With all the recent doping revelations in cycling, maybe its time we stop gasping and consider what helped push the investigations that led to the airing. One thing is that the biggest European sports have joined with the World Anti-Doping Association (WADA), which is acting as an international doping police agency. But a bigger reason is that several European countries have made "sporting fraud" a crime.
The subject of drugs in cycling will be front and center from now through the end of this year's Tour. This week, about 10 days from the start of the big race, two books on cycling are hitting bookshelves. Both David Walsh's From Lance to Landis: Inside the American Doping Controversy at the Tour de France and Floyd Landis' Positively False hit the shelves June 26.
The picture Walsh paints of drug use in cycling is positively ugly. Landis tells the story of his life and tries to explain why the positive drug test at last year's Tour is wrong. Whether or not Landis is not guilty will not be known for some time; even though the arbitration hearing's finding should be announced any day. No matter what the decision, it will surely be appealed.
On top of the two books and the decision, racers slated to start the Tour are being asked to sign an anti-doping declaration affirming they have raced clean and are racing clean before the Tour begins. Some are signing, some are hesitant. And there's always the possibility that the documents and blood seized in Operacion Puerto last year might yield some new revelations just in time for the tour.
People in the United States seem to regard doping the way they do most sensational news. They're disgusted when they hear about it, but they don't really give it much thought. They might think that some American pro athletes dope, but it isn't a big deal.
I think it is a big deal. Doping has profound effects. For one, because doping is done in secret, and most of the "intelligence" on it is from non-medical professionals with a small sample population, we have little idea how safe or dangerous doping is. It could be leading to cancer, bone diseases, mental illness and more. More importantly, doping by one could be hurting others. For example, if a football lineman grows to over 300lbs thanks to drugs, the hits he's making on others, could be threatening their lives.
The presence of dopers in sport has an influence on teammates and rivals alike. Peer pressure is real, and certainly there are plenty examples of one person cheating and getting away with it leading to others cheating as well. And there is plenty of reason for people to dope on the fear that their rivals are already doping; an arms race of sorts that works like other arms races.
There are also workplace safety and health issues. Just like with people working in coal mines, we don't think a job should, by definition, be dangerous to someone's health. We've gotten lead out of paint, asbestos out of classrooms, and even now smoky workplaces are seen as an unfair threat to someone's health. Doping is no different.
The presence of doping could also mean that athletes have to choose between doping and losing his job -- or maybe not even getting the job in the first place. Whether or not it is smart for people to build a whole life on sport is beside the point, people do and imagine doing everything for your sport and then finding out that after making all the sacrifices, closing all the other doors, that the only avenue to making a living is to cheat.
Yes, there are ethical issues when it comes to doping, but these don't seem to get anyone upset. And I don't know if they should any more than cheating in other walks of life. Cheating happens. Some of those holding the highest offices in the land and are earning the most money get away with cheating on a regular basis while the "little people" get caught, just as it is in sports these days, with the journeyman players being the ones usually getting caught. It's nice to believe sports should be pure, but any time there's a contest, there's a temptation to cheat, and the temptation only grows as the stakes increase and the supervision proves to be lax.
So sporting fraud statutes, which were pioneered in Italy, have a chance to help get rid of the cheats. If the government can catch athletes and embarrass sponsors, teams, leagues, and sports federations, the sponsors, teams, leagues, and federations will all have a reason to make the doping rules strict and get rid of the cheats before it becomes big news. Cycling has waited to move against the dopers, and, as a result, journalists and governments have had ample incentive to do the work of exposure. It has cost cycling greatly.
With the example of cycling in place, showing how not to handle doping, we could enact sporting fraud laws and chances are our sports would clean themselves up. After all, they've got much more money on the line than cycling has. Expect the big money sports to object, but we should be firm. Since they've refused to lead, let's force them to do something. Make sporting fraud a crime.
J.P. Partland is the author of Tour Fever: The Armchair Cyclist's Guide to the Tour de France published by Penguin.