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On Doping: Last Thoughts on Sport, Play, and the Difference Between Them

November 12, 2012

I wrote this piece a few weeks ago, immediately after the USADA revelations came out in the mainstream press. It’s far from perfect, but it failed to gain traction in various media outlets. I wonder if it raises too many uncomfortable questions or speculations. 

There’s a lot of rhetoric flying around over the current state of professional cycling—a lot of it very problematic. Either doping is all in the past or it’s something (still) best not talked about. But it seems as though the cyclists themselves remain the lone guilty parties. Over the next few weeks, I want to try to unpackage a lot of this in a series of posts. The following piece serves as my entry into the discussion.

During the summer of 1994, I fulfilled a childhood dream. That July, I stepped onto a soccer field for a professional trial with Oxford United (I haven’t verified this, but I suspect I might be the only academic who ever went to Oxford for the soccer). I didn’t expect to win a professional a contract; rather, I think the trial was more for myself: culminating a youth career with a professional tryout, being able to say that I was good enough to get that far. I loved playing soccer. Some of my earliest recollections involve kicking a ball around my backyard. The trees were hapless defenders; the swing set the opposition goal. This was my preparation: I would represent Canada in five World Cups, starting in 1994 and finishing in 2010 after a successful professional career. My parents wouldn’t let me play on a team until after I had learned to swim, so I raced through three swimming badges in about as many months in order to be ready for the new season. I was seven. Organized soccer was the carrot. And I looked forward to every practice. Every game. My school week revolved around weeknight practices (once, then twice a week) and weekend games. As a teenager, I would wake at the crack of dawn to watch English soccer on television as I polished my boots, anticipating my own game. Soccer was an important part of my adolescence; this I knew: I was a soccer player and nobody could tell me I wasn’t good at it. On the soccer field, I belonged.

My trial in Oxford not only cemented that belief (even if the bolder dream had already waned), but it also served as closure on my soccer career. My youthful dreaming had run its course. It closed, though, on a sour note. As I was training on a pitch outside of Oxford, at the World Cup in the United States, my boyhood hero Diego Maradona tested positive for ephedrine, an illegal substance. He was banned from the World Cup and scapegoated for being a cheat. I was crushed. I cried. Not so much because he had betrayed me, but because of the manner in which he was cast out as a lone sinner. A little bit about my relationship with Maradona: I watched almost every game of the 1986 World Cup in Mexico—the last and only time Canada competed in the final tournament—and the diminutive Argentinian stole the entire show. He was positively brilliant. To my mind, he remains the greatest soccer genius. His magic was intoxicating, his play full of emotion and panache. He was at play, happy. That raw passion and playfulness was why I loved the beautiful game. Four years later, he was overweight and stood listlessly in the middle of the field, but with a single touch here and there he still dictated the game. By 1994, at the beginning of the World Cup, he looked trim and back to his dominant best. It was awesome to see, and not just from a sporting perspective. The troubled Maradona—who faced so much legal and media attention off the field, and was constantly chopped down and fouled by players on it—was back. This was a human drama, a comeback story. He seemed older and more driven—angry, almost—but he still possessed otherworldly skill. Only to be found guilty of cheating and forced to leave the World Cup in shame.

In England, the response to his doping was vitriolic to say the least. In the 1986 World Cup, Maradona had almost singlehandedly dispatched the English, once with a little help from “the hand of God,” and once with the most brilliant goal I have ever seen (worth at least two as far as I’m concerned). Maradona was already a cheat, the English declared, and his doping in 1994 only confirmed it—he could now be properly punished. It was presented as a morality play. But was Maradona more sinner or sinned against? My sadness at his ban had more to do with the fall of a tragic hero than that he had broken the rules. I don’t want to absolve him of wrongdoing, but it seems to me that Maradona’s cheating was more a by-product of the world in which he found himself. The poor son of the Buenos Aires ghetto with this supreme talent found himself almost overwhelmed by his celebrity, unable to cope with his transformation and the counsel he received from people who stood to benefit from his success on the field. On the field, opponents found the only way to slow him down was to cut his legs out from underneath him. This was no game anymore.

I stopped playing soccer shortly after my professional trial. A few months later, I fell in love and in 1997 I became a father. I stopped playing soccer because my priorities shifted, and I have barely played at all in the past decade. I have never missed it. And I do not follow the sport today. Somewhere along the line, soccer shifted from play to something more serious. I always took soccer seriously, but I lost my joy of training, and games were no longer fun. I loved the process of play, the work involved. But by the time I put my boots in my bag and buried them at the back of my garage, it seemed as though winning at any cost was the rule. On a much more modest scale, this was no game anymore.

