Harder, better, faster, stronger

The use of drugs in sport is a common taboo, certainly in the world of professional cycling. Barry Singleton suggests that their legalisation would be a step in the right direction

Three-time Tour de France champion, Alberto Contador, presently awaits a decision which will determine the future of his career. He tested positive for the banned drug Clenbuterol on the final rest day of last year’s tour, which he won. He still insists his inadvertent ingestion of contaminated meat was responsible for the positive test.

A decision by the Spanish Cycling Federation to acquit the rider was appealed to the Court of Arbitration for Sport by the International Cycling Union and World Anti-doping Agency. The verdict will be announced ahead of this year’s Tour de France, but whatever the result, the whole affair has dealt another blow to the sport’s image.

Coverage of professional cycling is now more likely to read like a lesson in pharmacology and forensic medicine than a discussion of training and tactics. Of the last 20 tour winners, only four have not tested positive. One of these four later confessed to using a banned substance, and another was banned for alleged involvement in a doping scandal.

Those who have tested positive have been subject either to sanctions or sustained allegations of drug use. The preceding years since dope testing began don’t fare much better. Overall, winners have tested positive far more often than not.

Not only has the attempt to clean up the sport failed, it must fail. Drugs are getting smarter and smarter and more closely mincing the body’s natural processes makes them more and more difficult to detect. Gene doping is likely to make its debut in professional sports soon – if it hasn’t already – and is only detectable by means of a muscle biopsy.

It’s time we allowed the safe use of performance enhancers in cycling. This isn’t as radical a position as it seems at first. We already allow some the use of certain performance-enhancing drugs and medical interventions – namely caffeine and intravenous nutrition respectively.

Allowing all cyclists access takes care of the most obvious objection – that their use constitutes cheating. But the term ‘safe-doping’ may strike many people as an oxymoron. It shouldn’t. Current policy tends to distinguish along the lines of ‘natural’ and ‘unnatural’. Whether something is natural or unnatural tells you nothing about its safety. The result of abiding by poorly conceived concepts of ‘natural’ and ‘unnatural’ is an inconsistent and confused policy.

A big determinant of an athlete’s performance in an endurance event such as cycling is the ability to deliver oxygen to the muscles. Both EPO and blood-doping raise red-blood cell levels thereby increasing the amount of oxygen in the blood. EPO and blood-doping are banned. However, external technologies like hypoxic air tents or altitude training, which achieve the same effect, are accepted.

There is a danger to an athlete’s health if the concentration of red blood cells is too high. The solution to this is to set a safe level, beyond which athletes will not be allowed to compete. The concentration of red blood cells can be detected cheaply and reliably by a blood test.

Up until now, we have been asking the wrong question – whether something is ‘natural’ or ‘unnatural’. We should be asking whether something is safe or unsafe. There will of course be unsafe drugs, and we will have to continue to try and eradicate them. Concentrating limited resources on fewer substances will mean a more successful ban than we have currently.

The big objection is that the use of performance enhancers is against the spirit of the tour. Even a superficial glance at its history shows this to be false. Since its inception, athletes have resorted to everything from alcohol to cocaine in order to cope.

As philosopher Julian Savelscu noted that a vision of sport that seeks to reward those with the greatest natural ability makes the sport no different from a dog or horse race. Humans are different to dogs and horses. We have the ability to exercise judgment. We already make decisions as to our diet, training and tactics and therefore, we should be allowed to choose what substances to take as well, provided they are safe.

The greatest performance enhancer of all is easy to overlook: the bicycle itself. When it comes down to it, the bicycle is an artificial means of enhancing the efficiency of human locomotion. It enables us to go faster and further than if we were to use our legs alone. And it brings its own risks as we could fall off and be injured, or in rare cases even killed.

Legalising the use of performance enhancers in cycling is not merely the least bad solution – but a positively good one. We should welcome performance enhancers, just like we welcome more aerodynamic bikes, better training regimes and so on.

Riders race not only against each other, but also against the ghosts of the great riders of the past. The aim should be to go faster than ever before.