Sep 042013

Malcolm Gladwell asks a provocative question about doping in sports — why not?

He imagines baseball player and accused doper Alex Rodriguez asking why, if pitchers can use the technological marvels of Tommy John surgery to prolong their careers, why shouldn’t he be able to use the technological marvels of endocrinology (e.g. erythropoetin injections) to prolong his own career? Gladwell also imagines Lance Armstrong, cyclist and serial doper, asking why “one man is allowed to have lots of red blood cells and another man is not?” when the only difference between the two men is that one has lots of red blood cells from birth, because of genetics, while the other achieves the same physiological condition by doping.

Lance Armstrong (Mike Hutchings, Reuters)

Dope: Lance Armstrong (Mike Hutchings, Reuters)

Gladwell suggests that we embrace a “vision of sports in which the object of competition is to use science, intelligence, and sheer will to conquer natural difference.” The implied suggestion is that we legalize doping as a form of science that can compensate for natural differences. We embrace much of this technological vision already, so long as the science and intelligence extends to better shoes or better surgeries for injury, but not to erythropoetin or anabolic steroids. Gladwell is provoking those of us who oppose doping to explain why we don’t like it — and that’s a lot more difficult than it might seem at first.

I am disappointed that Gladwell seems unable to explicitly state that he’s arguing for a legalization of doping in sports. I’m disappointed that he seems unable to bring himself to acknowledge that most of the moral condemnation of athletes like A-Rod and Armstrong comes not from the fact that they doped, but from the fact that they violated explicit rules against doping and then lied about it. Set those things aside, though, and what’s left is an interesting question: why not allow athletes to dope? That would give us the kind of athletics Gladwell seems to pine for, the kind of sports where there are no restrictions on “taking the body that nature [has] given you and forcibly changing it.”

As an athlete, I aspire to bring out the best performances I can given the limits I was born with. I like training for competitions not just because I want to beat people in races but also because I enjoy optimizing my own performance, given my natural talents and limits. For me, it’s not all about forcibly changing my body through any means available, it’s about becoming more healthy and fit. I don’t think that goal is compatible with taking epo. But this is a deeply personal reason why I don’t dope.

As a spectator, I’m opposed to doping on aesthetic grounds. I just finished pulling an all-nighter refreshing iRunFar’s live coverage of the 2013 Ultra Trail du Mont Blanc. 2469 mountain runners started this race around the base of Mont Blanc, but as usual, by 80 kms into the race, the expected elites were running well in front of the enormous field. It wasn’t surprising that people like Julien Chorier, Miguel Heras, and Timothy Olson were among the few athletes contending for podium spots. These elite runners were at the front because they had done the arduous training for a race like the UTMB, but also because they almost certainly have the genetic characteristics that enable them to excel at long mountain trail races.

For me — and this is where I seem to differ from Gladwell — these advantages conferred at birth don’t make it less interesting to watch these athletes perform. In fact, I enjoy watching how much better these naturally gifted people can run precisely because of these genetic differences that the athletes themselves had no control over. My appreciation for watching Kilian Jornet run up a hill faster than anyone else is increased, not decreased, by my knowledge that Jornet has such a high VO2 max, a physiologic characteristic determined in part by training but also in large part by genetics. So that’s what a high VO2 max looks like!

Oihana Kortazar atop the Zegama-Aizkorri podium (photo: iRunFar)

No dope: Oihana Kortazar atop the Zegama-Aizkorri podium (photo: iRunFar)

In contrast, as soon as I know or suspect that Lance Armstrong is climbing Mont Ventoux so well because he’s injecting epo or taking steroids, I lose interest. His performance loses any ability to inspire or awe because what I’m seeing is his body’s response to dope and not his naturally given talent. One way to state my objection is that I’m not interested in seeing what Gladwell seems to want to see, what he describes as “a vision of sports in which the object of competition is to use science, intelligence, and sheer will to conquer natural difference.” Instead, I’d like to see “a vision of sports in which the object of competition is to use science, intelligence, and sheer will to make the most of the natural differences we’re given from birth.” For me, the beauty of competition is exactly the revealing and display of those natural differences which seem to bother Gladwell so much. (Set aside the likelihood that “sheer will” is itself a natural difference — why does Gladwell not object to competitions on this ground?)

