What's Cool In Road Cycling

PEZ Bookshelf: Spitting In The Soup

Four time Tour de France winner Chris Froome is at the centre of yet another pro cycling doping story with the Adverse Analytical Finding (AAF) of a sample taken during the Vuelta a España in September 2017. The recent book, “Spitting in the Soup: Inside the Dirty Game of Doping in Sports,” by Mark Johnson, is a useful review of how in the last four decades we have been confronted with an ambiguous and often hypocritical view of drug use in sports and in society in general. Well-researched, it is a good source to park one’s misconceptions and consider the greater problems here.

The title of the book is derived from a French expression “cracher dans la soupe,” the closest English approximation being “to bite the hand that feeds you.” There has traditionally been a code of silence about doping in sports as the fear is that exposing it will kill the golden goose. Since the trend towards more stringent anti-doping regulations beginning in the 1960s, the penalties has become harsher, both to the individual athlete but also to the reputation of the sport, whether it be pro cycling, track and field, or even tennis. We expect sports to be, well, sportsmanlike, meaning fair and clean and on an even playing field. And this, author Mark Johnson, argues, is the real source of conflict and reflects greater issues with respect to the use of pharmaceuticals in society generally. So while chemical purity in sports somehow equates to moral purity, that is not the case elsewhere when in the United States there are currently 6 million users of prescription amphetamines under the age of 17, using these products for better mental focus and higher productivity.

Our views of sports are coloured by Pierre de Coubertin, the founder of the modern Olympic Games. He and his fellow aristocrats were deeply influenced by British public schools and the ideal of fair play by gentlemen amateurs. Professionals, money-grubbers from the working classes, were not wanted and for many years the amateur-only status of the Games remained intact under Coubertin and his successors. Of course, winning an Olympic medal eventually carried such enormous prestige that governments saw national investment in athletic programs to be worthwhile and eventually to the “shamateur” status of state-funded teams. And the will to win inherent in competition also led to increased doping, with the East German example of success emulated by others. Adding in corporate sponsors during the Los Angeles games in 1984 and the Olympics became Very Big Business and the entry of professionals could no longer be denied.

Probably the most famous cycling doper

From the beginning of professional sports in the 19th Century, it was felt that athletes would act in a professional manner; that is, prepare themselves in the most effective way for competition and justify the financial rewards they received. This meant doing the necessary training, watching your diet, if necessary, using such chemical enhancements to increase performance or speed recovery. Oddly enough, the first anti-doping rules were applied in horse racing, where dope was used to slow horses down in order to change betting odds. Professional cyclists for most of the 20th Century would use various preparations, which certainly varied in effectiveness, without any negative connotation but this was to change, according to the author, with the 1960 Rome Olympics, when a Danish cyclist collapsed during the 100 km team time trial in the intense heat and subsequently died from what appears to have been grotesquely mismanaged medical treatment for heat stroke. Although no autopsy report has ever been released, Knud Jensen’s death was attributed to the use of performance-enhancing drugs and so began the anti-doping movement.

Much of the impetus for the anti-doping bureaucracy, the author suggests, is based on rumour and hearsay. Not only is there no firm evidence that Jensen’s death was attributable to drugs, but the story of the numerous Dutch pro cyclists who retired and died suddenly at young ages supposedly due to their use of EPO in its early days is, from the author’s impressive research, a fabrication to buttress anti-doping sentiment. Again, there is no firm evidence linking these deaths (and no exact number of them seems to be known either) to drug usage but instead the story has been circulated so often that it has taken on the appearance of fact, in spite of a New York Times retraction in 1991.

Ricardo Ricco had many problems with drugs, blood transfusions and the police

Without the story of the Dutch cyclists, EPO does not appear to deserve the life-threatening notoriety it has been given; after all, cancer patients in poor health can manage to handle it well enough. Of course, administering any such medication, or attempting blood transfusions of all things, without medical supervision is a bad idea. And how many deaths can be actually attributed to doping? The example of Tom Simpson at the 1967 Tour de France comes to mind, where a potent mix of heat exhaustion, brandy and amphetamines seem to have done for him. But of greater concern than these individual initiatives has to be the kind of massive state-sponsored programs that saw East German sports doctors injecting children with hormones and other substances to improve athletic performance at the cost of their future health and, as we see currently, the Russians still manage a state doping program to win Olympic medals.

