Doping and cycling

I started watching professional cycling in the mid 1990s. One of my earliest memories was watching Bjarne Riis accelerating up a mountain  to defeat the five times winner Miguel Indurain. I didn’t know at the time, but Riis was doping on an industrial scale. His amazing speed was almost entirely due to the huge quantities of EPO in his system.

 

To later learn that the sport was essentially corrupt and full of doping was hard. The joy of sport diminished, and the result irrelevant.

In 2005, the journalist David Walsh was asked who do you want to win the Tour de France? He replied “I don’t mind. Anyone who is clean”. I agree with that sentiment 100%.

Over the years, I have spent many hours watching the Tour de France (probably too many to be honest!). From 1999-2005 I was just hoping anyone other than Lance Armstrong would win. I didn’t like Armstrong’s attitude to cycling – associating with dodgy doping doctors like Michael Ferrari, and other evidence of doping. I didn’t get a good feeling from him when interviewed; there was a certain arrogance, I didn’t like. I really hoped and prayed the truth would come out (whatever that was), but I also thought you can’t expect justice in this world. At times, the odds seem stacked against the quiet truth, the truth that doesn’t shout and make itself heard about the din of money and power.

I only took comfort from a belief in karma and reincarnation – the concept that no one can escape the consequences of their actions – even if it doesn’t happen until a future lifetime.

But the truth did come out.

When the report by USADA came out in October 2012, I was very happy (and proud of America for taking action against one of its biggest stars). It was a very thorough investigation and you felt the truth had finally come out. Many thought it was bad for cycling, but I thought it was the best thing to happen. Sometimes to get a thorn out of your skin, you need to use another thorn. There is pain, but it is worth it in the long run.

I never liked Armstrong, but I felt his fall from grace was the best thing that ever happened to him. I’m not saying overnight he became a good person; his humility and repentance felt partial. But, at least, it was some humility where previously there was none. Rather than creating more bad karma, he was finally realising the consequences of his actions. I wonder if he thinks it was a good thing he got caught or whether he still wishes he had just got away with it all?

In the highest meditation, you can feel a deep sense of connection with other people. If you have peace, you want to share that with everyone – to the exclusion of none. That is the nature of meditation. But, when you’re not in the highest consciousness, we see people as separate and it’s harder to be sympathetic to actions which cause suffering. Above all, we want people to learn from their actions. When karma rebounds in this life, there is a sense of justice – and yes we can have faith in the universe again. I know the Supreme has a plan – but, as humans stuck in time, we would like the triumph of truth as soon as possible, please. One day can feel a long time, let alone a whole incarnation.

Suspicion and the consequences of doping

My joy in seeing the truth come out about the previous doping episodes was tempered by the realisation of how much damage decades of doping, lying and cheating had done to people’s faith in sport.

Understandably, by 2012, many cycling fans had become cynical, suspicious and fed up with the endless doping scandals and the seeming inability of the sport to clean up its actions.

I always knew doping was wrong – bad for health, immoral, against the law e.t.c. But, I never realised how bad it was. Perhaps the worse legacy of doping and lying is the atmosphere of mistrust and cynicism amongst people who follow the sport – suspicion that casts a shadow over everyone. One hundred clean athletes go relatively unnoticed, yet one high profile doper who lied for many years has a much more powerful impact. To create a climate of suspicion requires only a small number to behave in the wrong way. By contrast, you can spend a whole career carefully and patiently doing the right thing, but this doesn’t make the headlines, it doesn’t make a best-seller. The best-selling cycling books in recent decades have often been written by dopers who get to tell their story. They make money from winning races doped, then make money telling they regret doping. Clean athletes who never had a chance to win  are left to enjoy their honesty and clean-conscience.

Suspicion

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There was a time when top cyclists were treated as untouchable heroes. Awkward questions like – why do you have pills in your back pocket? were not always asked – lest we didn’t like the answer. In this atmosphere of untouchability it is not surprising cyclists took liberties.

However, post 2012, and the atmosphere has seemed to swing to the other extreme. At times, it felt anyone with the temerity to win a cycling race,  had to be suspected of doping. Any performance close to that of previous dopers taken as proof of guilt. Online commentators and even journalists set themselves up as judge, jury and executioner.

This presumed guilt is not on the base of reliable sworn testimonies and scientific tests, like in the case of USADA but purely on the basis of
‘suspicious’ performance – a suitably elastic concept to be stretched in whichever direction you like. To some, anyone who produces power above a certain figure, by definition is doping. By this standard, if you want to prove you are clean, make sure you don’t finish in the top 10%. It’s a strange way to run a sport, where you endeavour to strive to be your best.