More recently, I find my exercise in cycling, where I can enjoy the solitary struggle. Cycling can certainly be a social activity, but after years of soccer, something about the solitude of cycling alone appeals to me. The pleasure is derived in a rekindling of the difficult balance of work and play. Technique and fitness on the one hand, but also the sheer exhilaration of freedom the bike affords. This is play. Cycling is about getting up early to fit in a ride and thrilling at the awe-full crispness of the pre-dawn air as I click into my pedals. And the light whizz of the chain as I roll up my street and the tightness across my chest and lungs when I’m confronted with a hill. And then going harder. I ride for me, for fitness, for pleasure. The more I ride, the more I appreciate the nature of cycling aestheticism and technique. But that’s not why I ride.

As a teenager, I read Alan Sillitoe’s The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner, a short story about a boy in juvenile detention who finds solace in running. His story is not dissimilar from a number of accounts—true and fictional—of talented endurance athletes—cyclists and runners—who lose themselves in their discipline as a means of escape. The harder they run/ride, the more they are very evidently running/riding away from something. In that context, it might be worth noting that my rides are always loops and I am intent on returning. But the ride—alone—is a kind of solace. The tragedy of Sillitoe’s story, though, is that his protagonist is presented with an opportunity to get out of detention if he wins a race, thereby gaining prestige for his borstal. He speeds away from the others, but stops just short of the line—to the shock and disappointment of his wardens. Running—and running quickly—is his lone gift, his only escape, and he will not exchange it, even for his freedom. In his running he is free.

In riding I am free, and I have become a total convert to cycling, whose professional scene was dealt a severe blow with the US Anti-Doping Agency’s presentation of its evidence against Lance Armstrong, which has brought with it numerous confessions from a generation of North American cyclists who rode with Armstrong on the US Postal team. Among these is the Canadian Michael Barry, who I have admired as much for his exquisite writing as I have for his lucid pedal stroke. In Le Métier, Barry offers a chilling perspective of the professional cycling world. One of airports, dingy hotels, fatigue, pain. Re-reading passages of his book this week suggest shadows of Barry’s secret and his doping past. Le métier can translate loosely into English as “the job,” but a better translation probably revolves around something like “the trade” or “the craft,” stressing both technique and experience. In Barry’s hands le métier is also something just this side of an addiction. He describes in vivid prose the struggle and agony inherent in professional cycling—the crashes, the hospital rooms, the suffering, the travel, the stress, the exhaustion. Always exhaustion. For the professional cyclist, racing bicycles is not a game and there is no place for Sillitoe’s romantic irreverence. Cold-hearted numbers, dollars, and seconds rule. It’s a beautiful and moving read, Le Métier. And through Barry’s exhaustion, one might infer an almost natural—pragmatic—descent from painkillers and recovery vitamins to EPO, testosterone, and blood transfusions.

I am saddened by the reaction of people both outside the cycling world and inside who dismiss and demonize individual cyclists with accusatory finger-pointing when clearly a much more sinister system of doping in the sport was in place. Twitter is not the right conduit for these discussions, where 140 characters is insufficient for uncovering the nuances behind any individual’s decision to dope or not to dope. The question is not whether or not one athlete or another did or did not cheat. Nor is there a black and white spectrum of morality and betrayal; the line is never that clear, especially the closer you get to the sport. The purity or sanctity of play is not tainted by the actions of a single rider who dopes, but rather by the machine that has systematically turned sport into big business and athletes into commodities. This is where the Armstrong saga gets ugly. Owners, managers, doctors, and team pressures created environments where doping was regimented and commonplace, and aspiring professional riders were shepherded through a well-orchestrated series of steps to the point where doping seemed inevitable, necessary, and maybe not all that bad. I don’t think this excuses doping, but I think it points to the extant pressures that give rise to a culture of doping.

And to that end, maybe cycling is unique not for its widespread problem with performance enhancing drugs, but for the fact that it has done more than any other sport to identify and confront the doping in its midst. Entertain the thought. The soccer I left almost twenty years ago has changed radically. Over ninety minutes, players today cover almost twice as much ground in an average game than Maradona did in 1986. The game is much faster. Hockey, too. American football. While there have been remarkable advances made in sports science in recent years, to profess that doping won’t help in other sports is to stick one’s head in the sand. My instinct is that more extensive and aggressive doping tests in other professional sports would knock down a massive house of cards. If there are advantages to be gained, if there is money to be made—and it pains me to be so cynical—systematic methods of doping will occur, frequently putting the athlete’s health and well-being at risk. And the parallels exist outside of sport. Athletes are not the only people prone to temptation in order to get ahead, and they are often enough as much victims of the necessities of surviving in their métier. The difference is that they are placed in a dubious spotlight and held up to be role models.

My soccer career never got me so far as to be faced with the difficult questions about where exactly the line between love and duty lay—or the line between responsibility to myself or to my employer. For me, ultimately, the tragedy of Diego Maradona was that his genius made this sinister world seem like play until it all came crashing down. For Michael Barry, it stems from the theft of the pleasure he derived from cycling because of le métier. Watching my own children grow up, though, I do worry about how play and process have become secondary to success in all manner of endeavors, even as we go to great lengths to stress the former.

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