Human Limits

Exploring performance and health with Michael J. Joyner, M.D.

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Doping: A Reading List

I mentioned on Monday that I was at the Integrative Biology of Exercise meeting last week.   One of the topics of hallway conversation was the release of the USADA report on Lance Armstrong and the rampant doping in Cycling during the time he won seven Tour de France races in a row.   It turns out that one of the most popular books my colleagues and I were reading on the plane to the meeting was “The Secret Race” by Tyler Hamilton and Daniel Coyle.  Hamilton was one of the world class cyclists who spilled the beans to USADA.

I discussed the ”geopolitics” of Lance situation in detail last summer, but the Hamilton book gives a broader perspective on the problem of doping.   It describes in detail how an earnest and ambitious young athlete gets into the highest level of cycling.   How the super talented find themselves in the middle of the pack.   How a moment or a few moments of truth occur and it is either continue to chase your dreams and dope, or go home and join the real world.   The decision to dope is of course made easier if everyone is doing it,  and who can expect the super competitive to simply unilaterally disarm and simply give up.  The book also describes how it was relatively easy to beat drug testing with a little bit of planning, corrupt doctors, and cash.

As I read to the book I thought back to the time to the late 1970s when I was sometimes running 100 miles per week or more.   Prior to my personal best marathon I ran 522 miles in four weeks before tapering.  Essentially my entire life revolved around training, all my friends and peers were runners, and I was certainly willing to pay a big price to improve.  My only distraction was going to class.   That having been said I wonder if I had been in a corrupt culture with corrupt coaches and big money on the line if I would have doped?    If everyone is doing it, is it really wrong?  I hope I would have said no, but who knows.

As things have emerged over the years it is also pretty obvious that we live in an ergogenic world full of plastic surgery, Botox, Viagra, doping to improve grades, and various anti-aging potions.    Is everyone looking for success in a bottle, a pill, or via a syringe?   Why should elite sport be different than the rest of the world?

That having been said, I recommend two other books for those who want to understand more about doping.   The first is “Game of Shadows” from 2007.  This book details the Barry Bonds case and the BALCO scandal.   In addition to exploring the logistics of sports doping and what motivates athletes to dope, the book raises important questions about what the “authorities” who oversee sports leagues and organizations really want.   Are they concerned with clean competition?   Or, is about brand protection and the appearance of clean competition so that sponsors and general public don’t turn away if things look too overtly corrupt?  Yesterday Lance Armstrong lost most of his major sponsors and stepped down as chairman of his foundation.   Were these acts of organizations interested in doing the right thing or brand protection?

The second book is “Muscle: Confessions of an Unlikely Bodybuilder” by Sam Fussell.  Fussell was essentially a “95 pound” weakling/intellectual with degrees from several top universities who got involved in bodybuilding and went all in.   The book describes how it is possible for an otherwise thoughtful and intelligent person to descend into an athletic subculture and do just about anything to improve.   It is a cult classic, and I highly recommend it.



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