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Would you like some EPO with those Cliff shots?: Doping and everyday athletes

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It’s happened again. Another year, another Gran Fondo, another doping scandal. Really, cyclists, really?

Oscar Tovar from Colombia, the winner of the 2015 Campagnolo Gran Fondo New York and first annual GFNY Championship, tested positive for synthetic testosterone use during the in-competition doping controls administered by US Anti Doping Agency (USADA) at the race. Tovar has been banned from any competition under World Anti Doping Agency (WADA) rules for two years and by GFNY for lifetime at any GFNY World event.

Tovar wasn’t alone. One of the women, Yamile Lugo of Colombia, who finished in 3rd place overall in the women’s field also tested positive for banned substances. Tovar and Lugo are serious cyclists but the doping in cycling isn’t restricted to competitive athletes.

A few years ago I was shocked to read about the rise of doping among amateur cyclists.

See Wider Testing Reveals Doping Among Amateur Cyclists, Too.

Two amateur bicycle racers tested positive for the blood-booster EPO at the Gran Fondo New York bicycle race on May 20, organizers said earlier this week. Since the beginning of 2011, eight other amateur cyclists have committed doping infractions in the United States. Five tested positive for banned substances, two were sanctioned for refusing drug tests, and one, the author Andrew Tilin, admitted to using banned drugs as research for a book.

These aren’t professional cyclists. They aren’t elite athletes. In the case of cycling they’re mid-life men, bankers, lawyers, and accountants racing to win a pair of socks. There’s no big prize money nor an athletic future at stake.

See a more recent piece from the BBC, Doping in cycling: Why are the amateurs ’emulating the pros’? It looks at a report published by the International Cycling Union (UCI).Written by independent experts and based on a year’s worth of interviews with senior figures from the sport, the Cycling Independent Reform Commission tackles the issue of doping in the amateur ranks. 

“The commission believes doping in amateur cycling is becoming endemic,” the report said.

“This was confirmed by amateur riders, as well as professionals, managers and anti-doping personnel who had exposure to it.

“It has been caused by a combination of ease of access to drugs via gyms and the internet, the reduction in costs, a spread of knowledge in means and methods of administration, and a lack of funding for regular testing at the amateur level.”

Circ’s authors continued by outlining a depressing scene where amateurs sell doping products to pros, and vice-versa, “middle-aged businessmen” charge up on cocktails of prescription drugs to win age-group races, and cheating is now rife in youth cycling as nobody has the resources to police the sport that far down the ladder.

“Some professional riders explained they no longer ride in the gran fondos [timed, long-distance amateur races on closed roads] because they were so competitive due to the number of riders doping,” the report stated.

But according to Susan Backhouse, a world expert on sports psychology and doping, there’s an increasing culture of dangerous performance enhancing drug use among regular everyday athletes of all stripes. I heard Backhouse speak at a sports ethics conference I recently attended, sponsored by the World Anti Doping Agency.

According to Backhouse there are two distinct groups of amateur athletes into doping:

  1. Endurance athletes such as runners and cyclists
  2. Body builders who want to build muscle and lose fat, particularly men.

Why do we care what amateur athletes do? There’s a few reasons, it turns out. Backhouse argued in favour of clean competition at all levels, citing health and fairness reasons, but she’s also worried about amateur doping spilling over into elite sports.

Right now we have a culture where elite athletes are policed regarding drugs but everyday, amateur athletes get a much freer environment.

Imagine a world in which the amateurs start beating the pros due to their doping advantage.

Imagine a world in which you train and train to compete in amateur events and yet you don’t have a chance of winning unless you dope.

Is that the world we’re soon to be in? What measures should we take to avoid it?

Education, sure, but I confess I’m enough of a fan of civil liberties to be dismayed about the infringement of freedom that would come about if we brought the big guns of national and regional anti-doping agencies to bear on amateur sports.

I’m not sure what to think. How about you?

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