Sunday 22 July 2012

NOT doping in the Tour de France: Bradley Wiggins, Chris Froome and Mark Cavendish

So for the 2nd year running the Tour de France is going to be won by a clean cyclist with no taint of a doping history. Of course as a Brit, I am really proud of these guys and Team Sky’s achievements. Not forgetting the mastermind that is Dave Brailsford who managed the whole process from start to finish (on a side note I also think that David Millar’s success on this tour sends a good message that redemption post doping is possible).

I was pondering what to write other than praise for these guys and I thought I could reflect on the words of Dave Brailsford. I remember reading somewhere that he disliked doping because it made people lazy as they could cut corners in preparation. This chimes with some of the ideas I explored in my book. I argued in many cases doping could increase the number of people able to get close to the best times, but it doesn’t necessarily improve those times. You cannot automatically assume to run or cycle the fastest time requires doping.

There are some notable exceptions to this rule. Anabolic steroids enhancing the performance of female athletes in power events is likely to be one of them. And far be it from me to go against Brailsford, but I think if done effectively blood doping would probably have some influence in the Tour de France. The most obvious area is topping up the red blood cells that get lost during the race. Elite athletes turn over their red blood cells much quicker than us mere more mortals. If they exercise continuously the number of red cells will diminish, as will the body’s ability to carry oxygen effectively. On a rest day topping up with a pint of blood would likely enhance performance. And we know from diaries obtained from some dopers that that is exactly what they do.

So maybe we should make it legal for ALL cyclists to have a one pint top up on the rest day. No more, no less. Maybe this would level the playing field; even fewer people would attempt to dope as it would give much less additional benefit. Thinking about what this idea look like in practice goes to the heart of why doping is banned. How would you feel if all the Tour de France athletes lined up at a medical centre to have a blood transfusion on their rest day? Would you feel this demeaned sport and set a bad example? Or would you just think, given the extreme requirements for training and competition anyway, this was nothing really to worry about?

I have to say that I personally feel uncomfortable with athletes refueling at blood transfusion stations on a rest day in the same way that racing cars refuel with petrol/gas during a pit stop. It just feels wrong somehow. I can’t make a particularly reasoned argument as to why I have this feeling. But maybe this is fine. The rules of sport are arbitrary; we are allowed to make them as a consequence of an emotional feeling. Most people don’t feel uneasy about some using the drug caffeine to enhance performance. So it is not banned. The same does not hold for anabolic steroids. Hence they are banned. 


  1. I guess the unease comes from a bias: we have an image of the body in its integrity, and whatever affects this integrity is bad. Being hit by a spear is bad, because it changes (for worse) our body. So everything that "enters" in our bodies could be bad.
    Putting a needle into a body is equally bad, it changes a pure image of the body. Drinking a coffee or a tea (ok, a huge quantity of them, in order to reach the amount of caffeine needed without taking it in pills...) does not. But ask people if they would feel uneasy if an athlete takes caffeine drip-feeded.

    Obviously, being a bias, there couldn't be any argument in favor of it.

  2. Dear Alex,

    Thanks for your interesting post. I take your point and mostly agree with it. Of course you CAN make a sound argument to ban blood doping. For example it is a medical procedure that requires a doctor to administer. But there is no clinical need for it and there is a finite risk in any transfusion (even autologous). So is the doctor ethically justified in administering the blood? Secondly encouraging this activity, even in a controlled environment will make it even more likely that other athletes might try it in a less safe, uncontrolled manner.

    The point I was making that I still feel uneasy even if these arguments were not valid. I think this would be true for many people. I don't see problem with this. We can make what rules we like for sport to suit the sort of spectacle we want to see.