Monday, August 6, 2012

Why Professional Cycling is Cleaner than Track and Field

In its attempt to capture it all, NBC's coverage of the Olympics scampers between good and evil sports, with little regard for what viewers want.  The very sports that appeal to dramatic types (synchronized diving, trampolining, and dressage) disgust those who are more interested in the brute physical force sports (athletics, weightlifting, quad-offs).  Throw in a dreary profile of a Jamaican multi-hyphenated-named sprinter and the vulpine Ryan Seacrest , and Ol' Paps shuts 'er down and picks up a book.

The book I pick up is similarly two-sided--David Millar's memoir of doping, Racing Through the Dark.
The tale is predictable: boy rides bike fast, boy corrupted by sport, boy finds redemption in sport. Millar accepts blame for his mistake, but he also persuasive argument that cycling shares some of the blame.  Just as corporations have a legal obligation to maximize profits, bike racers are often held to standards by their teams that require the use of drugs.

Millar as a neopro once took in a disapproving look from his teammates when he announced he'd won a prologue at 40% hematocrit.  Instead of making the point, as Millar had intended, that winning without doping was possible, Millar was told he'd not given "the maximum" for his team.

True devotion to team and family require doping.  That is the ethos of the era, and Millar shortly succumbs to it.

He goes to Italy for preparations with an experienced doper who Millar calls L'Equipier. His first race with "adequate preparations," Millar awakens to the effects of his EPO injections in a memorable scene:

In howling winds, that stage to Zaragoza became one of the fastest bike races in history, as the peleton averaged 56 kilometers per hour over 180 kilometers.  It also opened my eyes to the power of doping.

When we began to hit the crosswinds in the final stages of the race, I was sitting too far back in the peleton.  Within a kilometer I found myself in the third echelon of riders, watching the front of the race disappear at speeds nudging 70 kilometers.

Partly due to the adrenaline rush of riders getting physically blown off the road, and partly due to the absolute panic surrounding me, I was motivated by the situation and spent the next 30 kilometers of racing bridging on my own between groups.  I wasn't that surprised that nobody could or would work with me, but I began to think it was strange when nobody could even hold my wheel.

It took me only a couple of minutes to recover from the first bridging move.  I thought it was a bit odd that I felt so good, but I was beginning to have fun.  Without even trying to take anybody with me as support, I went off in pursuit of the front group that was, by now, out of sight.

It was an absolutely ridiculous move, and in the unwritten rules of cycling an impossible one.  I spent the next twenty minutes riding at over 60 kph, with a cadence in excess of 115.  I closed most of the gap in the first fifteen minutes and was then able to see the front group, only 100 meters ahead.

They were within reach when I started to fall apart.  I was over my limits, my breathing out of control, and my whole body was starting to lactate.  Unable to get closer, it was only because one of the riders at the back of the group saw me, and then told L'Equipier, that I finally made the junction.  

L'Equipier dropped out of the safety of the group's slipstream, came back, and towed me onto the tail end.  I was in a mess, but my lone ride between the groups went down as legendary, a ride that nobody apart from the professional peleton knew about.  Yet it also showed what EPO could do. 
The portion seems maybe the most honest in the book, the fond look back, a bittersweet recollection of destruction and glory, the burden of memory borne by all junkies.

Who can blame Millar for reveling in the memory of godlike power, even as he is forced to endure the shame of its illicit source?

But now I put the book down--the fastest women in the world are racing on TV.  The prelims for the women's 100 meter dash is on, and I watch Carmelita Jeter and Blessing Okagbare, dominate their races in a similar fashion.  They both possess well-muscled physiques.  The commentator is Ato Boldon.  Boldon points out that Jeter and Okagbare are coached by John Smith.  He points it out with several other athletes, but he doesn't mention the coaches of the other athletes.

One wonders--are these athletes under the impression, as was David Millar, that devotion to team and family and country requires doping?
It turns out that Jeter and Okagbare's coach, John Smith, also coached Ato Boldon, when he came up short against Maurice Green in Syndey in 2000 in the 100-meter dash.  Later, Marion Jones' dealer also accused Green of purchasing and using PEDs--because there was proof of the $10,000 Green paid for the drugs, Green admitted to purchasing the drugs but claimed not to have used them.  Green's admission did not jeopardize his Dancing With the Stars appearance, nor did it have any implications for the average American suffering through NBC's Olympic coverage to finally see the world's fastest man and woman.

