Lance Armstrong is the arch-villain of the allegedly extinct era of doping in cycling. The cancer survivor, philanthropist and seven-time winner of the Tour de France has been burned at the stake, both figuratively and literally. (Well, in effigy.)
The king is dead, and so, the logic goes, is his kingdom of doping. ”So ends one of the most sordid chapters in sporting history,” wrote the US Anti-Doping Agency in its dismissal of Armstrong.
Yet the idea that the cycling world has been purged of drugs cheats is almost certainly wrong. The investigation into Armstrong’s cheating revealed the practice was widespread. Of 21 podium finishers in the Tour between 1995 to 2005, 20 have been directly linked to doping.
Armstrong has been stripped of his titles, but his medals will not be reallocated because virtually all the second-placeholders have been found doping at some point in their careers. Doping has for decades been an integral part of cycling, and despite a claim in 2001 by cycling’s governing body that the practice had been eradicated, cyclists continue to be caught. (The US Anti-Doping Agency has also admitted that difficult-to-detect drug products mean ”it is not possible to equate a ‘negative test’ with the absence of doping at the current time”.)
So is it still cheating if everyone is cheating? Well, yes: it is against the rules. But rather than excoriating Armstrong, wouldn’t it be better to ask why everyone is cheating, and why the rules are failing?
I have long argued that doping bans should be relaxed. The present broad-based ban is unenforceable. And it has three perverse effects.
First, it is unsafe. There is no monitoring of the nature, dosing or administration of doping agents. The only pressure is not to get caught. Second, it is unfair to those perhaps few athletes who don’t dope. Third, it is ruining the spectacle of sport and the lives of sportsmen, such as Armstrong.
What would a rational doping policy look like? First, we need to stop all investigations into past doping. We can never fully and fairly investigate who was doping in the past.
Second, we should relax the ban on doping. Much of the fuss in the Tour is related to the use of erythropoietin (EPO – a hormone that controls red blood cell production) and pure human blood.
But we could eliminate this whole problem with the stroke of a pen. If we allowed riders to blood-dope up to a haematocrit level of 50 per cent, where half their blood would be red blood cells, we could administer a cheap, reliable test on all riders. Those over 50 per cent would be out. There would be no more blood doping scandals. Such a level is already accepted by the governing body, the Union Cycliste Internationale, as safe.
What about other drugs, such as steroids and growth hormone?
Three reasons are commonly given for prohibiting performance-enhancing drugs: they are unsafe; pervert the nature and spirit of sport; and they should be banned simply because they enhance performances.
The last reason ought to be dismissed immediately. Modern athletic sport is entirely focused on finding new ways to break old records, and most of the effective methods are legal – and far from ”natural”.
Hypoxic training tents, which simulate the effect of training at high altitude by allowing the blood to carry more oxygen, are legal. Caffeine, which improves reaction time and fights fatigue, is legal.
The first two arguments provide good reason for banning drugs in certain situations. Some drugs do change the nature of a sport. For example, one of the most interesting things about boxing is that boxers need to overcome their fear of being hit to perform well. If they took a drug that eliminated their ability to feel fear, or pain, this aspect of the performance would be eliminated.
Do anabolic steroids and growth hormone make cycling and athletic sports such as running less interesting or challenging? No. Steroids allow athletes to train longer and recover more quickly. Athletes on steroids still have to train hard. If every Olympic sprinter or cyclist were using steroids, it would still be the same sport, just slightly faster.
Finally, there is the argument that drugs are too dangerous. The biggest problem with steroids is that they are obtained illegally, and then administered in secret by athletes who are not trained to identify overuse, or to scale their dose appropriately.
We should put enhancers in the hands of the prescription system.
The moral and legal responsibility for the athlete’s health would be passed from the athlete to the doctor.
Armstrong is not the disease. He is a symptom, and the disease hasn’t been cured. But it is not a disease, it’s a condition: the human condition. To try to be better.
The zero-tolerance ban on drugs is an example of the victory of ideology, wishful thinking, moralism and naivity over ethics and commonsense. Human beings have limitations. Lance Armstrong is no god, but he is also no devil. We should change the rules, and take Armstrong off the bonfire. There will, after all, be more like him.
Julian Savulescu is a director of the Oxford Uehiro Centre for Practical Ethics, and Neuroethics at the University of Oxford
The original release of this article first appeared on the website of Hangzhou Night Net.