THE BLOG
07/31/2006 12:16 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

Cycling's Drug Problem, and Ours

By all outward appearances, professional cyclists seem to be more prone to doping than most other athletes. Between the expulsions before this year's Tour de France and Floyd Landis's "A" test following stage 17, it sure seems like doping is everywhere in pro cycling.

While I'm disappointed and frustrated by the incidents, I draw a different conclusion. Cycling, unlike many sports, has made a point to address and to combat performance-enhancing drug use. Cycling isn't perfect--and its officials don't always follow through on their promises to do more testing. Furthermore, both the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) and European governments, intent on rooting out "sporting fraud," constantly seem to be nipping at cycling's heels. But cycling's vigilance is a model that other sports should consider following.

Critics unfamiliar with the sport take the dope busts and suspensions it as proof of bike racing's collective guilt. Many racers wish there could be more testing at all levels. In many ways, cycling is cleaner than pro sports here in the US.

I'm sure I'm not alone in believing that our major sports leagues limit their testing to drugs that they either won't catch, or if caught, won't make the sport look bad. It's easy for baseball, basketball, and football to test for recreational drugs--they're already illegal. Testing for recreational drugs is also a savvy public relations move, because it protects the players from seeming immune to the perils of society and the penalties that the average citizen faces. When it comes to rooting out the use of performance-enhancing drugs, however, American sports leagues have been dragged kicking and screaming to any drug policy. Major League Baseball (MLB) and the National Football League (NFL) both banned amphetamines this year. The drugs have been banned from competitive cycling since the late 1960s.

A visit to the NFL web site in search of their policy on drug use yielded an article by former player Chris Collinsworth, who praised the NFL for handing out four-game suspensions for a first-use penalty, but no mention of human growth hormone and synthetic EPO, which is reportedly used by football players. He praises the NFL's policy for being, "by far the most stringent test in all of professional sports." In cycling, one illegal drug offense results in a two-year suspension.

American pro sports are trying to do just enough to escape public scrutiny and congressional oversight. Without these twin interest bearing down on them, they don't have to test more or admit a problem. MLB appears to be comfortable with Barry Bonds posing as their villain, hoping people will think baseball's doping ends with him.

I don't blame the sports and athletes for not wanting testing. It creates a presumption of guilt. And this presumption is bad for sponsors and could reduce attendance and viewers. For an athlete, the testing can be annoying and invasive--pro bike racers are subject to random out-of-competition testing, which involves letting someone know of your whereabouts at all times, and that's in addition to random in-competition testing, and testing the top finishers at all major events and many minor ones.

Cycling, like many other sports affiliated with the Olympics, has signed on to WADA's stringent drug policy. Do MLB, the National Basketball Association, the National Hockey League, or the NFL have any interest in joining WADA? All signs point to no.

Testing athletes is often bad for the public. People want to believe in miracles, and sports offer that possibility on a regular basis. People want sports to be fair, pure, and a showcase of what's best in people. Who wants to acknowledge that sports can also bring out the worst? And as the news reports on Landis show, there are mixed feelings on the subject. People want to believe in Landis, and are willing to give him the presumption of innocence, after initially presuming guilt. Reporters, who are on the front line, want to believe, and probably take doping busts harder than the public does when it appears they were played for chumps, their own credibility is on the line, too.

Humans are prone to weakness and inclined to take shortcuts. In our society, there's a pill for nearly every malady, and available over the internet, in your drugstore's aisles, or from your prescription pharmacy if you can convince your doctor that you need it. This isn't to pass judgment, but to show that cyclists are no different than the public they came from--which is filled with embezzlers, tax cheats, liars, frauds, and the like.

And we're a contradictory lot. Barry Bonds pointed this out in terms of baseball's home run derby years ago. People didn't seem to care whether or not Mark McGwire or Sammy Sosa were juicing, sadly he demonstrated how fickle that public is. I want to believe that Landis is innocent, but I'm ultimately glad that testing is being done and that some dopers are being caught. I race as well, and was recently disappointed to learn that a competitor of mine was doping, because he brought disrepute to my sport, and could have jeopardized the existence of the races he won--because sponsors might withdraw their support. Additionally, I was angry that he wasn't caught sooner, but relieved that there would be one less doper out there--and maybe other dopers would get scared in the end, too.

I'd like to believe that a sober, clear-eyed view of sports is advantageous for everybody. I want the dopers caught not only so sport will be safe and fair, but so that the real heroic feats are noticed and rewarded, and so we can have confidence in the institution. Skepticism and cynicism are fine and healthy, so long as they're not disabling.