When I recently wrote recently that running was essentially honest, i.e. the figures did not lie and your times tell you precisely how good a runner you are, I was not talking about high level competition where money and prestige hang on racing results. Sport really is two different things: there is the recreational activity, where you challenge yourself and hope to find out more about your own nature. In the fullest sense it is amateur (no matter how methodically the task is approached) - it is done purely out of love and a sense of personal satisfaction. Then there is elite sport, which is a profession. People obviously come into it from love but once they reach a certain level it becomes a job and the results matter to other people as well as themselves. They become part of a system which exerts its own demands
In professional sport there is an ethos of doing all you can to develop an edge over other competitors and if there are not strict rules and adherence to those rules the line between right and wrong, honesty and lying can become blurred. If the main criteria is any advantage you can gain and you think other people are getting away with things that are not right what is there to stop someone going over to the dark side?
These questions are now as pertinent as ever. A couple of weeks ago came the news that Kenyan athletes were being investigated for doping. No! I reacted. I just did not want this to be the so. I had bought into the idea that Kenyan dominance of middle and long distance running was a mixture of genetics, a life time of running to get around, plus diet and good coaching. I really wanted to believe that it was all a combination of talent plus people like Brother O’Connell, who coaches David Rudisha. Nothing else. I wanted and still want the good story - but who knows if that is now the case.
What is no longer in doubt though is the sorry state of cycling during the reign of Lance Armstrong. The USADA has finally published its case and fully exposed the culture of systematic doping and deceit.The reasoned decision and supplementary material are available here and the case is overwhelming. I have already spent too much time reading it with a sense of fascinated horror. Even though I already knew the broad outlines of what had happened, even though I have assumed for years that Armstrong must have doped to win seven Tour de France titles (think about it - if he was beating people who we know were taking drugs, either he was a different species of being or he was taking the same, or better stuff. None of his physiological test point to him being superhuman), there are still revelations and human stories. Stories about how nasty, vindictive and bullying Armstrong was and stories of the toll on other members of the team.
Take this excerpt about David Zabriskie:
Bruyneel was respected by Zabriskie whose father had died a few years before, his life shortened by drug addiction. Zabriskie had sought refuge in cycling. Long hard training rides were cathartic and provided an escape from the difficult home life associated with a parent with an addiction. He had vowed never to give in to the temptation to use, never to end up like his father, furtively using drugs to feed his dependency and eroding his physical health.Barry was about five years older than Zabriskie; however, Zabriskie had been on the USPS team a year longer. The group met at or near a café, and the conversation proceeded in English. Bruyneel got right to the point. He and del Moral had brought two injectable products for Zabriskie and Barry, something known as “recovery” and the banned oxygen booster, erythropoietin (known as “EPO”). Zabriskie was shocked.This was the beginning of David’s third year on the team and he had not realized he would be required to dope. He realized, of course, that some cyclists in the peloton and likely some teammates fueled their success with banned substances. However, until now he had been largely shielded from the reality of drug use on the U.S. Postal Service Team.Zabriskie began to ask questions. He was fearful of the health implications of using EPO, and he had a slew of questions: would he be able to have children? would it cause any physical changes? Would he grow larger ears? The questions continued. Bruyneel responded, “everyone is doing it.” Bruyneel assured that if EPO was dangerous no professional cyclists would be having kids.David was cornered. He had embraced cycling to escape a life seared by drugs and now he felt that he could not say no and stay in his mentor’s good graces. He looked to Barry for support but he did not find it. Barry’s mind was made up. Barry had decided to use EPO, and he reinforced Bruyneel’s opinions that EPO use was required for success in the peloton.The group retired to Barry’s apartment where both David and Barry were injected with EPO by Dr. del Moral. Thus began a new stage in David Zabriskie’s cycling career – the doping stage. Cycling was no longer David’s refuge from drugs. When he went back to his room that night he cried.
When I read testimony like that I think of the cyclists as the poor bloody infantry. They have taken all the heat and guilt and been the ones who have been punished. In the meantime the team managers and doctors carry on as normal. It was the system which was corrupt. Cyclists believed there was no other way (sure they could have walked away from the sport but that is very difficult if you have staked everything on being a top professional).
We might think top sportsmen are at the apex of achievement and satisfaction (and surely some are) and they are to be envied and emulated (and again surely some are) but the are just as much a part of a system, with its own pressures and responsibilities as anybody in any other line of work. Their highs may be more dramatic and the requirements more intense but they are still bound by a culture and responsibilities. Sometimes those demands are just too great, as I believe they were for cyclists in the Armstrong years.
We tend to view sports individualistically i.e the way a person performs and the choices they make and then investing some of ourselves in our favourites and then make black and white judgements. But we only see half the picture if we ignore the context and don’t recognise the system. In cycling I do not think everyone who doped was a despicable cheat. Instead I think some good people got caught up in something beyond their control. All sport should be simple but sometimes things can be complicated, especially if money is involved.
Which brings me back to the difference between recreational and elite sport. the tremendous privilege we have as amateurs is that it is actually us as individuals. We do what we do for our own satisfaction and for no other reason. We can choose how much we want to be part of a system e.g. if we join a club and what type of club, or we can run on our own. We are honest because it makes no sense to be otherwise. All that matters is a sense of achievement and increased self-knowledge.
We should constantly celebrate our freedom