Category Archives: Links

When the perfect is the enemy of the good

Matt de Neef over at CyclingTips has posted a very good article exploring the arguments of Professor Julian Savulescu of Oxford University, who thinks (some, but not completely unfettered) doping in sport should be allowed.

Savulescu has the right credentials to make an argument here: he’s a professor of bioethics and also has a medical background. I would say that: my Honours year was spent in the same philosophy department where he earned his PhD (although he was there a few years before me, I believe).

The argument really splits into two key points:

  1. Because we will never be able to guarantee clean sport, trying to do so is pointless
  2. There’s a fine line between legal and illegal methods of enhancing physiology, and that line is sometimes so fine as to be meaningless

I disagree with both. Let’s examine the arguments.

If we can’t reliably catch cheats anyway, and there’s no clear reason why some performance enhancing substances and methods are legal and some aren’t, why don’t we just create a physiological definition of what is legal and be done with it?

My own view is that even if it’s deeply flawed, anti-doping does catch some cheats, and it forces others to moderate their cheating to at least some degree.

It’s a strange attitude to argue that anti-doping has to be perfectly effective before it is worthwhile. It’s not an attitude we apply in other areas of life: imagine if the government decided they can never hope to prevent all crime, so they’re disbanding the police force.

What about if we defined acceptable physiological ranges for key parameters (e.g. haematocrit, testosterone, HGH etc) and let athletes do whatever they want, as long as they stay within those ranges?

I think this situation is ethically problematic, because it creates an incentive to dope. Riders won’t just suspect their rivals are boosting themselves, they will know.

Defining acceptable physiological ranges will just encourage everyone to dose up until they are as close to the upper allowable limit as possible in all respects. You’d be crazy not to!

How does this affect amateur riders, and neo-pros, and those riding for continental teams where money is tight and medical supervision minimal? It just makes the gulf to the top level that much harder to bridge.

With the pressure of teams and salaries, may come expectation and demands to be a team player, against your own wishes. You only need to read accounts from the dark years of cycling to understand the pressure riders felt to dope even when it was illicit.

Putting aside the ethics for a moment, creating a homogenous physiological profile through legalised doping sounds to me like a recipe for boring racing.

Surely the natural variation in riders’ physiological abilities is one of the beautiful and unpredictable things about cycling?

In any case, cycling has already tried using defined physiological limits.

Back in the days before EPO testing, cyclists were allowed a maximum haematocrit count of 50. Exceeding this value earned the riders a few weeks out of competition, until their values came back below 50, with no further formal sanction.

The policy was a disaster.

The legal limit disadvantaged riders with naturally high haematocrit, at the expense of those with naturally lower values, who could take just enough EPO to bring them right up to the line.

Charly Wegelius gives a good account of this in his book, Domestique. Wegelius has naturally high haematocrit, and throughout his career had to be extremely careful not to exceed the allowed values, a fact which caused him considerable angst.

Doping with EPO was absolutely out of the question (not to mention pointless) for him. Meanwhile some of his rivals could dope to their hearts’ content, gaining huge benefits.

Identifying a “normal” or acceptable range is incredibly difficult, because the variation in human physiology can be huge. How do we account for physiological outmarkers with naturally high values?

So is defining a “safe” level of doping? Safe for whom?

It seems to me that the proposed solution, setting defined physiological ranges, brings us no closer to avoiding arbitrary distinctions than the current system of listing banned substances, while introducing huge ethical problems and probably making the sport less interesting.

Interesting discussion, but the devil is in the details once you start thinking about the practicalities.

I disagree with Savulescu, because I think the most likely consequences of legal doping are unethical, and bad in a sporting sense, but his argument does prompt us to critically re-examine why we think anti-doping is worthwhile.


End of the Ride for Lance Armstrong

End of the Ride for Lance Armstrong

Embed from Getty Images

With the caveat that I’m thoroughly sick of discussing The Disgraced Texan, and the disreputable goings-on of the 1990’s and early 2000’s, this is a really excellent read from Juliet Macur in the New York Times.

The way doping was managed by major pro teams, through soigneurs who purchased and administered doping products, is not a new revelation. This has been widespread knowledge since the Festina Affair and the arrest of Willy Voet.

The typically methodical detail Macur brings to this piece is fascinating, and it illuminates what we already knew in a way that I think is well worth reading.