Why the common elements in doping narratives
Doom any Truth and Reconciliation Commission
In his book Breaking The Chain, Drugs and Cycling – The True Story, Willy Voet tells of a moment in the 1997 Tour de France. Voet, a soigneur, is a trusted confidant of Festina’s leader, Richard Virenque. Virenque, an energetic early adopter of EPO and always searching for better doping products, is looking for an edge in the next day’s Saint Etienne Time Trial. Virenque, in second place, is certainly not favored to beat or even come close to overall leader Jan Ullrich of Telekom. Still, he’s eager to try something new, untested, and allegedly powerful, a “time-trial special,” cooked up by another team’s soigneur, to minimize any time loss to Ullrich, so he can possibly ride into Yellow in the Alps.
Voet is opposed. Virenque gets it anyways, and asks Voet to do the deed. Voet injects it into Virenque’s buttock as prescribed an hour before the start. Virenque rides the time trial of his life, coming in second, losing only three minutes and four seconds to the all-conquering German. Virenque is stoked; he thinks the stuff is amazing. There’s only one catch. Voet didn’t administer the drug; he swapped in a glucose solution instead. And Virenque didn’t find out until the book was published—if he read it at all.
Positive thinking is powerful stuff.
But it illustrates something that comes up in just about every doping narrative. That the dopers didn’t actually need the dope to do well. The stories try to sell us on the idea that doping was a temporary weakness, something forced on the doper by the rotten milieu they found themselves in. They were champions, really, and the doping merely was about keeping up. Doping kept the natural order of things, albeit a super-charged order.
Of course, there’s plenty of evidence that indicates that doping does nothing of the sort, but that doesn’t matter to the doper; they’re hoping you believe the narrative.
Equally important, the doper wasn’t looking for an edge. He was just looking for something that would help him keep up, not win. This makes the doper a sportsman in the classic sense; just looking to play the game fairly.
Of course, this ignores the multitude of racers the doped cyclist is beating. But that’s what the doper wants to do.
That dopers present themselves in this light is something that will make getting to the truth and rooting out doping through any sort of Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) impossible.
The TRC route has been very much in the cycling presslately. People point to how it worked in South Africa, and how it would be cathartic, and tear down the old system. I have some issues with this. I don’t know how it worked in South Africa and nobody putting the idea forward has shown that it worked there. I have no idea what happened to people who stepped forward, to people who didn’t, and I certainly don’t know if it helped that nation move forward. And even if it could do everything proponents say it can, I don’t see how the UCI or WADA could actually affect anything beyond their immediate mandates.
But the first problem is getting to the truth. I’ve written about the softer side of Omertà in the past, and here I’ll address the issue of shading history as a limiter to any truth that comes out.
David Millar, in Racing Through The Dark, writes about boasting to teammates he was going to race clean. And won, according to himself, while doing so. He even reports he stopped doping before he was caught, but left around the evidence. Tyler Hamilton, in The Secret Race, points to his win in the 1996 Teleflex Tour as proof he won at a fairly high level of cycling clean. When both wrote these books, they were in a position where they could tell the unvarnished truth: they were admitting to their misdeeds without any outside pressure on them.
Read through all the Postal Doper affidavits in the Reasoned Decision on Lance Armstrong, and just about all claimed to have gotten to the top clean, went to the dark side once they reached the pinnacle of sport just to keep up, ended their doping ways, most after parting with Lance’s Postal/Discovery program, and found success racing clean afterwards. Even most of the non-teammates come up with a nice, clean ending date for their drug dalliances, one that shows they were able to succeed without drugs.
They’re nice stories, with an obvious turning point where the dark side is embraced, a dark side no one was happy with. Then, over time, they found a frustration or paranoia or unhappiness with what they were doing to themselves, and they made a clean break, and from that point on, they raced clean. And won clean. It’s all too neat, treatments for a TV movie, something that has a clean arc and easy lessons.
That the stories are so neat is reason enough to question the veracity thereof. These guys were never aware of rivals, teammates, friends either doping or being offered dope, until they were national caliber? They had never discussed the matter with anyone until they were at the top?
I can’t help but feel they’re trying to sell us a sanitized version of what happened. There’s very little in the way of messy stuff, almost completely omitted are any early brushes with doping. All present themselves as dedicated, hard working, almost heroic, just stymied by the system. This view is one the admitted dopers want to believe, too. I don’t think anyone wants to think of himself as a cold, calculating cheat who owes his career to doping. And they definitely don’t want their family or close friends or business associated to think that of them.
I believe the reason everyone presents the good guy image is to assure the public and themselves that they’re not frauds. That the drugs did not make their careers. They want us to believe that they were legitimate up and comers who turned pro, got sidetracked by the drugs, but it was a drug-fueled era, and they kicked the habit, and won again, but this time they did it clean.
And in every story, it wasn’t that they were looking for a way to win, they were just looking for a way to keep up. It wasn’t an edge they were seeking, just a level playing field.
We should wonder why so few get up and state they knew of doping from early on, that they could see it in the peloton once they started racing well, that it was offered to them and they took it before they made it because they hoped it would give them an edge. And it did give them an edge. And as the tests got better, their methods got better. These are competitive people and doping was another part of the game, and yet Hamilton seems to be the only guy who owns up to any rush that came with cheating.
