Cheating and drug taking has been part of cycling from the beginning. Amphetamines had been the stimulant of choice, especially after the war when Europe had been awash with amphetamines, suppled by the military to keep soldiers going – 72 million by the British alone. I choose to start the story from the 1993 Tour de France, Laurent Fignon, twice a winner of the Tour already and sixth in the previous edition was looking to improve. Near the start of a relatively mundane stage early in the race he was shocked by the speed of the peleton. He rode to the front to see what was going on and found a couple previously un-noteworthy riders, pulling the peleton at the kind of speed that was usually reserved for the last few kilometres of important stages – with their mouths shut. He realised immediately that the game had moved on and that his career was effectively over.
What had changed was the introduction of the blood boosting hormone Ethroprotein, better known as EPO. It’s medical use was in cancer patients and others needing to boost their red blood cells. What some less ethical sports doctors had realised was that, especially in endurance sports like cycling, blood had a far greater influence on performance than muscle. If you could increase the transport of oxygen to the muscles, this would have a big effect on performance, it did and EPO made it happen.
In cycling the conditions for cheating were already well prepared with a culture that was closed and isolated from the rest of society, and an effective “omertà” or code of silence when it came to discussing matters of cheating. This was reinforced when Irish pro cyclist turned journalist Paul Kimmage wrote his book Rough Ride, exposing what was going on, to some extent, and was immediately and substantially excommunicated by the pro cycling world. “Spitting in the soup” as it was called.
The first big expose of the extent of EPO and other performance boosters in the peleton was at the start of the 1998 Tour de France when a team worker was stopped at the border between Belgium and France with a car full of EPO and other doping products, in what became known as the Festina affair, after the team he worked for.
1998 was also the year when Lance Armstrong was taking EPO legitimately as part of his treatment for the testicular cancer that very nearly killed him (and could even have been contributed to by the previous taking of artificial testosterone). Armstrong was already known as a top rider who had arrived in the pro peleton from the relatively unconventional route of Triathlon. For a cyclist he had huge upper body strength from swimming which contributed to success in the hurly burley of one day races, like the World Championships, which he won in 1993 (The same year Laurent Fignon saw EPO becoming widespread in the peloton), but more or less precluded him from being a contender in the big three week races like the Tour de France. He was also known for being a very aggressive rider who would often loose races for his preference for bold attacking over of tactical subtlety.
During the Festina affair French police had raided team hotels and riders had been taken away in handcuffs and held in cells. This had caused panic in the peleton, with teams flushing quantities of drugs away and riders cutting back drastically on their intake – for a time at least. But Lance wasn’t there. When he returned he still believed that the peleton was as doped as before and while it was far from “clean”, perhaps some the worst excesses had been limited. Until now. He also returned with a transformed physique, far less upper body muscle, far lighter, far more suitable for long climbs in the high mountains of the Tour de France.
When he did come back Lance lead the most sophisticated and ultimately well funded program of medical enhancement in the peleton. However the peloton that Lance lead over the line for those seven Tours was, with a few exceptions, nearly as doped as he was, to the extent that his wins cannot be awarded to the second, third, fourth, fifth or even down to tenth placed riders because every single one, in all seven years has also been implicated in doping in some way and cannot reliably be accepted as “clean”.
The real losers were the few riders who declined to dope, whose careers were limited by their integrity and ethics and the other riders who died, trying to keep up, with poorly supervised programs. There were riders whose blood became so thick with red blood cells that their hearts stopped in their sleep. As a result other riders took to setting the alarm in the middle of the night so they could pace the hotel halls to keep their hearts active.
Lance’s crime was not so much that he cheated, although the extent and the success of it does make a difference. Others such as David Miller have cheated and been almost entirely forgiven through a combination of humility, honesty and an earnest desire to make up for past mistakes. Lance’s real crimes were the way he bullied and intimidated others both to join his doping program and to keep the dirty secrets AND his long term lying and deception.
Even Lance can be seen as a victim of other criminals, the doctors and pharma companies that profited from this lucrative sporting sideline. One of the largest makers of EPO, Amgen, even had the gaul to sponsor the Tour of California for several years – and the sport had the moral laxity to accept their tainted money. There is no doubt that Lance was a supreme athlete and by the time he started winning Tours a superb tactician – in another era he might have been a genuinely great sportsman.
I am no Armstrong apologist, he has been a cheat, a bully and a liar, but we cannot learn the lessons if we fail to take it in context and the fact that the cheating had it’s own logic which lead to the bullying and the lies. Over valuing the outcome and assuming that everyone else was doing it too, lead to the decision to cheat. That decision lead to a corruption of values and identity that, ten years later, had Armstrong crying on Oprah at the disgrace of explaining the story to his son.
Ultimately the lessons are that winning at all costs is not winning at all. Winning is only winning when we do it ethically, honestly, humbly and with integrity. And if we want to feel proud of our success we need to start by ensuring we have an environment where people can speak up about ethical concerns. Such a culture might well have saved companies from Libor, phone hacking, PPI, horse meat and many other accidents and scandals.
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