Monday I wrote part 1 of my commentary regarding Vaughters’ opinion piece in the NYT, here’s part 2.
Aside from the personal experience he’s had, the key subject of the article was that it’s important to keep up the anti-doping efforts. Athletes just want a level playing field, if they think they have that they won’t cheat. The goal is to never put the athlete in the position where they have to choose between giving up their dream or doping, to create an environment where this is simply not an issue.
I thought the article was a bit lean on specifics of how that was to be achieved so there isn’t that much to comment on.
In my opinion, it’s a bit too simplistic that athletes don’t want to cheat and only want a level playing field. There’s good research that most people will cheat a little when given the chance (The (honest) truth about dishonesty from Dan Ariely is very interesting and an easy read on this topic).
But it’s probably true that most people don’t want to mess around with needles and blood bags unless their environment encourages it and makes it feel “normal”. The choice to cheat seems to come from two sources which reinforce each other:
- The overall athlete population (the playing field). If the top-100 dope then you have to resign to coming 101st or dope or quit.
- Your immediate surrounding (your parents, trainers, and in particular: your team). Does this environment try to keep you on the right path or offer you the doping “solution”. This doesn’t mean the athlete is not responsible for their own actions, but it would be silly to deny that people are influenced by other people.
Surroundings that discourage doping have always existed in cycling. Even in the dark years when “everybody was doping”, some riders and in fact entire teams were not. There is the famous chat session between Vaughters and Andreu from mid-2005 where the former explains that Credit Agricole was completely clean (“believe me, as carzy [sic] as it sounds – Moreau was on nothing. Hct of 39%”). The whole chat is an interesting read.
The playing field you can affect in two ways:
- Hunt the dopers. This is what most anti-doping efforts are based on, with doping tests in- and out-of-competition, whereabouts, internal team tests, biological passports, etc. One can argue about the effectiveness.
- Increase the number of immediate environments that are clean. If there are five clean teams on a playing field with 20 teams, that playing field isn’t very level. And dopers don’t really stand out. If 15 out of 20 are clean, it’s much easier to pick out the cheaters and there is enough mental support within the clean group to sustain the effort.
With regards to hunting the dopers, despite all its shortcomings, cycling has done a reasonable job. Especially in comparison to other sports. But if Vaughters truly finds it important to keep pushing these anti-doping efforts, then it’s hard to understand why fewer and fewer teams hire independent testers like Don Catlin to really find out what their riders are doing. Or why no team makes any public statements regarding the effectiveness (or lack thereof) of the biological passport and other efforts. Especially since Vaughters is the president of the team association AIGCP, you would expect him to spend more time talking about these issues.
One gets the feeling the teams don’t mind paying for the bulk of the program as a marketing exercise and are not too concerned how effective it is. That may very well be a general anti-doping problem – how do you prevent the athletes from always being one step ahead.
Unfortunately I don’t know the answer, but the closer you monitor, the more you restrict the doping practices and therefore level the playing field (some may still be doping but less, for a reduced gain, and therefore the clean athlete has a better chance).
As for the number of teams that are clean, there’s definitely been an improvement too. But it’s hard to know if they have been responding to the testing or if the teams are true believers. especially because many of the people are still the same as in the dark years, it’s fair to have your doubts.