So I have an aesthetic difference with Gladwell, but I also think his vaguely-stated argument for doping is weak on its merits. Assuming doping is legalized, presumably athletes would then have to rely on other differences between them in order to win competitions. But are those other differences so different from the ones Gladwell thinks would be erased with doping? Armstrong’s defenders often make the plausible argument that he won races not because he doped, but because he doped better than anyone else in a peloton where everyone was doping. But how did Armstrong manage to do this? He might have been smarter (a natural difference), more unscrupulous (presumably a natural difference), or he might have just been luckier (which is exactly the kind of natural difference when applied to muscle strength or VO2 max that Gladwell wants to eliminate with dope). Or it might turn out that Armstrong was simply blessed with a body — from birth — that responded better than his rivals’ to erythropoeitin and steroids. If Gladwell is objecting to the unfairness of natural differences per se among athletes, allowing for doping isn’t going to solve the problem. Competitions between doped athletes will simply shift into a different arena where other natural differences become important.

And what of Gladwell’s point that a ban on doping seems arbitrary when other means of “taking the body that nature [has] given you and forcibly changing it” are allowed? Why ban doping but allow reconstructive surgery? Why ban erythropoeitin but allow iodine supplementation? There’s an easy version of this question, when surgery is used to repair an injury or iodine supplementation is used to reverse a deficiency that causes goiter, but what about the hard case? Why not have surgery before any injuries in order to prevent them? Why not acknowledge that taking steroids is similar to taking nutritional supplements?

Almost any line you can draw between methods of improving performance that are allowed and those that are not will be somewhat arbitrary — there will be methods that could arguably fall on either side of the line. But that’s not an argument for not drawing a line, that’s just an acknowledgment that at the margins the interpretation of rules and laws is subtle and requires judgment that will always be somewhat arbitrary. We can argue about where exactly to draw the line, but only after we agree that a line should be drawn somewhere. I think the current line allowing athletes to supplement their diets with fish oil but not with anabolic steroids is a good place to draw the line. Fish oil is more like food and less like a drug; fish oil has few negative side-effects, steroids have many dangerous side effects. Perhaps it’s merely an aesthetic difference that I have with Gladwell and maybe Gladwell will condescend to arguing more specifically where he’d like to see the line between permitted and forbidden drawn.

But Gladwell — with allowances for his vague hinting and his beating-around-the-bush — seems to want to say that there ought not to be any lines, that any means at all of “forcibly changing” the body that nature has given you should be permitted. That’s certainly one vision of athletic competition, but not one that I want to see.

If Gladwell is right that allowing doping really would level the playing field and narrow arbitrary natural differences, it would drain competitions between elites of the beauty that the revelation of natural differences through training and competition reveal. It would make the top performers even more freakishly different from the rest of us who don’t dope than they are now. Gladwell might revel in that torturing of nature, but I wouldn’t.

But if Gladwell is wrong (as I think he is) that doping would eliminate natural differences between athletes, then we would still be stuck with the “fantastic menagerie that is human biological diversity” that Gladwell thinks is a such a problem. In addition, though, legal doping would subject elite athletes to more of the unpleasant and dangerous side-effects of the technological tortures that would be required to win top events.

In the interest of communicating some of the revulsion I feel about removing limits on doping, I’ll reach for florid language. Gladwell’s regime would turn the Tour de France and the UTMB into a freak show between cyborgs with “thin papery skin” who can’t sit still in a chair because they have no buttocks. In Gladwell’s regime, the beauty of seeing a supremely healthy Kilian Jornet or Sage Canaday run off the front of the pack would be obscured by Jornet’s or Canaday’s muddling along amid a pack of amped-up products of Amgen and Glaxo with buffalo humps and tiny testicles (and that’s only the best-case scenario, where doping works as intended and Kilian and Sage don’t dope). We’d certainly do more to take the bodies nature has given us and forcibly change them. But instead of shaping a healthy Kilian Jornet or Ellie Greenwood with training and diet that revealed those athletes’ beautiful biological gifts that they received from birth, much like Michelangelo revealed a beautiful David by shaping marble, we’d likely manufacture a pack of freaks that resemble Michael Jackson in the years just before he managed to overdose on that other technological marvel, propofol.

Gladwell might want to see more of that, but I don’t.


Dec 042012

Last weekend, The North Face Endurance Challenge 50-mile trail race handed out $10,000 each to Miguel Heras of Spain, and to Emelie Forsberg of Sweden.  It was a controversial race because the lead group of runners including Adam Campbell, Sage Canaday, and Jason Wolfe ran off-course midway through the event in part because of various organizational problems (you can read about it all at iRunFar).  It isn’t too unusual for this to happen in a trail race, but this episode was particularly concerning because it may have cost these athletes significant prize money.*

It used to be that trail racers never won any serious money.  That’s starting to change.  Trail running is still nothing like cycling, where the winners of the top races take home hundreds of thousands of dollars and a serial winner cheater like Lance Armstrong can become a multimillionaire from winnings and endorsements.  But the possibilities for earning money from trail racing have increased to a level where important consequences will follow, or in some cases already have.

