Cycling is all pumped up about its doping problem
NEW YORK — As Lance Armstrong galloped through Mont Ventoux early this week, winning another stage in the Tour de France, the crowd that lined the streets near that day's finish line showed a mixed reaction to the Texan, who has become the dominant force in cycling.
Most cheered him. Others chanted "doe-pay, doe-pay," an accusation that Armstrong was using performance-enhancing substances to likely win the world's premier bike race which ends Sunday for a fourth consecutive year.
The jeers against Armstrong who never failed a drug test have dogged him for much of his time atop the cycling circuit. "I consider this issue dead," he said in a statement on his website earlier this month. "It is without merit, and I will no longer pay attention to it."
But the issue is anything but dead. Regardless of what Armstrong may or may not be doing to enhance his performance, cycling fans have become cynical. The same can be said of fans of other sports, who no longer know what is real and what is fake, who is taking and who is not.
In this year's Tour de France, Armstrong has had an easy ride to victory in part because many of the world's top competitors have been absent. Stefano Garzelli and Gilberto Simoni of Italy failed drug tests and were not allowed to race. Jan Ullrich, probably the second-best racer in the world, is injured but he, too, failed a drug test and this week was handed a six-month suspension.
"Any way you look at it, doping is a major issue in our sport," says Kip Mikler, the editor of the cycling journal Velo News.
But, Mikler adds, cycling is no more prone to doping than other competitive sports. The difference is that cycling officials have openly fought harder to clean up the circuit, he says.
In the case of Armstrong, who recovered from a serious illness to become one of history's greatest cyclists, there are reasons why fans are suspicious. Armstrong has a relationship with a controversial doctor named Michele Ferrari, who is facing drug charges in Italy (although he has never been convicted), and who has long been considered an expert on special methods of improving performance.
Also, at times, Armstrong seems superhuman in his ascents of some of the world's most daunting mountains. It is true that he has a large heart and lungs, but some wonder whether he has an even greater advantage. "I am somewhat surprised by Armstrong," the manager of an opposing team recently commented in the press. "When others gasp for air with open mouths, he rides with a closed mouth, as if there is nothing to it."
Sports officials have been waging a war against doping for more than a decade, but they say they turned a corner with the establishment of the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) and the US Anti-Doping Agency (USADA) three years ago.
"In the past, the technology of dopers was faster than the technology of testers," says Larry Bowers, the senior managing director of USADA, which administers Olympic testing in the states. "Now, I believe the gap is closing rapidly."
According to Bowers, the amount of money spent on testing research has multiplied by 50 times in the past five years.
A huge success for testers came at the Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City, where they caught two cross-country skiers who were using darbepoetin, a substance that helps the body get oxygen to tissues faster. The drug was at the cutting edge of doping technology, and the understanding among athletes was that there were no tests for it.
Darbepoetin has the same effect as EPO, the drug that was used by cyclists for much of the '90s. Officials say EPO and its derivatives are still a top area of concern as unscrupulous athletes, scientists, and doctors try to spin off similar substances before new tests are in place.
Another problem for antidoping agencies is growth hormone, for which there is no test. Officials are hoping to come up with an answer before the 2004 Olympics in Athens. Likewise, testosterone presents a problem. Because different people have different natural levels, it is nearly impossible for testers to determine when an athlete has added some to his or her body.
According to Gary Wadler, a member of WADA, genetic engineering could be the problem of the next generation of athletes. "We're trying to anticipate what will happen in the next 10 to 15 years," he says. "It used to be that we only reacted to crises."
While there has been great progress made in drug testing for the Olympics and international sports like cycling, professional sports in the United States lag far behind them (with the exception of the National Football League). Most American sports either don't have testing or have weak testing. Much of that is due to the fact that testing is usually dictated by collective-bargaining agreements between players and owners.
Meanwhile, when a sport like basketball does test, it is of little value, experts say. "There are some programs that have been heralded as effective in which the league tells the players when they are going to be tested and what they will be tested for," Bowers says. "The only way a player can flunk is if they're not using their head."