I think in this particular climate, this post is very timely. With the heat being put on Lance Armstrong and today's verdict in the Alberto Contador clenbuterol controversey, doping seems to be the topic of the day. Be warned, however, that you might not agree with everything I have to say and some of this might make you very angry. But please understand that with this post, I'm not pushing a viewpoint, I'm merely raising questions that I feel merit some thought. If after reading this to the end, you feel like writing a long angry reply, please read this again and try to understand exactly what I am trying to say.
I begin with a premise that dopers aren't slackers. I think this is the perception among those who criticize them and are generally antagonistic toward the practice. However, if you think that athletes who dope then sit on their asses and wait for their performance to improve, that's just plain absurd. I would posit that they work just as hard, if not harder than those who ride clean.
With that bit out of the way, it's important to understand what doping is. On the very basic level, it can be defined as putting something into your body that is designed to enhance your performance in a given sport. Let's go with just that for now. Where do we draw the line of what's considered doping and what isn't? Sports Legs are designed to enhance performance, so is Optygen, so are amino acids and sports drinks (think Accelerade, Cytomax, EFS, etc.). Yet, we, cyclists, don't consider any of those things as doping. Why? Because they haven't been deemed illegal by the UCI or USA Cycling? Is that really our golden standard? WADA has an extensive list of prohibited substances, and chances are that many amateur cyclists have ingested at least some of them without even knowing it. One of them is insulin, for example. Keep this one in mind, I'll address it below. But if we truly want to keep the playing field even, give everyone at the start of the race an identical energy bar and have them race only on water. What's wrong with that?
There is another definition of doping - cheating. Few of us really care how these prohibited substances affect the athletes' bodies. What really bothers us is that the playing field isn't even. But is it ever? The playing field cannot ever be even. We all have different bodies, different genes, different sizes and different predispositions for one thing or another. If someone is working as hard as he can, doing all he can, living and breathing the sport, but he just can't get up to par of the top 10 percent of athletes in his field, can you not in your mind rationalize of why he would consider helping himself out? Wouldn't doping in that case actually be considered leveling the playing field because it would give this hypothetical athlete what his genes couldn't? I don't claim to have the answer, but I think before the practice is condemned, we need to think long and hard about why we are so eager to condemn it. I don't think anyone would condemn a diabetic for taking insulin, for example.
Now, let's pretend that nothing was banned, everything was legal and WADA did not exist. Would it really matter? Would doping still be as condemned? Enhancers have been consumed in cycling almost with the inception of the sport, and only recently have they become banned, condemned and persecuted, and in some case prosecuted. I will hypothesize that this swing was set off by science. As the science of doping got more advanced, the practices - blood doping being a good example - became so egregious that we could not reconcile the concept that these great athletes (heroes and role models to some) were engaged in them. With the disenchantment, came the notion that all of this should be banned. But was the origin of this notion noble or fiscal? Was this done to truly preserve the sport, or to preserve the fans who pour money into it? I don't really know, but this too is worth thinking about. Let's take a step back into the 70s: If all that cyclists were doing was taking stimulants and things of that sort, would we still feel the same way about doping as we do now?
My other hypothesis is that we feel doping is fundamentally unfair because some methods are simply unavailable to many cyclists. Teams with huge budgets can afford doctors who can implement very scientific doping regiments. Other, smaller teams simply cannot do that and therefore have no chance of competing with the top level, Pro Tour teams. But if that's really another aspect of why we have so much disdain for cycling, let's take a step back from the professional field and take a closer look at the amateur one.
I'm not trying to suggest that many amateurs dope, though there have been reported instances. What I want to talk about is equipment. On the pro level, equipment is pretty much on par, but that is far from reality in your local race. Is the playing field even when the stronger athlete loses to the weaker one in a TT because the weaker one has a $10k bike with disc wheels and the stronger athlete rides his steel bike Eddy Merckx style, or with some snap-on aero bars? How is that not doping? I mean it isn't according to the definition I set forth above, but is it a level playing field - I think not. So if we, as a cycling community, are so hell bent out of shape on making things even, let's get some equipment regulations going. Let's start weighing bikes like they do for the pros, so no one show's up with a Delta 7 to a hill climb. But we would never think of doing such things because for some reason, we think that spending thousands of dollars for better, advantageous equipment is not the same thing as dumping a ton of money into substances. But if the end result is exactly the same, why the distinction? Is it the ends or the means that we really have issues with? And if the latter, in light of the above, why is that so? This last question is purely rhetorical, for I think that everyone has their own justifications and reasons for their approbation of disdain for the practice.
I think it is fundamentally unfair to question everyone's motive without setting forth my personal views on doping. This is the paragraph you can get angry with or agree with - up to you - but these are my views. If you're an amateur athlete and you're not making money with your sport, doping (the chemical kind) is plain stupid. It has long lasting effects on your body whether you like it or not, and none of your successes in the sport will truly be your own. With regard to equipment, buy as expensive stuff as you want, as long as you are getting it to enjoy your experience more. If you're getting parts because they are grams lighter than the previous parts you have, that's up to you, but in my book, that's pathetic. As much as you want to think you can, you cannot buy watts! Now, if you're a pro, and this is how you make your bread, I feel that the rules as they are now are way too strict. I'm no proponent of blood doping - that should be banned - but popping a few pills here and there, something that's available to everyone across the pro field, shouldn't really be a big deal. Ban the things that are truly harmful to the athletes bodies, but everything else that can be safely implemented, i.e., won't kill you on the ride, I say leave it alone. To be clear, I feel that as long as all of that stuff is illegal or banned, no one should be using it and those caught should be punished to the full extent. I just think that more things should be legal for the pros than currently are.