anyway, I quit racing, went to grad school, picked up running and again have had some moderate successes in ultra events. Ultrarunning was just another way to get out and challenge myself endurance-wise. But people do it for other reasons. There is no “pure” form of it.
All that being said, I have big issues with lifetime bans because I don’t think they’re effective at dissuading doping nor do I think that they’re an effective and targeted use of funds for any sporting organization.
First of all, testing is not 100% accurate; or another way of putting that: science cannot emphatically guarantee with 100% certainty that a failed test means an athlete doped. So are we willing to risk kicking out 1%, 2%…whatever % of innocent people just because…well…we have this super strict rule?
The corollary of this is true too, and just because we don’t like to think of it doesn’t mean it’s any less factual: just because an athlete produces a negative test does not mean that he or she isn’t doping. That mindset is somehow entrenched in the sport and it’s ridiculous. This is why all the strident “test me, test me I’m clean I’m really really clean” pleas fall on my deaf ears. Just because you submit to a test and produce a negative does not mean that you’re not cheating. It may be an indication, but it’s not proof.
I read somewhere recently that estimated that maybe 4% max of all doping in cycling was flagged. That’s a ludicrously low success rate (see below on where to spend money). A quick Google search (the USADA reasoned decision on the US Postal Team was a veritable how-to) can teach even a novice how to evade tests on a regular basis. Reiterating the above–dopers are nice people (sometimes) and do it for a variety of reasons. In cycling anyway, the disincentive is hardly there: dopers are managing teams, running federations, starting up coaching businesses that rest on the laurels of their doped athletes’ results (CTS for example.)
In that world now, the question isn’t why dope but why not? There seem to be few if any repercussions unless the cult of opinion doesn’t like you (Lance, Ricardo Ricco.) With the professionalization of Ultrarunning this too is coming to a trail near you. Secondly, because the lifetime ban is so harsh the burden of proof will have to be extremely high which, as noted just above, is not entirely plausible.
And then…what is the sport going to do with things like the Alberto Contador case? What happens when someone doesn’t dispute the positive test, but claims tainted supplement, or tainted meat, sabotage something like that? Tainted supplements and whatnot are more common than one thinks. Are you or is anyone willing to both judge and condemn that person? Just because it’s a positive test doesn’t mean that the person is cheating.
And how will anyone decide? Again Lance Armstrong was an asshole to everyone around him so we inherently don’t like him or believe him, but people like Scott Moninger or Tom zirbel were nice and quiet and so everyone rallied around them.
The cult of personality is not a legitimate way to conduct drug testing and deciding who we ban or sanction and who we don’t.
My third point, related to all of this is the psychological effect that we’re placing on non-dopers. If 1%, 2%, 4% or whatever will inevitably produce false positives how nervous are you at every drug test? If an athlete, thought that 1 in every 1000 tests would produce a false positive would he be so confident? Would he be as loud trumpeting his anti-doping stances? Again, science isn’t 100% accurate. Would you be willing to roll the dice at every race? Okay, maybe not you, but increase the stakes: say your sole source of income came from running and running related things. Would you then? Sure it’s a low probability, but what if your career is ended because of a false positive? Can that be weighed against those who are justly banned? I certainly don’t think they’re equivalent, but that’s just me.
Finally, with the burden of proof being so high because the stakes are so high you’re going to have to have a drawn out appeals process. The incident at North Face 50 was a great example of everyone rushing to the court of public opinion (keep her out she doped) without knowing any of the specifics. Marco professes her innocence, we’re all quick to judge on our limited evidence. But surely we couldn’t kick her out for her life on that alone…she would be able to defend herself right?
Or is it a one stop, sorry your failed, you’re out? So drawn out appeals and trials will lead to federations (who is going to pay for this by the way…anti-doping is expensive which is why it’s not done for all riders in, say, the Tour de France and if they can’t pay for it how is the fledgling ultrarunning world going to? $1000 to run Western States sure isn’t going to cover it) spending more and more money litigating the offenses. With more money going to court fees and appeals processes there will be less for actually testing. Wouldn’t everyone prefer that money were spent effectively: making better tests, testing more, etc.? This is the tip of the iceberg.
Don’t get me started on altitude tents or associations with known affiliations with dopers or maybe that’s for another day, but how would we treat that kind of thing: if a North Face athlete produced a positive test would they be disallowed from our sport? How culpable are the enablers: the coaches, sponsors, &c. and where and how are they held accountable?
Obviously this isn’t an easy issue to fix. Otherwise, we could just follow what cycling had done and leave it at that.
What do you think of his thoughts? The author has a unique perspective, and though I don’t agree with many of his beliefs, it’s going to take athletes from every angle to tackle this problem.