Human Limits

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

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The Post Lance Future of Doping

I have gotten a lot of e-mails and chatted with a number of friends about the future of sports doping post Lance and Oprah.   Here is a sample of what has come up.

The Future of Doping?  A couple of people sent me a link to a New York Times piece on doping in the 21st century.    Among other things this piece talks about so-called gene doping and other high tech approaches to doping.  I am a bit skeptical in the short run because literally billions of dollars have been spent on gene therapy for medical conditions like cystic fibrosis with limited success.   So when gene therapy becomes a reality in clinical medicine we can maybe revisit the possibility of gene-doping in sports.

The 1% Solution?  Most people, including journalists, fail to understand that a 1% edge in something like a 10,000m running race means the doper wins by 100m, a huge margin.   This also means that there is no need to use industrial strength doping.  Thus doses of things like EPO and steroids can be given at levels beneath the threshold of detection with any imaginable drug testing technology.    A number of people, and I am one of them, are shocked that anyone fails a drug test given how beatable they are.   The low rates of positive tests at things like the Olympics can be seen as proof that testing is working or proof that testing is beatable.  Perhaps it is some of both.

Brand Protection vs. Drug Testing?  Some argue that all the sports federations, leagues, sponsors and TV networks want is the appearance of clean play and that depending on the situation they intentionally or unintentionally turn a blind eye toward doping.   The idea is that if they really cracked down, all sorts of people would have to be suspended, and the “product” would be second rate.  The best example used to support this reasoning is the widespread suspicion that management tolerated or even tacitly encouraged steroid use in Major League Baseball in the late 1990s after the 1994-95 baseball strike.   Was doping part of a pact of ignorance designed to generate home run records and get fans back in the stands?

How Many Tours Would Lance Have Won Without Doping?  The short answer is who knows.   The Tour de France is a long and brutal three week race that lasts about 90 hours with margins of victory of only a few minutes.   Additionally, perhaps only 5 to 10 of these hours are typically decisive.   So to win, the champion must be lucky and not crash, have a team to protect him on the long boring stages, and then do well in the time trials and on a limited number of the steepest climbs.  Time trialing and steep climbing are especially sensitive to something called VO2 max and this is where EPO use or blood doping would make the biggest physiological difference.   So Lance appears to have had the best doped team, best able to protect him and his doping strategy was optimized for the critical stages.   However, based on what others have said he also trained like a maniac and left nothing to chance.   So again, who knows……. he might have won several but I doubt seven in a row.

The Level Playing Field?  Everyone was doping therefore it is “dope or be marginalized”, that is more or less one of the arguments Lance made to Oprah.   Just like the average person and journalist do not understand what 1% is worth, most don’t understand what it is to be immersed in a micro-culture where the only things that matter are the last race or workout or the next race or workout.   So the temptation to dope is immense.  The 1968 Boston Marathon champ Amby Burfoot has recently commented on this and wondered whether he would have doped back in the day.   I applaud Amby for being so honest.

What Next For Lance?  I see three paths:

  1. He gets caught in a downward spiral of lawsuits and legal proceedings over the next few years and his downfall is complete and might include prison time.
  2. He drifts into irrelevancy and perhaps ends up on a reality TV show for faded celebrities down the road.
  3. He names his enablers, has a protracted apology tour, settles the lawsuits and is back in business one way or another.

If I were betting, I would bet on number three.  Never underestimate someone as driven as Lance Armstrong.


2 Responses to “The Post Lance Future of Doping”

  1. January 28th, 2013 at 1:33 pm

    Darren says:

    Mike….you pose the question “Was doping part of a pact of ignorance designed to generate home run records and get fans back in the stands?” The answer to this question is ABSOLUTELY. The owners did whatever they needed to in order to get fans back in the seats and generate more money………no matter if it dirtied the sport. Now they want to clean up the sport and blame the players for ruining the game.

    Remember “Chicks dig the longball”? …..Nike Commercial 2006

  2. January 31st, 2013 at 12:08 pm

    Doping and Finance – Similar? « D2 Ventures says:

    […] reading the “Post Lance Future of Doping” by my friend Michael Joyner, I took a moment to realize how similar the entire “doping […]

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