Fearless pharma blogger Maxine Vaccine asks whether That Cyclist is a scapegoat for our unease over the role of drugs in our everyday lives.
This week’s public loser by 2,173 miles (the length of the Tour de France) is the disgraced cyclist whose name we’re all sick of. His two-part ‘confession’ to Oprah Winfrey broke down the uneasy truce of non-admission and non-belief between him and the public. Instead, we had a carefully staged fessing up ritual that invited audiences to doubt both his full veracity and his regret.
If he’s as well versed in pharmaceuticals as we can now assume, it’s surprising that LA didn’t go the pharma CEO route and hide behind lawyers, arranging a settlement iron-clad in gagging clauses and insisting the truth is too complex for us to comprehend.
Reactions to the LA statement from cyclists and sports fans have been bitter. Take this comment from Barry Richardson on the BBC website: I tried to understand this alien being, the harrowing picture of his cancer struggles always haunting me as I saw him tear the peleton apart, and spit venom at those who suspected he was cheating. And now, I still love cycling, but in a different way. It's like being divorced but knowing deep down you will always love someone... and it hurts. A lot.
Why so much disillusionment? It’s not just the sense of sporting propriety having been mocked. It’s the deadpan realpolitik of his stance: he did it to reach the “level playing field” of all the other dopers out there. It’s like he wants to take the Tour de France down with him – and even the UKIP cretins would baulk at such vandalism.
But some of that apocalyptic prospect was built into the charges levelled by the US Anti-Doping Agency, who called LA’s cycling career “the most sophisticated, professionalised and successful doping programme” ever exposed in sport. Like Watergate, this scandal is not about one infamous person: it’s about the erosion of honesty in respected professional organisations and systems.
Another source of distress is the sheer sophistication of the doping methods. LA had blood transfusions to increase his oxygen uptake – not new in sport or in other trials of endurance, but still a long way beyond the furtive necking of a few uppers.
But it’s not only those deeply involved in the world of cycling who find the LA story troubling. Even for those of us who gave up cycling when old enough to drive (the back seat of a bicycle offers limited romantic possibilities), the episode leaves a bad taste in the mouth. It’s the taste of medicine.
Competitive sport may be the only profession where taking drugs to improve your performance is not acceptable. In the midst of our technically and chemically mediated lives, sport is framed as a return to the innocence of a younger life, and a younger world, where we relied on our unaided (but trained) bodies and minds for everything.
Let’s put that in a modern working context. In the last few years I have taken the following drugs specifically to enhance (or enable) my performance at work, either directly or indirectly: nicotine, caffeine, paracetamol, phenylephrine, guaifenesin, dextromethorphan, aspirin, ibuprofen, codeine, valerian, loperamide, menthol, loratidine, cortisone, fluoxetine and diazepam. There may have been others. The first two were purchased in general shops; the last two were prescribed; the rest were bought OTC from a pharmacist. Nearly all of them are banned in athletic sports.
In all other jobs you take medicines if you feel tired, if you are upset, if you feel sick, if you have a cold, a cough, a sore, a headache, period pains, backache or worries. You might even take medication when you feel fine – just to make sure you stay that way. But if your job is sport (though interestingly, football is an exception), you have to suffer whatever ails you without medical relief – or go on forced sick leave.
Is that fair? Are we making sporting professionals suffer unnecessarily in order to maintain a fantasy of some Elysian fields where young men and women run, jump, throw, swim, cycle and dance without access to the routine meds the rest of us rely on? How much longer can we keep sport in a state of innocence the rest of modern life doesn’t even want? Perhaps we can’t and never could.
But would I have a blood transfusion to make me a better key account manager? Sorry, but no. That’s the paradox of LA. He’s put more effort into cheating than most of us do into playing by the rules.