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The Cycle Of Cheating

Jan 21, 2013

Lance Armstrong's too-little, too-late confession provoked widespread condemnation of the cheating cyclist; here's some perspective with a swimming bent guest writer Chuck Warner on why the anti-doping regime is not working as it should

Lance Armstrong wrote a book called, “It’s Not About The Bike.” He may be right, but this latest scandal is about the cycle…the cycle of cheating. 

At the NYU - Harvard volleyball game Saturday a straight white strip stretched tightly across the top of the net, drawing an exacting line that depicts on which side the regulation ball could be played by NYU and which side could be played by Harvard. An official stood on an elevated platform sighting that line and making precise human judgments whether a ball was hit on the side of the Purple or the Crimson. 

Unlike life, the beauty of sport is that it’s clear rules of playing the game beckons the strong of heart to discover more about themselves through the experience. The other night Lance Armstrong called this equal opportunity what so many have come to know it, as “a level playing field.” To Armstrong he competed in a sport where using a performance enhancing “cocktail” was “as common as putting air in your tires, or filling your water bottle.” 

Through his success and image the Armstrong brand had become more wealthy and powerful than the very organizations that allegedly tried to keep the cycling playing field level. He explained the day he lost his sponsors last week as a “75 million dollar day.” Perhaps he could have kept fighting the World Anti-Drug Association (WADA) in court and held them at bay to continue the charade that he had never doped. Ultimately, it wasn’t WADA or the United States Anti-Drug Association that exposed him with a drug test during any of his Tour de France victories. But eight years later it is ten ex-teammates prepared to testify against him and perhaps even more importantly his 13-year old son that has brought forth the truth. 

There are sports fans that don’t see the effect of performing enhancing drugs on their own children and shrug their shoulders at their use. In a speech at the University of Montana in 2010, ESPN broadcaster Brent Musburger, said, "I've had somebody say that, you know, steroids should be banned because they're not healthy for you," he told the students. "Let's go find out. What do the doctors actually think about anabolic steroids and the use by athletes? Don't have a preconceived notion that this is right or this is wrong."

To many of us in sports this an incredible point of view. Would Musburger, and the others that share his opinion, be comfortable with his or their grandchildren or  children taking steroids if that’s what was required to adopt a ‘level playing field’ in their chosen sport? Wouldn’t the number of people who have already died from the after effects of such drugs or suicides from depression following their regular use be testimony enough to change their minds?

Competitive swimming has battled to maintain as much integrity in the principle that an athlete’s training and racing investment determine their outcome in competition. Leaders in the sport have been vigilant about shining a light on those that have all the earmarks of cheating. But there is frustration at the infertile effectiveness of WADA and USADA despite the heavy investment of dollars in their organization of  28 and 14 million dollar annual budgets. 

World Swimming Coaches Association (WSCA) President George Block shares his view, “We are buying the public relations veneer of science and we are supporting a massive, and expanding, outmoded drug testing complex.”

WSCA has suggested solutions.

In 1994, they made three recommendations to WADA and USDA that have yet to be successfully implemented:

Maintain a current testing system. In other words, keep up with those that are scientifically enhancing performance, by aggressively learning testing protocols that can expose them. 

Create a system of an athlete’s Passport. Two years prior to competing in a world championship or Olympics an athlete would have to regularly and frequently submit to blood and urine testing. This would help to expose changes in the metabolic system that would take place if performing enhancing drugs were introduced into an athlete’s body.

Athlete Responsibility.  The athlete would be responsible to keep their Passport to compete current, just as any international traveler would. Instead of WADA staff flying around the world, and knocking on doors, to test athletes, WSCA suggests the establishment of centers for the athletes to go to where they would be tested. 

Coach Block goes on to say, “The sports drug testing scientists have become a part of the political and economic ecosystem of sports today.  They make huge sums of money to do the testing, and then get appointed to the sports science committees that decide they should do more testing and get paid more money.  In every nation - and internationally - the testers have a seat at the political decision-making table.  They are at the trough and they get to tell the farmer to feed them more.  It is a huge conflict of interests that leads to a complete lack of performance accountability.

In any other area of sports would constant failure be rewarded?... It is interesting that failure in drug testing isn't only tolerated, it is rewarded.”

In many sports the cheating is ramped, with seemingly only the inept getting caught. In those sports kids are provided the incentive to level the playing field by joining  program of performance enhancing drugs. 

Each person that viewed Armstrong’s interview can interpret his words and body language and decide what to believe. But having your son defending your lies because he believes in his father and his father’s honesty seemed to be the ultimate humiliation for the cyclist - and one that he couldn’t bear. 

Oprah Winfrey said that she hopes the moral of this story is that, “ the truth will set you free”. 

I hope not. A better moral might be: “The cycle of cheating must stop or our children will be bound to it.” 

Perhaps Armstrong’s exposure and admission of guilt will allow his son to be a cyclist one day, and learn from the sport what’s inside him without the temptation to acquire a PED cocktail to be a champion. 

If we required accountability by our ‘chemical referees’ to our sports organizations that experience might be in the future for all our children.  

Follow Chuck Warner, author of ...And Then They Won Gold: Stepping Stones To Swimming Excellence on twitter @chuckwarner1.