Tom Murray is president emeritus of the Hastings Center, a nonpartisan research institute focused on bioethics, and a visiting scholar at Yale. He chairs the ethical issues committee of the World Anti-Doping Agency.
Day after day, it seems, more top cyclists who competed in the sport’s peak doping era are admitting they broke the rules. The cult of omerta has at last been broken. Lance Armstrong’s supporters are running out of plausible defenses. His recent photo of himself reclining in front of his seven framed Tour de France jerseys is more sad than defiant: He’s been stripped of the championship titles they once represented. The facts laid out in the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency’s decision and the affidavits by his former teammates cut off just about every avenue of escape.
Except one. Some critics say the problem isn’t athletes who break the rules but the rules themselves — specifically, the prohibition on doping. They argue that using performance-enhancing technologies such as the blood-boosting hormone EPO, testosterone and blood transfusions would not be cheating if they were not prohibited. True. And some even celebrate athletes transformed by technology. But these critics don’t understand two essential truths about sport.
Statements by cyclists such as Dave Zabriskie or Tyler Hamilton, in his book “The Secret Race,” help clarify the stakes. More than 30 years of conversations with elite athletes have made clear to me what happens: Exceptionally talented young athletes rise through the ranks, eager to reach the top. Some get tantalizingly close, only to discover that success and acceptance mean doing what their competitors are doing.
For a sad era in cycling, from the late 1980s to 2008, it meant doping. Hamilton described a grooming process: Once he was offered one of the drug-filled “white bags” that team leaders were given, it was a sign that he’d arrived. Other cyclists have described pressures to conform to the team leader’s demands. For the U.S. Postal Service team, that often meant paying for the services of the notorious Italian physician and doping expert Michele Ferrari.
The math is straightforward. The difference between standing on the podium and straggling in with the peloton may be 1 or 2 percent in terms of performance. When drugs and blood transfusions provide a 5 or 10 percent advantage, athletes who refuse to dope when others do are making a choice. It’s an honorable choice, but it diminishes their hope of winning or simply staying on a team.
The first hard truth about elite sport is that its relentless competitiveness, and the tiny margins that separate winners from also-rans, press athletes not to surrender anything that gives them an edge. If the skeptics had their way, any permissible thing that provided an advantage — EPO, transfusions and more — would immediately become the absolute minimum for all serious elite athletes in a given sport. And there is no reason to believe athletes would stop there. Wherever the line is drawn, some athletes will venture to the other side.
The doubters have to make a choice. Either everything will be allowed, probably with serious consequences for the health of elite athletes and those who aspire to be like them, or some forms of doping will continue to be banned, which means there will still be rules to be monitored, enforced — and broken.
The second truth about sport is more fundamental. Any thoughtful person who plays a sport understands the connection among talent, dedication and excellence. Every sport sets limits (with the possible exception of Calvinball, whose only rule is that you can’t have the same rules twice). Professional golfers are not allowed to use clubs that make it easy to hit out of the rough or balls that fly straight rather than hooking or slicing. Major leaguers must use wooden, not metal, bats. Sports don’t make it easy.
Some rules seem especially arbitrary. A baseball pitcher’s rubber is 60 feet 6 inches from home plate. Why? Because it works. Because it sustains the wonderful tension between pitcher and batter, even if adjustments have to be made to the size of the strike zone or the height of the mound (as in 1968, when pitchers such as Bob Gibson and Don Drysdale dominated). When the rules of a sport are grounded in whatever varieties of excellence that particular sport values, they’re not arbitrary in a bad way. In fact, they’re necessary.
I’m an amateur cyclist. I don’t race, but I do set challenges for myself. Would EPO or blood transfusions allow me to go faster and farther? Sure. An electric motor on my bike would work even better. But what’s the point? The meaning of cycling, like the meaning of every sport worth the name, is in the values it fosters, the particular forms of human excellence it exhibits and the dedication each individual shows in perfecting his or her natural talents. The rules against doping remind us what’s valuable about sport. They help us remember why we play.