Russian Olympic team

There is a great deal of interesting material in this book. The author went through three years’ worth of academic literature on the subject and interviewed a number of experts. The history of the use of amphetamines and steroids by US athletes is set out in some detail, along with pressure applied for a Cold War victory on the sports field and catch up with the Commies.

The section of the book that was very revealing dealt with the widespread use of performance-enhancing drugs by the general public. It is noted that only the USA and New Zealand allow pharmaceutical companies to advertise directly to consumers and that Big Pharma spends more on that advertising than on drug development. There is a feeling that there are “bad” drugs—heroin, cocaine, crystal meth—that are bad because they interfere with productivity and function, whereas the use of other drugs—amphetamines that help you study or work more alertly, drugs to bring back your hair or your sexual vitality—these are to be encouraged. As is the use of poorly-regulated supplements, again with the goal of “improving” something although history shows they can have their own dangers.

Doping in cycling is not harmless but in comparison to the head injuries suffered by American football players at all levels seems it should be a lesser concern. If doping risks are overblown by fear-mongers why are we so concerned? Doping, for whatever reasons, is illegal in sports and a huge structure exists now to enforce the rules. There is no level playing field. Those athletes or teams that do not have the resources will be caught, or be uncompetitive compared to those who can afford the medical staff that can keep abreast of the science, manage a comprehensive program–or make a deal with officials.

Thomas Dekker and Jonathan Vaughters – The ‘Argyle Armada’

So there is this inherent conflict between the competitive will—winning is everything—and the idea of fair play and sportsmanship, however defined. There is widespread doping amongst amateur cyclists, who are obviously not motivated by money or pro contracts but the tribal influence of sport. The author, who spent a year with the Garmin team while writing “Argyle Armada” to see how a team works where riders were not pressured to dope (a concept he originally found laughable) believes that here is a case where one set of standards is applied to athletes and quite another that says drugs are a path to a better future if you are a student.

The mission of pro sports is to entertain and this basic fact of American life is probably why US rules on doping in leagues such as the National Football League or Major League Baseball came long after European cycling or the Olympics brought in their own regulations. Cycling has been draconian in its response, suggests the author, where in the rush to condemn and to purify the sport human rights have been trampled, such as the requirement that riders be available 24/7 for testing. (However, a case brought to the European Court of Justice this past week by cyclist Jeannie Longo seeking to have whereabouts-testing banned on human rights grounds was dismissed.)

Does being a pro athlete mean that one must forego the right to modern medical care? One of the issues in the Froome case is that medical products can have a restorative function—as in the case of those suffering from exercise-induced asthma—or an additive function. While one does not want to suspend the ability of athletes to deal with health issues, the line becomes very blurry. And with several precedents of suspensions for cyclists with levels of salbutamol above approved levels, there is also a question of fairness in the enforcement of the rules.

Soup and doping have been in cycling for a long time

“Spitting in the Soup” is a very good overview of the history of sports doping and the creation of the anti-doping establishment. The book does not condone sports doping but shows how we have reached this impasse. Don’t look for a solution at the end of the book, however, since by the time you get that far it is a realization that there is an inherent hypocrisy of attacking sports figures for what we deem as unsportsmanlike behaviour (particularly in a marginal sport such as cycling) and providing a bad example to youth while at the same time there are powerful forces encouraging and rewarding pharmaceutical use in our daily lives. This book is well worth reading as a reasoned response to anti-doping hysteria and provides plenty of food for thought as we await the decision on Chris Froome’s case.

“Spitting in the Soup: Inside the Dirty Game of Doping in Sports”
by Mark Johnson
416 pp., hardcover
VeloPress, Boulder Colorado, 2016
ISBN 978-1-937715-27-4
Suggested Price: US$24.95
For more information: https://www.velopress.com/books/spitting-in-the-soup/

• Buy it at AMAZON.com here

Photos in the review are not from the book.

# If you want a different viewpoint on ‘Spitting in the Soup’ check-out Dr. Stephen Cheung’s review from last year. #

When not living a life above suspicion, Leslie Reissner may be found virtuously trailing the pack at www.tindonkey.com

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