Part of the problem is that in the doping era, training methods were not necessarily the best. The riders who doped, were not necessarily the best physiologically – they were just the best at doping. It’s hard to make comparisons between different eras.

It all gave a very uneasy feeling. It is one thing to be on guard and rigorously pursue clean cycling. It is another thing to assume guilt – and demand the kind of proof, which can’t really be given. How do you prove a negative?

Chris Froome

Chris Froome

Photo by DAVID ILIFF. License: CC-BY-SA 3.0

I am interested in Chris Froome, for quite a few reasons.
We are similar genetically. As a cyclist, my speciality is being skinny and a good long-distance climber. There is, of course, a big difference in standard between us, but because of a shared DNA of skinny arms, I have empathised more with Froome than other kinds of riders.

The problem is that, to many, Froome came out of nowhere to finish 2nd in the 2011 Vuelta, before winning the Tour de France in 2013.

This emergence from nowhere is not entirely true. Froome did had a very unorthodox career path – learning to cycle in the backwaters of Kenya on a mountain bike bought from a supermarket; his journey to the top of pro cycling is certainly unique and interesting. But, for those sceptical about cycling, Froome was an easy target. The sudden break-through and high power to weigh ratio – enough for some to presume guilt.

Yet, I got a very different feeling from Froome to Armstrong. The things he said were different, he spoke in a different way. When I listen to Froome speak and see what he does, I don’t get the feeling this is someone living a grand lie of deception. From the available evidence and my gut feeling, I feel Froome is a clean athlete. People may say I will be proved wrong in ten years time. But, that is the feeling I get; it is certainly very different to what I felt with Lance Armstrong.

Dealing with suspicion and accusation

When Bradley Wiggins won the Tour de France 2012, he was also witness to online gossip and suspicion of doping. When it was voiced at a press conference, he just swore very loudly, accusing his critics of being  *****!

I thought – well, that’s not how I would deal with questions – but it felt it was said with sincerity, if nothing else.

Chris Froome has been subject to much more sustained criticism and suspicion, with journalists claiming his power outputs are not normal and evidence of doping. The climate of mistrust led to spectators spitting, insulting and throwing urine over him at the 2015 Tour de France. Commentators on French TV all but accused him of doping.

Despite this difficult situation and awkward questions, Froome has generally been patient, calm and detached in answering questions and speaking for clean cycling.

To me this is a strong spiritual quality, to be patient and not get flustered by these accusations – instead merely to go on with the belief in doing the right thing. It is said that the millionaire sportsmen of today live a pampered lifestyle, but the post-race questioning and constant online sniping is as tough as the physical challenge of racing for 20 consecutive days. To race for six hours and patiently answer suspicions of doping, is not an easy task.

What is a cyclist and cycling fan to learn from all this?

The most important thing about sport is to compete honestly. It is not about winning, but to learn to get joy from the endeavour of self-transcendence.

“We compete not for the sake of defeating others, but in order to bring forward our own capacity. Our best capacity comes forward only when there are other people around us. They inspire us to bring forward our utmost capacity, and we inspire them to bring forward their utmost capacity”

– Sri Chinmoy

Any attempt to win by false means, will ultimately backfire; at best it will only give a temporary and false happiness.

Secondly, it is a fine line between unquestioning loyalty and misguided cynicism. But, on balance I would rather be let down by a cyclist taking dope than to live in a world where my thoughts were dominated by suspicion and mistrust.

I feel meditation, and endeavouring to be a truthful person yourself, does give a certain intuition about whether people are telling lies or truth. It’s certainly not an infallibility, but sometimes your inner feeling is very close to the truth. I use both reliable evidence and intuition. If I’m not sure, I give the benefit of doubt to innocence until otherwise proven.

Presumption of innocence before guilt

A very important precept in justice is the idea of presuming a person is innocent until proved guilty. In the world of sport, unfortunately, it has felt this has recently been flipped on it side with people assuming a strong sense of guilt as a starting reference. To me this is a dangerous development, leaving a deep sense of unease.

The truth is, I often empathise with the idea of being that supremely gifted athlete, riding the tour and winning 100% clean, but then being subject to accusations of cheating.

You don’t have to be following a particular spiritual path to believe in the golden rule of all spiritual paths and religions –

“Treat others as you would wish to be treated yourself”

If you really believe in this, you would never dope, you would never do something you wouldn’t do in front of fans and competitors; you would also treat top cyclists in the way you would want to be treated, if you happened to be in their shoes.

A better future

If nothing else the past two decades has shown that people really do want and demand clean sport / clean cycling. This passion for sport without drugs wasn’t always there in the past. Hopefully, the instinctive smears are just a passing fad, and people will once again be able to enjoy sport for the Corinthian ideals and joy that sport can offer.

Tejvan Pettinger, 4 December, 2015

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