On doping in cycling

The economist in me says to allow performance-enhancing drugs in professional cycling, but the cycling fan says not to. On this issue, I’m siding with my cycling fan self. The continuous use of PEDs is harmful to the athletes in the long run, and it really takes the pleasure out of watching it when the best that sports medicine has to offer is a bigger factor than the rider’s will to compete. Granted, both are still important, and the Lance Armstrong era demonstrates that dope is not enough to win—all the top guys were doping, but not all the top guys won—but it’s just not as fun to watch a doped race as it is to watch a clean race. (I might make an exception for Floyd Landis’s stage 17 victory in the 2006 Tour de France, which was as majestic a sight as I can think of in sports, but it’s just that: an exception.)

I’m well aware of what happens when something that people really want to do is banned. They do it anyway and spend a lot of time and energy trying to evade the ban. It seems to me that there are a few rules that would mitigate most of this. First, the penalties for doping should be very high. Cycling is not something you can do forever, and missing two or three years in your prime is a pretty strong incentive not to dope. By itself, this rule is not going to be very effective, but a second rule should help. This second rule is that samples should be kept and re-tested every so often as new tests emerge to counter new doping techniques.

Both of these rules have been implemented already in the recent past, and it seems to me that both are helping to curb doping. The spectacular fall of Lance Armstrong should help to illustrate that though you may keep (most of) the money, the glory will be gone forever. Given that the commitment necessary to become an elite cyclist takes years and years—all of a cyclist’s adult life until he retires from the sport, and probably some before that too—cyclists become very committed to the glory aspect, even if the financial aspect would suffice. To know that one’s name is cursed is hard for most cyclists, and to the more antisocial types, well, it seems they’re usually brash enough to get caught early on anyway. (See: Riccardo Riccò.)

It all boils down to what kind of entertainment the fans want. We all know that doping is not going to make a complete novice into a champion, but it may very well help an upper mid-tier rider become an overall contender. What’s fun to watch about cycling is how guys with natural talent train, strategize, and push themselves beyond what seems humanly possible. Winning the Tour de France seven years in a row is beyond what’s humanly possible, but it wasn’t because of Lance’s will and training. Essentially, it was like using magic, and that really drains the accomplishment of its inspiration. Imagine that Han Solo and Luke Skywalker were competing in the same task, and Luke Skywalker won. You’d think “So what? He can use the goddamn Force!”

It would be silly to deny that Lance’s success was the largest factor in my becoming interested in cycling. It clearly was, and I’m sure that’s the case for almost all American fans brought in since 1998. But once I passed the first stage of fandom, my preferences for the kinds of races I wanted to see started maturing too. The more recent Grand Tours are surely not entirely clean, but they have been a blast to watch and you don’t feel at the end that the winner gave more attention to science than to riding a bike as well as possible. Science is great, and I’ve enjoyed the many NASA launches I’ve watched. But sport is different. There needs to be an arena of entertainment that focuses on what a small team of guys can do, not on how the pharmaceutical industry can help them do it.

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