Most of these consequences are unalloyed good things.  It has recently become possible for the top trail runners to earn enough money to not have to rely on other jobs and to devote all of their working time to running.  This elite tier of mountain trail runners can and do travel all over the world to compete in races — Kilian Jornet and Mireia Miro can line up at the Pikes Peak Marathon in Colorado; Anton Krupicka and Dakota Jones can race the Cavalls del Vent in Spain, and South African Ryan Sandes can win races in every hemisphere.  These elite runners are supported by sponsors that are spending more money to develop better gear for long mountain runs, and the increased profile of the races means that the gear tested in prototype by the elites is quickly made available in the stores for everyone else to buy, which helps the sponsors earn back their investment.  It’s a virtuous circle.**

Not all of the consequences of the professionalization of trail running are good.  We’re eventually going to have to face the unpleasant consequences of trail runners who dope.

There are always cheaters in every sport, but doping only makes sense under certain conditions which are starting to prevail in elite trail racing.  First, the relative consequences of winning vs finishing in the middle of the pack have to be significantly different.  It’s getting harder and harder to argue that the benefits of winning vs just finishing haven’t become profoundly different in trail running — winners can look forward to sponsorships, international travel, and the ability to quit their day jobs for the sake of running.  Those perks are powerful motivators.  Finish in the middle of the pack, and you can read about your race on iRunFar.  Win, and you can be interviewed by Bryon Powell himself — other people can read about you on iRunFar.

Only the winner gets to wear the Zegama hat (photo: iRunFar)

Second, the margins between winning and losing are getting smaller and smaller.  It used to be absurd to think that there would ever be a sprint for the finish of a long trail race, but it’s becoming more and more common.  Western States 100-mile winners are battling up until the final miles.  Nuria Picas beats Anna Frost by just seconds after 83 kilometers at Cavalls del Vent.  When the difference between winning and not-winning is so small, any little edge that a top runner can get could make the difference between being a Oihana Kortazar at Zegama, who gets to wear the famous Zegama hat, and a Oihana Azkorbebeitia, who ran fast, but not fast enough to get a video of herself on YouTube in the goofy hat.

You may be saying to yourself at this point that it would be absurd to cheat for the questionable benefits that winning trail runners receive, and you’d be right for most values of trail runner.  But then, you’re not likely to be one of the people who will dope in order to win a trail race.  My point isn’t that everyone will dope, it is that the increased competitiveness and money in trail racing will induce more athletes to dope than would have already, and someday one of these athletes is going to get caught burying syringes behind their minivan in the parking lot of a big race.  There is going to be a scandal.

As we’ve seen with cycling, doping scandals have a tendency to taint everyone involved with the sport.  It can take a long time for the organizers and athletes to win back the trust that they inevitably lose (fairly or unfairly) when a successful athlete is caught doping.  Questions are leveled at everyone, even the clean athletes, who may have at one time had a result equal to or better than a disgraced doper.

I would be surprised if doping were a serious problem in trail running now, but I predict that it will, at some point in the near future, become a problem.  I’m not advocating that trail runners get tested now.  That’s expensive, and if not done right, testing is ineffective at actually catching dopers.  An effective testing regimen is also very annoying and intrusive, and trail running hasn’t yet demonstrated that it has a problem requiring such a draconian solution.  But we’re getting there.  Getting there slowly, but we’re getting there.  A few bad apples are going to ruin the pie for everyone — it’s merely a matter of time.  Trail running will eventually uncover a Lance Armstrong and a George Hincapie among its ranks.  It’ll be tragic and disappointing.

But when that time comes, the sport will be much better off if we’ve anticipated the problem in advance, and discussed what ought to be done about it.  Ellie Greenwood may be right: “It’s better we have drugs testing from the get-go, rather than our sport waits until there is actual speculation that drugs may be a problem in our sport.”  If we’re not going to test now, we ought at least to say why, and try to specify when we might start.


* Adam Campbell did point out, though, that the winners earned their places on the podium and that speculation about what might have happened had he not run off course is “pointless and unknowable.”

** None of this would really be possible without YouTube videos — without YouTube there wouldn’t be a single American who would know who Kilian Jornet was, let alone racers like Julien Chorier or races like Zegama-Aizkorri.

