Doping and Lance Armstrong

Even if I am not a cyclist, I am eagerly awaiting the airing this Thursday of Lance Armstrong’s interview with talk show host Oprah Winfrey. I’m keen to know how the 7-time Tour de France champion will finally confess to using performance-enhancing drugs and other doping methods to help him win the yellow jerseys that he still proudly displays in his living room. Tour officials decided a few months ago to strip him of all the titles he had won at the cycling world’s most famous tournament.  He has also been banned for life from professional cycling. We are told that he wants the ban lifted so he could compete in triathlons.

Armstrong has remained quietly defiant all this time. The US Anti-Doping Agency (Usada) is moving to charge him to make him pay back the money he had earned from his dubious victories. In addition to the possibility that he may lose his entire fortune, estimated at $100 million, he may also land in jail. Having survived advanced-stage cancer when he was in his 20s, the 41-year-old enigmatic icon of the sporting world is once again fighting for his life but, this time, without the world rooting for him.

Outside of sports, doping remains a vague idea. We hear about it when officials at sporting events randomly take urine samples from athletes to search for traces of performance-enhancing drugs. Ordinary people do not know how doping is done, what its forms are, how it works, how detection is avoided, and why it is regarded as the biggest curse in the world of sports.

The problem is so pervasive and corrosive of the ethos of fair competition that global concern has given birth to a World Anti-Doping Agency (Wada). The principal objective of this organization is to get countries to accept, implement, and comply with the World Anti-Doping Code, which was unanimously approved in 2003. The Philippines is committed to enforce the code, following its ratification of the Unesco’s International Convention against Doping in Sport.

I wasn’t aware of the concerted international effort to confront this global scourge in sports until some months ago, after I listened to a presentation by Dr. Alejandro V. Pineda, the Philippine Sports Commission’s head for doping control. Pineda defines doping as the “use of physiological substances in abnormal amount and of abnormal methods, with the exclusive aim of attaining an artificial and unfair increase of performance in competition.” He says that doping has become so sophisticated in the last decade that detection has become complicated. Indeed, in some cases like Armstrong’s, urine samples are indefinitely kept frozen until more precise methods of detecting traces of prohibited substances are invented. Tackling the problem, Pineda argues, has to begin by instilling awareness of the effects and risks of doping among students at an early age.

The odds are clearly stacked against the enforcers of the code. Picture a highly-valued sports event like the Olympics, where medals become the signifiers not just of the prowess of individual athletes but of national power, and we get an idea of what happens when sports and politics intertwine. Some governments will stop at nothing to make their athletes win.  Or imagine professional cycling and boxing, where a champion’s jersey or belt carries with it not just fabulous prize money but also the promise of commercial endorsements and corporate sponsorships, and we get an idea of the decisive role that doping can play when economics commands sports. A conspiracy involving athletes, doctors, sports officials, governments and corporations will make it nearly impossible to stop doping.

It took six years before the American track star Marion Jones, winner of three gold medals and two bronzes at the 2000 Summer Olympics in Sydney, Australia, would admit that she took steroids. Yet, even after making this admission, she continued to deny that she did so to enhance her performance. The standard excuse is to pass these off as “nutritional supplements.”

But of the world’s most prominent athletes, no one has been more single-mindedly pursued for doping than Armstrong. People say he has such a willful and abrasive personality that you can only worship him or hate him. The fierce determination he shows in training as in actual competition makes him a figure of emulation as well as of envy. Those who doubt his victories might well be just envious, and indeed this is how he thinks of those who accuse him of doping.

Unfortunately for Armstrong, fierce determination is a trait he shares with Richard Young, a lawyer from the Usada. It was Young who doggedly built the case against Armstrong, deploying over 10 years the type of relentlessness that is usually reserved only for enemies of the state. This was a live American hero he was pursuing, and he knew he was going against public opinion.

Last year, Young concluded, based on testimonies given by Armstrong’s former teammates in the US Postal Service racing team, that the cycling hero owed his victories to a secretive and elaborate doping system. Yet, his doping toolkit seemed pretty standard. It included the use of growth hormones and testosterone for muscle-building, and cortisone and actovegin, erythropoietin or EPO, and re-infusion of one’s own blood to improve oxygen supply from red blood cells. What appears elaborate is the way the doping was carried out to elude detection, especially abroad during competition.

Nothing is more disheartening than the sight of a fallen hero. One aches for those days when a medal won at sports was but a bonus, because the athlete’s real reward lay in the natural conquest of his body’s limits through discipline.