Smith's charge, Carmelita Jeter, failed to do much of anything until 2008.  She parted ways with Larry Wade, who was outed for steroid distribution, and moved to Smith.  Shortly after, she won the 2011 world championship, and then earned a silver here in London.

The darling of American track, Allyson Felix, is coached by a only slightly less shady character, Bob Kersee.  Kersee coached both Florence Griffith-Joyner and Jackie Joyner-Kersee.  Although never convicted of supplying his athletes with PEDs, several accusations from eyewitness accounts have surfaced.

The persistence of trainers, coaches, and L'Equipiers in track and field and other sports suggests that, even as WADA has institutionalized its testing protocol, doping is as common in track and field as it is in cycling.  To gain an edge, top athletes consult informal institutions--coaches and characters of informal institutions designed to cheat the formal drug testing program.

Charles Francis (right) with Ben Johnson

Take Marion Jones' dealer--since his link with Victor Conte and BALCO, he has since worked with other athletes, including boxer Juan Manual Marquez, Usain Bolt, and others.  Canadian sprinter Ben Johnson's coach, Charlie Francis, continued to work with top athletes until his death last week.

The forces that led Millar to dope now lead America's best athletes--and certainly athletes from elsewhere--to dope.  The difference between cycling and other Olympic sports is that cycling has begun to face up to its problem, whereas there is far less scrutiny given to track and field.

Where nationalism is involved, people tend to be blind.  When we cheer athletes who represent our country, we tend to be partial--we put up a higher burden of proof than we would otherwise (e.g., if the athletes were from China).

When Millar points to culprits, he points his finger at team structure.  By contrast, British Cycling comes across as a much more efficient model, as does Millar's team, Garmin-Barracuda.  But maybe the fact that cycling teams are fluid, commercial, and unallied with nationality is actually the reason cycling is subject to more scrutiny and realistic policy than other sports with teams that represent national identities.  People don't care as much when a commercial enterprise is proven to be unethical, whereas they do care when their country is maligned.

Pro cycling suffers from an unparalleled fluidity, with the creation and loss of teams every year, there hardly being enough time for fans to learn, let alone find identity in, a pro cycling team.  For the sake of anti-doping, thankfully, this is almost certainly a good thing.


Chuck Wagon said...

Good post.

I can't necessarily cleanly articulate all my thoughts on the topic (well justified pervasive cynicism destroying my enjoyment of the pro sport, a blase "well, duh, they're all on the sauce" response whenever someone gets caught, a firm belief that the UCI is more 'Hollywood studio during the Louis B Mayer era' than sport administrator, etc), but from the perspective of pure visceral excitement - how freaking cool would it be to just one time be able to twist the throttle like Millar describes in that passage? Instead, I'm sentenced to my however many hours of training culminating in a peak of not feeling like absolute death incarnate while playing the role of pack fodder in the community theater that is MABRA.

Kevin Cross said...

+1 on that "being able to twist the throttle."

Marginal gains, my friend. Right? Isn't that what the Brits do? That and ovoid chainrings?

Too Slow said...

Don't like to play the cynic or cast aspersions on nothing but a general feel, but Millar's book read an awful lot like it repeated a story thoroughly and carefully vetted by a smart defense counsel, designed to admit blame only where necessary and otherwise to claim he rode clean whenever he could. The assertion that he kept a couple syringes pressed in the pages of a book, something by Foucault I assume, as a kind of memoir of times passed, struck me as particularly amusing. But who knows; I do like the bloke and will hope for the best.

Kevin Cross said...

I agree with you, Too Slow, on Millar's very cautious confession. There should be more dirt, and it should be dirtier. The poetic stash of two syringes reads like bad fiction. Still, even if it is a carefully vetted tale, it's not bad.

Tim Rugg said...

Here's a great story I heard on NPR a while back about the prominence of doping in track and field and a story about choosing not to race, rather than choosing not to dope: