What can sport do to clean itself up?

runner on track

This topic deserves its own blog post so here’s my take on the LetsRun Anti-Doping Challenge. The original LetsRun.com forum thread exists here.

The underlying reasons behind doping in sports are not always well understood. The motivation to take performance-enhancing drugs (PEDs) is assumed to be an athlete’s desire to improve their performance, but there’s more to it. Every sport is different and the role of PEDs varies in each of them, but their use as a way to exploit athletes is rarely recognized. The situation in professional cycling was particularly bad in the past (though perhaps not that way today), and perhaps best illustrates the way PEDs can be used by race organizers to exploit athletes.

Cyclists, in the Tour de France (TDF) at least, are ridiculously underpaid for the amount of risk they take, the wear and tear sustained to their bodies, and number of days they are required to compete without time for recovery. Most professional runners, if forced to compete at a high level in 21 marathons over 23 days, might well feel justified in taking PEDs or other illicit substances to get through the ordeal. Obviously, the owners of the TDF would strongly resist changing the schedule to say, 42 days with alternating rest days, because the cost of hosting the event would double.

So how does one keep pro cyclists from organizing into a union, or becoming stars with power in the organization, who will demand better conditions and more compensation? If you are the organizer, you tacitly encourage them to engage in some sort of illicit behavior that has the power to end their careers if publicized. The beauty of this arrangement (from the organizer’s perspective) is that the athlete doesn’t realize they are being manipulated. They just think they’re cheating and blame themselves for having difficulty keeping up with the peloton for 21 days.

This tactic is not unique to sports, of course; the same power dynamic is played out in countless other areas as well, such as in work relationships, cults, incestuos families, and Epstein’s circle of compromised politicians. Youth gangs create group cohesion in similar ways. It’s not only the social capital built up through violent initiation rites such as ‘jumping in’ (described in “Social Rituals of Pain: The Socio-Symbolic Meaning of Violence in Gang Initiations”), but the shared knowledge of incriminating information that binds the members of the group. To put it plainly, if I commit a crime that someone knows about, it creates a power asymmetry since the person can report me to an authority at any time. But if we commit the crime together, there is symmetry and I know my co-conspirator will likely not snitch since they too potentially face the same negative consequences.

All of this is to say that doping together on the US Postal team was the means through which silence for Lance and the other riders was obtained. It wasn’t just something riders did for a competitive edge; rather, it was the act which acted as the prerequisite lynchpin to become and remain a member of the team. And it was done with the tacit approval of organizers, since it allowed them to control the riders. The irony is it would work even if the PED yielded no performance benefits, as long as it was illicit. Lance was not convicted for doping because he was careless, or because his ratings had fallen. It was because he had acquired too much power in cycling and had, frankly, become a tiresome jerk, to the point where the organizers wished no longer to protect him. Recall that the owner of the newspaper which outed him was the same party which owned the TDF.

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A similar dynamic can be seen in the NBA. Eighty-two games per season is too many to play in a healthy way, but is allowed to continue because it yields an enormous source of income for the league and its owners. It is understood that ticket sales are largely driven by the personalities on the team. If they don’t play, or if they last only a couple years before getting injured, it’s bad for business. So they pay the players large sums of money, and when they get injured or feel the need to “bulk up”, the league looks the other way with lax testing requirements negotiated by the union. Again, the use of these drugs isn’t only about obtaining a competitive edge, it’s about the players’ perceived survival in an exploitative situation. When I look at the long-term Kawhi saga, for example, I see a dispute over which course of treatment was best and who got to decide. Maybe he didn’t want to risk his health with an aggressive use of PEDs, or maybe it was the other way around, but what is most striking is that no one can talk about it.

The NFL… has issues, too.

There needs to be a complete paradigm shift in how doping is regulated

The professional running world is a bit different because there is, relatively, so little money at stake and athletes largely compete and train as individuals. Yes, there are clubs, some of which seem a little shady, but the number of races a pro does per year is minuscule compared to other sports, and running solo (without a club or sponsor) does not necessarily preclude an athlete from participating as it might for other sports. Nevertheless, doping can still be used as a form of control by a coach (eg. Huntington U.) or other related figures, as well as a way for a coach to improve their athlete’s performance, or simply inspire a greater performance through the use of the substance as a dark placebo if the PED is not actually all that efficacious (eg. Triamcinolone Acetonide).

This is why I find all this shaming of athletes “caught doping” to be distasteful. More often than not, they’re caught up in something beyond their control or in desperate circumstances. So, what to do about it, particularly in running? On this point, I agree with Kara Goucher:

There needs to be a complete paradigm shift in how doping is regulated; a new approach, in which punishment and shaming of athletes is eliminated and a grand bargain is implemented. The bargain would provide that in return for their full cooperation in monitoring themselves and catching the enablers of doping, athletes would receive as much immunity and as few negative consequences as possible if they end up testing positive. Instead of acting immediately on a positive test, testing authorities should launch discrete, but comprehensive, investigations to find the original source of the substance and all the people affected, particularly the enablers, even if it means allowing a few dopers to slip by with medals and prize money. Thus, if one runner in a club appears to be doping, the testing agency should surreptitiously monitor and test the rest of the club over time to see how far the use of the substance extends before revealing their findings. And in all cases, there should be the opportunity for human review to calibrate each punishment to the severity of the doping and override guidelines that do not respect the spirit of the relevant rule.

Young athletes need to be taught very early on to recognize the warning signs of an exploitative coach/therapist/teammate/doctor and other figures, and know how to notify anti-doping authorities discretely, without fear of reprisal. In addition, authorities like WADA should be testing every supplement and vitamin source around the world and working with food manufacturers to learn just how prevalent such substances are in their products.

Elite athletes should be taking and storing urine samples on a daily basis, and providing them in bulk to testing authorities periodically, who can then go back and further test the samples when something illicit shows up (in addition to blood samples and Biological Passports). To aid in this effort, pro athletes would take a harmless daily (possibly weekly?) pill that contains a date-calibrated marker substance that would allow the testers to verify the samples were in fact taken from that individual at that particular time.

There may also be a place for a new kind of transparent athletic competition in which the use of drugs by athletes to test their efficacy, safety, and performance is permitted, such that a robust clinical understanding of the drugs in healthy individuals could be gained and applied to those unhealthy individuals who really need them. And it would be great to finally measure PED performance gains in controlled settings on competing athletes. There would surely be surprises and breakthroughs.

However, even with the steps mentioned above, a problem remains. No matter how rigorous and advanced the testing procedures are, they will never be a match for a nation-state committed to circumventing them. This can happen not just through technical mastery (eg. testing and replicating marker substances), but through corruption of individuals and institutions. We must accept that as long as significant political power can be gained from a nation’s athletic success there will be ample motivation for government entities to help them cheat. Thus, in my reluctant opinion, the Olympics should be discontinued, which have been the handmaiden of government propaganda everywhere, and international competitions should be limited to single sport championships in order to reduce the temptation of governments to affect the outcomes by exploiting athletes.

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