Time to dust off the cobwebs. There’s a blog around here, I think. Ah, yes, there it is.
So it’s been a couple of months since I inhabited this space, and wouldn’t you know, the world of sports has kept on keeping on. Lots of stories out there, especially around doping and cycling. Like when is there ever not?
A few weeks back, Matt C posted a link to an interesting article about a report that took a look at riders’ times up one of the most storied climbs in the Tour de France — l’Alpe d’Huez. This year, the riders get to climb l’Alpe d’Huez twice. In the same day. With a wicked descent in between. That’ll make for a very interesting stage.
The gist of the article, for those who didn’t read it, is that one can get an idea as to who doped based on the power generated during their ascents of this climb. There may be more than a morsel of truth to that hypothesis, but as William Schart pointed out in a comment, exactly where do we draw the line and say one performance is normal and the other not? It reminds me of a controversy that arose in about 1959, or so.
A doctor (sorry, I forget his name right now) suggested that every runner who had broken the four-minute mile must have been using some drug (amphetamines were the drug of choice back then) in order to achieve what he contended was impossible. His reasoning was that because no one had even come close to achieving that milestone (pun intended) when he was young, and because it was generally accepted as a limit of human performance, that any performance beyond that mark was tainted.
Except, it wasn’t. Roger Bannister (now Sir Roger…) had used an innovative technique to achieve his record-breaking run. Interval training. Something we take for granted as just one tool in an athlete’s training tool chest these days, but a relatively new idea back then. Bannister used this method, as he was in medical school at the time, and needed to be efficient in his training. Quality over quantity, if you will. And it worked.
Oh, and interesting bit of fallout from the scandal in 1959 was one of the very first studies that looked at the performance benefit of using amphetamines in swimming, running and one other sport that slips my mind right now (I think it was shot put). So, while it may be useful to look at and compare rider’s performances up a given climb, we need to keep in mind that the limits of human performance aren’t exactly cut and dried.
Meanwhile, Jan Ullrich finally admitted to doping during his career. Somewhere I read that he claims that he only used blood doping (the old-fashioned kind, not EPO). Wish I still had the link to that. Maybe that’s true, maybe not. Given the era he raced in, I find it a bit of a stretch, but on the other hand, traditional blood doping was less detectable than EPO, which meant he ran less of a risk of being caught by the anti-doping authorities. So it’s possible he’s being truthful.
ESPN.com gives us the following quote, however:
“Almost everyone took performance-enhancing substances then. I took nothing that the others didn’t also take,” he was quoted as saying. “For me, fraud starts when I gain an advantage. That wasn’t the case. I wanted to ensure equality of opportunities.
Kind of leaves open the possibility he took drugs, no? “Took nothing that the others didn’t also take”? Sounds like he was doing more than just the occasional topping up of his blood to me.
And the Tour wouldn’t be the Tour is there weren’t some sort of controversy involving Lance Armstrong shortly before it started, would it? This time, it’s an interview where Armstrong appeared to say that it’s impossible to win the Tour without doping. An article in Le Monde, quoted by The Telegraph and others, apparently said this:
“The Tour de France? No. Impossible to win without doping because the Tour is an endurance event where oxygen is decisive.
“To take one example, EPO (erythropoetin) will not help a sprinter to win a 100m but it will be decisive for a 10,000m runner. It’s obvious.”
Later, according to The Telegraph, Armstrong tweeted that his remarks were taken out of context, and that he meant it was impossible during his time, but he hoped that it was now possible for riders to win clean. From Armstrong’s twitter feed, we get:
The Telegraph reports that Armstrong also tweeted this:
“99-05. I was clear with @StephaneMandard on this,” Armstrong wrote, referring to the Le Monde journalist.
“Today? I have no idea. I’m hopeful it’s possible (to win without drugs).”
But looking at what currently appears on Twitter, I don’t see that particular quote. Might be the vagaries of how the service works. Or maybe it was directed to a specific individual. Or maybe it was deleted. Not sure. Is it possible to win the Tour without doping? Hard to say. The prize money, glory, and fame certainly would make it tempting to cheat to win. But maybe after so many years of scandal, the riders are beginning to see doping as a risk too big to take.
One thing we can say for sure. Whether or not doping is still endemic within the professional peloton, there will probably be a few riders caught by the time the Tour finishes in Paris three weeks hence. It happened during the Giro d’Italia. It will probably happen at the Tour, too.
Doping will never completely vanish from sports, of course. But maybe we’re seeing a change in attitude among the athletes as to whether most are willing to take the risk. Time, as always, will tell.