Oct 272012

UCI President Pat McQuaid (Stephen Farrand)

Pat McQuaid, President of the UCI, whom Greg LeMond has said should “f##k off  and resign,” apparently thinks Floyd Landis and Tyler Hamilton are “scumbags.”

Mc Quaid is entitled to his opinion, of course, on these kinds of esthetic character judgments.  But I have to admit that, if given the choice of sitting down for a beer with Floyd Landis, Tyler Hamilton, or Pat McQuaid, I’d be inclined to choose the disgraced doping former cyclists over the current UCI president.

It’s not that I have any particular love for scumbags.  It’s that Pat McQuaid is one of the last people I’d ever trust to pick out the scumbags from any crowd.  Why?  McQuaid, even if he isn’t actually corrupt, may just be irredeemably stupid.  Being a mere scumbag isn’t a bar to an interesting conversation.  Stupidity, sadly, often is.

I don’t know Hamilton, Landis, or McQuaid.  But from what I’ve seen over the past few weeks, McQuaid’s bulb doesn’t burn very bright.

The UCI, in ratifying the USADA’s decision to strip Lance Armstrong of his seven Tour de France victories and ban him for life, admits by that action that USADA’s reasoned decision is persuasive on the question of whether Lance Armstrong won those Tours by cheating and using PEDs.  If it is persuasive about that question, it cannot but be even more persuasive on the question of whether doping was prevalent and widespread during the years Armstrong was racing.  Armstrong himself has never admitted to doping, but riders like Hincapie, Leipheimer, Zabriskie, etc. all confessed to repeated doping, with the assistance of a support network of doctors and directors sportif who looked the other way or encouraged the cheating.

Who was supposed to be in charge of policing these riders and teams?  The UCI.  Clearly, the UCI failed miserably in that mission.  That’s point one.

Point two is that since the USADA investigation was made public and the UCI was forced to strip Armstrong of his victories, Pat McQuaid has done only the bare minimum required to convince the sponsors and fans of cycling that the Armstrong affair won’t just be another repeat of the 1998 Festina affair, where a big stink was made about doping and then everyone got right back to it when the fuss died down.  He’s giving every appearance of kicking and screaming the whole way.

Point three: Pat McQuaid refuses to drop his lawsuit against Paul Kimmage.

Point four: Pat McQuaid publicly accuses Landis and Hamilton of being “scumbags” at the very moment that the problem of an omertà in the professional cycling peloton is at the forefront of everyone’s mind.  That, Pat, will do nothing to squelch that rumor.  It would be stupid of you not to realize that.

Point five: Pat McQuaid, after finding the USADA reasoned decision persuasive enough to strip Armstrong’s titles and impose a lifetime ban, goes on about how flawed the USADAs investigative techniques were, about how the USADA report included “animated or overstated language,” and implies that the USADA had a conflict of interest in investigating Armstrong. “It would have been better that the evidence collected by USADA had been assessed by a neutral body or person who was not involved in collecting the evidence and prosecuting the defendant.”  REALLY?  The USADA is the neutral body who was investigating Armstrong, because the conflicted body, the UCI, wasn’t doing it.  The breathtaking stupidity of this statement boggles my mind.  Travis Tygart of the USADA responds succinctly: “We set forth our position on why they were conflicted in this case on many different grounds. They accepted money from him (Armstrong), they accused us of a witch-hunt (without seeing any evidence), they sued the chief whistleblower, they discouraged witnesses from participating. They simply are trying to divert attention away from their own failures in this whole sad saga, and those that love the sport of cycling and clean sport should not allow that to happen.”  Exactly.  But Pat McQuaid says the USADA is the conflicted party.  That’s not just defensive; that’s stupid.

Point six: Pat Mc Quaid, if he wasn’t so stupid, would realize that the cloud of mistrust and suspicion that hangs over the UCI will not go away if he, Pat McQuaid, does not resign.  His failure to see that is the stupidest thing he’s done so far.

Tyler Hamilton may be a scumbag; I don’t know.  I’ve never met him.  But he’s certainly correct about the Armstrong affair and the role of Pat McQuaid: “Pat McQuaid’s comments expose the hypocrisy of his leadership and demonstrate why he is incapable of any meaningful change,” Hamilton said in a statement released on Tuesday.  “Instead of siezing an opportunity to instill hope for the next generation of cyclists, he continues to point fingers, shift blame and attack those who speak out, tactics that are no longer effective. Pat McQuaid has no place in cycling.”

Pat McQuaid should do as LeMond suggests.  Resign.  Perhaps it won’t save cycling and its fans from his corruption, but it will save them from his stupidity.