Beyond a simple explanation of doping

24 May 2010 Posted by

Taking an integrated approach and looking beyond the physiology

First of all, who watched the Giro stage on Sunday up the Zoncolan?  If we put down the the debate about doping for just a second, and examine the stage out of the doping context, it was epic.  The final climb up the Zoncolan was insane, and more so when you consider that they did things like 4.3 km at nearly 10% average before hitting the Zoncolan—which averaged 11.8% and had sections of 20-22%.  Ivan Basso prevailed, dropping Cadel Evans about halfway up the climb.  You know the guys are going slow (and therefore the gradient steep) when the spectators are practically walking alongside then cheering!

Anyway, we had plenty of feedback from our posts on Floyd Landis’ admission to doping and his naming names.  One reader commented that our coverage sounded more like the “Psychology of Sport” than the Science of Sport.  But in fact he was exactly right.  The issue is that to really understand exercise performance and the physiology behind it, you have to take an integrated approach.  By that I mean that we cannot simply say that is low muscle glycogen concentrations alone that cause fatigue during endurance exercise, but instead that factor is one of many “inputs” that lead the the slowing down we see during that type of exercise.  (For the full explanation, check our series on Fatigue.)

In a similar manner, to understand and explain doping we also must take an integrated approach.  The physiology is but one piece of the puzzle, and we try to understand what the effects of certain substances are on performance, the characteristics of the muscle, the effects on the brain, etc.  But beyond that you also have to consider the psychology of the athlete and the culture of the given sport (the “Social Science of Sport,” perhaps?).

The culture of cycling:  omerta is enforced directly and indirectly

In cycling the rule of silence, or omerta, has been well known for decades.  We all know the colloquialism, “spitting in the soup,” referring to cyclists that vocalize their concerns about doping or who admit to it and name names.  Therefore this force works to keep many from speaking up about what they did or saw, because to do so will immediately make you a pariah and might eliminate your chances of working in the sport.  When one considers the typical European cyclist (i.e. most of the pro peloton), who are these individuals?  To go back to the “social science of sport,” typically they have no formal training, probably no advanced degrees, and as a consequence have few options upon retiring from the peloton.

The one option they likely do have, though, is remaining in the sport, perhaps as a coach, team director, or serving a pro team in some regard.  In this way the omerta serves to keep them quiet because speaking up will almost certainly eliminate their chances of working in the sport, which might be their best chance at a very decent living.  Cycling is the sport they love and therefore want to be a part of, and by the time they retire from the peloton it is probably all they know, having spent a sizable proportion of their lives to that point in the saddle.

Perhaps it is the result of omerta or perhaps from something else, but I am amazed that since Trevor Graham mailed a used syringe was sent to USADA and started an investigation that would lead to the BALCO scandal, not one cyclist has banked some used supplies, photos, or other evidence to help protect himself down the line.  In the age of cell phone cameras it would be relatively easy, it seems, to photograph or record people in the act to help corroborate a story at later time.  What if Landis had taken photos or salvaged a part of the medical equipment that might contain DNA when he was allegedly left at Armstrong’s house for a few weeks to look after their blood in the closet fridge?

The psychology of a cheat – psychopath or just bad judgment?

Although we are not trained psychologists, it is possible to understand how the psychological component is expressed in doping.  I will rely on the psychologists in the audience to chime in and correct me where applicable!  First let me say, however, that everyone does indeed have choices, and no one is forcing athletes to dope.  The reasons why one chooses this path are varied, and we hear admitted dopers like David Millar and now Landis talk about making changes so younger athletes are not faced with the kinds of choices they were—namely, start doping or retire from the sport because you cannot compete in spite of your best efforts.  That might simply be considered bad judgment, because the logical choice should to go ahead and retire rather than compromise one’s ethics and morals.

Taken together with the “Prisoner’s Dilemma” described by Michael Shermer in his Scientific American article, these athletes realize that the risk of getting caught is far less than than the benefits to be gained by doping, and therefore it becomes a rational choice to adopt a doping program.

But based on the information I have, I classify dopers into at least two categories.  First are the ones mentioned above, the ones trying to survive, trying to keep their contract.  In cycling these are the athletes doping simply to be able to do their jobs as domestiques for their teams.  They are not interested in getting to the pinnacle of the sport, but might enjoy the occasional stage win in a Grand Tour because this adds value to your profile as a cyclist and helps you “survive” by getting another contract.  These are the ones who, when caught with a positive sample, mostly suck it up, refuse the “B” sample analysis, which is an admission in and of itself, and either retire from the sport or serve their ban.

The other category contains the champions, the athletes willing to do practically whatever it takes to get to the top of the their sport.  For them winning might even be a positive consequence of annihilating the competition.  Think of the angry, macho athlete, in contrast to the quiet but humble champions.  I am not saying the the quiet types are not doping, but rather that they have better control of their behaviour and can keep their mouths shut.

In this category we find the athletes who deny, deny, deny, often making grand public statements declaring their innocence.  It is possible that in their own minds they do not believe they are doing anything wrong.  This might be the result of their psyche or the rationalization of their behaviour along the lines of, “I see all the others doing it, so I am just leveling the playing field, and therefore it is not cheating.”  One striking feature of many convicted dopers is, looking back, we ask ourselves how these people can sit there and lie and lie and lie to the camera, and this is one explanation—that they do not even perceive themselves to be lying.

Psychopathy as a contributing factor for success?

One final point here is that perhaps those who express some degree of psychopathy are more likely to achieve greatness in their given sport (or profession), because these individuals are often willing to climb over anyone and do anything to get to the top.  Keep in mind that I am not saying all champions are psychopaths!  Rather, I am saying that the lack of traits such empathy, for one, will be a contributing factor that “allows” an athlete to strive to demolish the competition.  Again, the idea of winning being a positive consequence of beating the pants off the competition.

To use an example outside of cycling, think about Tiger Woods.  Especially for those who might not follow golf closely, myself included, he seems like the consummate “nice guy” champion.  Then came the scandal at the end of 2009, and suddenly we see that perhaps he is not such a nice guy after all, but again, this might help explain why he has achieved what he has.

To be sure, this is an oversimplification of these issues.  But part of the point I am trying to make is that it is indeed a complex series of issues, and to understand doping fully we must try to understand all of them.  Physiology is part of it, but only a part, and so we must think about these other “sciences” if we really want to understand the problem fully.

On the horizon – Comrades!

Meanwhile, This Sunday 30 May is the Comrades Marathon.  It is televised in full each year in South Africa, but unfortunately Ross is in the UK with the South African Sevens team, so we will not be doing any live updates on the day and will have to rely on other sources for any analysis.  For American running fans, Josh Cox is running, although I do not rate his chances for the win at all.  We mentioned a few posts on ultra-marathons recently, and I hope to deliver a couple of those this week prior to Comrades.  For now there is plenty of racing left in the Giro with a few cyclists still in contention for the maglia rosa—be sure to watch the mountain time trial on Tuesday!