Readers Question: I don’t know the answer to the following question, and it bothers me. What is the difference between trying to gain a competitive edge through doping and trying to gain a competitive edge by using better equipment?
Firstly, doping is prohibited. There is a long list of prohibited substances athletes can’t use. Using better equipment (within UCI rules) is legal. Doping is cheating, using better equipment isn’t.
But, another question my boss at work often likes to wind me up with is ‘I don’t know why cycling doesn’t just allow drugs so there’s a level a playing field. He says it half in jest but half in seriousness. But, whilst he laughs it off, it is no laughing matter for all the athletes who died prematurely from drug misuse.
Firstly riders can be racing upto 150 days a year. To legalise drugs would mean athletes taking considerable quantity of drugs.
1. Drugs Damages Mental Health.
There is no doubt in my mind that prolonged drug use, damages mental health. Marco Pantani, Jose Maria Jimenez are high profile cyclists who slipped into a drug related depression. In Paul Kimmage’s book he points to many of his former racers who suffered from prolonged amphetamine use.
2. Drugs damage Physical Health.
In the height of the EPO craze, cyclists were taking so much EPO they were ending up with ridiculous heamocrit levels of 60% and more. Their blood was so thick that they had to set their alarm for 3am in the morning. It was necessary to stretch in the middle of the night otherwise they risked never waking up because their blood was so thick. Some people will say legalise drugs, if they are safe. But, the safety or danger of drugs may not be apparent until it is too late. Often the effect of drug taking is cumulative meaning the athlete’s health is at risk after his career is over and people have forgotten about him / her. Why risk lives for no point?
3. No Level Playing Field.
People argue legalising drugs would create a level playing field, but it wouldn’t. People respond differently to drugs. For example, EPO has more effect on those with a naturally low hemocrit level. Also, it would mean the cyclists with the best doctors / pharmacists would win. All cyclists have access to excellent bike technology. The difference in bike technology between the top teams is all but insignificnat. But, not all cyclists would have access to the latest wonder drug.
5. Athletes need protecting from themselves.
In a study of Olympic athletes. A depressingly high % of athletes said they would take drugs that would guarantee them a gold medal even if it meant a risk dying after 5 years. Tom Simpson famously said “If it takes 10 [pills] to kill you, I’ll take 9.” He probably thought he was making a joke, but it backfired disastrously as he collapsed on Mont Ventoux with alcohol in his blood and amphetamines in his back pocket.
When Richard Virenque was been tried in court after the Festina affair. He tried to claim the masseur Willy Voet gave him drugs without his knowledge. Willy Voet replied that if he had given Virenque all the drugs he wanted he would be dead by now.
There are many more reasons, but, put it simply would you want to join a sport where you had to risk your mental and physical health to have a chance of competing. If drugs were made legal in cycling, I would stop that same same day and take up clay pigeon shooting or something.
Athletes on drugs won’t make the spectacle any more interesting, if average speeds are 1mph higher what difference does it make to spectators?