This sort of omission is particularly notable when going through the affidavits of those who gave testimony on Armstrong. Everyone was given a get out of jail free card. They had this one opportunity to cop to all their misdeeds, and to a one, they all, probably on their own, struck the same pose.
Reading them in one sitting, it’s hard not to feel that the witnesses conveniently forgot, omitted, and/or shaded portions of their own pasts.
For example, there is evidence that the United States National Team doped some of its riders in the late 1980s and early 1990s. (Some will go back further and point to the “blood boosting” scandal after the 1984 Olympics, where a number of American cyclists on the Olympic team removed and reinfused blood for a performance advantage.) In this time period, a span in which a number of eventual top American pros (Armstrong, George Hincapie, Bobby Julich, Chann McRae, Fred Rodriguez, Jonathan Vaughters, among others) went through the National Team program as juniors and young seniors. Several of the riders who were on the national team but did not go on to be top pro’s have alleged that they were doped without their consent by two coaches, Chris Carmichael and Rene Wenzel, and a soigneur, Angus Fraser. Were these riders the only ones who had this experience? Were others who doped more actively participating in a doping program?
If the eventual top guys doped as juniors, it would probably change the way people see the narrative of their doping. The story would shift from champions who were trying to keep up, to guys who owe their careers to doping. If they were doped without their knowledge, we might feel they were physically abused, and give them some of our sympathy, but still feel they wouldn’t have made it without doping.
It’s even easier to see this with Levi Leipheimer. Leipheimer’s affidavit in the Armstrong Affair strains credulity to the breaking point. Read his take without knowing anything about him, and doping was merely a clear-eyed view of what he needed to do to make it as a pro. More impressively, he stopped doping on his own volition, and only briefly doped again, in 2007, despite the disapproval of his boss, Johan Bruyneel.
Leipheimer’s story makes him seem like he’s made of tough stuff. He doped, he stopped, that was it. The image of Leipheimer changes when context is added. He raced in Europe in 1995 and 1996: by most accounts doping was more open and widespread there. He omits that he was busted for doping in 1996, and whether or not it was the accident he claimed it was back then. He also tells of several curious things. In 1997, he was teammates with Jonathan Vaughters on Comptel/Colorado Cyclist, a domestic pro team. According to Leipheimer, he learned about the Euro doping scene from Vaughters. Despite Leipheimer’s desire to go to Europe, he asks us to believe he sat on Vaughters’ knowledge until the summer of 1999, when it looked like he could get a ride on US Postal in Europe, and this was six months after he was first offered EPO, and turned it down.
Leipheimer claims he then doped all the way until he returned to the employ of Johan Bruyneel in 2007 on the Discovery Channel team. The same Bruyneel who is said to have made his racers dope. Leipheimer reports he was uncomfortable with organizing a doping program on his own, and the team eventually provided a doping program for the Tour de France, where he finished third. But he says he went dope-free starting in 2008.
He says he was dope-free, but Bruyneel was regularly apprised of Leipheimer’s hematocrit levels. Leipheimer also trained regularly with Armstrong. And he claims to have told Lance he wasn’t doping, to which Lance replies, if you had done something I would know.”
Some look at Leipheimer’s racing career and believe, with plenty of reason, he doped the whole way through. And doping the whole way through is a very different tale than the one Leipheimer has been selling.
Leipheimer’s story, when it comes to a TRC, is also important for what happened to him. A six-month ban for a career’s worth of doping seems like a good deal. But he was fired by his Omega Pharma-Quickstep team, and forced to retire because no one would hire him.
It’s hard to blame his former team for sacking him. He’s old, had few results in the past year, and knowingly violated his team’s policy. They might have dropped him at the end of the season regardless. Besides, they needed the money to pick up Mark Cavendish. This year, the Omega Pharma tried to hire Alessandro Petacchi just before the Giro. Considering Petacchi’s own history of doping violations and questionable associations, it’s clear that the team can be open-minded when it suits them.
And it’s harder to blame anyone for not hiring Leipheimer. He brings little to the table other than the title of “former doper.” His age and lack of results aren’t enticements for ProTour teams, and his explicit doping connection is one that probably scared off most lower-level domestic teams.
The idea of a TRC is that there will be no adverse sporting and professional consequences for speaking out. But it would be impossible for that to become reality. Sure, WADA can step forward to waive whatever penalties would be levied, and that could possibly be pressed onto various sports federations. But cycling teams, which are private organizations that market products for companies, almost certainly can’t be held to the same standard: I think everyone can see why a company might not want a admitted doper as a spokesperson. Most racing teams are populated by freelancers, who have little in the way of job protections. And various national governments might take an interest in the proceedings and prosecute people who step forward when their admissions go over legal lines. I don’t see how a non-governmental organization like WADA can promise that jobs won’t be lost, or that governments won’t step forward and prosecute law-breakers.
It’s nice to believe that if people just sat down and bared their past, we’ll be able to figure out how to rid sport of doping. But just getting them to tell the truth is a task that has proven near impossible, even when there have been powerful incentives for doing so. It seems that it would be even harder when there is little in the way of incentive for stepping forward. And without the truth, figuring how to root out doping will be an impossible task.