An interesting juxtaposition of opinions is portrayed in today’s Guardian. It asks two leading figures Dr. Mario Zorzoli of the UCI and Dick Pound of the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) the question: “Does cycling take its drug problem seriously enough?”
First of all my conspiracy theory: It has to be said that the Guardian a paper always first to have a go at cycling, in fact it’s pretty rare that they don’t mention drugs and cycling in the same sentence. I’m a Guardian reader, but find the sport coverage so painfully ‘old school’ I usually throw that part of the paper away. Strange too, when they have, in William Fotheringham, one of the most respected journalists in the cycling media working for them. I believe that their editors just don’t understand cycling and their ‘tabloid’ sensationalist approach to the drug stories quite frankly, winds me up.
They still continue to report rugby and cricket with unabashed joy and not a mention of athletics and their problems with drugs, which I, and many others, believe to be far more widespread than the problems in cycling. And what is it with weightlifting, gymnastics and swimming that they don’t have a problem with? These sports have some massive drug related problems, where the variety and complexity of growth hormone and steroid abuse is arguably far greater than it is in cycling.
But we should not compare ourselves with the worst. The fact is that ever since the cycling world has had a professional scene there has been drug cheats. At the start of the century it was cocaine and champagne, later amphetamines and morphine until the late eighties when they realised that blood doping really ‘helped’ you through the Tour. But because it’s professional sport with a lot of money involved, cycling leads the way in endurance nutrition and research – and it has moved on a lot in the past 50 years. For example there is some startling evidence to suggest that riders in the 1960s thought that drinking water was bad for you as it encouraged sweating and this wasted energy. So no surprises that some riders also think that Belgian mix (heroin, cocaine, brandy and other such stimulants mixed in) is a healthy option – they were only kidding themselves.
The athletes who run clean (yes Mr. Pound they do exist) proclaim that they don’t inject anything and I think that this is a start in a better philosophy that can help younger cyclists learn the difference between right and wrong. It could be regarded as a trite attitude, but it’s a decision that must be hard for many to make; go work in the fields, in a factory or take a few pills – so when it is so obviously easily done, as Dick Pound points out, are we really surprised that riders dope?
Dick Pound has clearly never had such a tough decision to make, it’s easy for him to be pious. However he is right in saying that the cycling fraternity is steeped in drug taking:
“This drug use is not the accidental ingestion of a tainted supplement by an individual athlete. It is planned and deliberate cheating, with complex methods, sophisticated substances and techniques, and the the active complicity of doctors, scientists, team officials and riders. There is nothing accidental about it.”
He also blames early cardiac death on drug taking too, but when riders are riding 35,000 kms a year it can cause health problems. Dr. Mario Zorzoli points out that cycling leads the way in monitoring and recording a rider’s health, he also reports that cycling leads the way in red blood cell testing:
“Our prevention programme began in 1997 with spot checks on blood samples. At first we examined only haematocrit – the proportion of solid matter including red cells – to combat the use of erythropoietin (EPO), then undectectable. In 2000 we added a haemaglobin count, and in 2001 a portable machine enabled us to measure reticulocytes, young red blood cells. All these parameters are good indicators of blood doping.”
But all this still doesn’t stop riders from using EPO. The Festina affair was the pinnacle of cycling’s bad health record. It went a long way to addressing the issue, but it just papered up the cracks for a season or two. Also I think David Millar’s case also has the potential to prove a point, he messed up and got a long ban, fair enough. However if he re-offends (and I believe he won’t) he should loose his licence forever. He would agree too, I’m sure of that.
It’s true to say that we are still soft on most offenders. Riders like Dario Frigo who was caught once and then has re-offended and yet still only receives a 6 month suspended prison sentence, so what message does this send out? So he’ll be back racing soon enough? And that is wrong, very wrong.
Dick Pound certainly takes the moral high ground and his aggressive approach will only distance the UCI from WADA even further. He talks about ‘public perception’ of the drug problem rather that the facts, which are actually in cycling’s favour at present. What he doesn’t realise is that It’s because of the public perception of cycling that the UCI are trying a lot of new and groundbreaking tests in order to clean up the sport, they aren’t perfect but they are trying.
His opinion of cycling is clearly not great, as he states that:
“All this cheating goes on under the watchful eyes of cycling officials, who loudly proclaim that their sport is drug free and committed to remaining so. Based on performance, they should not be allowed outdoors without white canes and seeing-eye dogs”
… he continues with his poor taste ‘blind’ theme and concludes that:
“Is cycling serious about doping? How about a biblical answer; there are none so blind as those who will not see. Until cycling itself acknowledges that there is a problem, it will not be able to find a cure.”
Well that’s helpful isn’t it?
What do you think? Perhaps the races are too long? and too hard? Or are you ashamed to be involved with such a ‘dirty’ sport? Is Dick Pound right or does cycling deserve to be treated in the mainstream media like all sports and not be made such an example everytime the issue of ‘drugs in sport’ crops up?