For some reason, I don’t really feel like writing about my return to MTB racing at the moment. That will have to wait until tomorrow.
However, today’s media shitstorm about Floyd Landis’ international arrest warrant has reminded me that I’ve been meaning to write about the topic of doping for some time.
In particular, I want to address the fact that professional cycling receives an inordinate amount of media coverage because of performance enhancing drug use.
On a recent road trip, my friend Joe and I conversed about the topic of doping in various sports. Joe is an all-around athletic guy, a semi-serious runner, and a dabbler in all things cycling; therefore, he’s well-equipped to understand the topic of doping, but naive enough to ask the hard questions.
The conversation began with the following question, posed by Joe:
“Do you think that all the top professional distance runners are doping?
He continued by saying,
“I mean, the general perception is that all professional cyclists are dopers, but what about runners? For some reason I’m predisposed to think that distance runners are clean.”
He went on to name some specific top-end runners that he believed to be clean; I was surprised to find that his impressions were based on what I’ll call the “Tyler Hamilton Effect.”
The Tyler Hamilton Effect (ca. 2003) is the appearance of innocence due to superficial demonstrations of character: soft-spoken behavior, a charming smile, a love of puppies and babies, a seemingly stable family life, and a generally likable demeanor during interviews. I once had a friend who insisted that Tyler Hamilton was clean when he first became an international superstar, based solely on the fact that he had a wife that he loved and a big, lovable dog; feeble excuses about phantom twin fetuses aside, it’s safe to say that Tyler Hamilton was not clean.
While Joe admitted that his beliefs about distance runners were not based entirely on fact, he also countered my skepticism with the argument that professional runners don’t show up in mainstream media for doping offenses nearly as often as cyclists.
I must admit that Joe is right: cyclists’ doping offenses are reported much more often than any other sport.
That brings me to the heart of this post. I’ve always been bothered by the fact that cycling has garnered an inappropriately negative reputation in mainstream society, but it took me a long time to figure out why. Here’s my take on the subject; feel free to agree or disagree.
Cycling is a unique sport in that fashion has somehow become inexplicably linked to the athletic endeavor itself. I don’t know if it’s the fact that cycling is rooted in Europe, or that its participants are exceedingly fit, or if it’s because cycling requires so many equipment sponsors, but the bottom line is that professional cycling is fueled by a desire to be the most stylish (and as a secondary concern, the fastest) person in the spotlight.
No other sport entangles style and competition so thoroughly. Basketball players might drive Escalades and carry firearms into the locker room, but on the court they all look the same; auto racers might live the rockstar lifestyle, but on the racetrack they’re hidden behind more-or-less identical sheet metal; soccer players can have all the trophy-wives they want, but on the field they’re all carded for flagrant behavior. In the world of professional cycling, the more absurd and flashy one acts (even during races), the more publicity one attracts.
Cycling has become a celebrity sport.
Anquetil once said, “To prepare for a race there is nothing better than a good pheasant, some champagne, and a woman,” and Mario Cipollini perfected the art of attention whoring to the point of ridicule. Throughout history cyclists have become, for lack of a better term, celebrities. Fans are attracted to different cyclists not only because of their exploits on the road, but for their style, their panache, and their flair. The cooler the bike/kit/sunglasses/shoes/hair/wheels, the more successful the cyclist.
Society loves celebrities; unfortunately, society loves to hate celebrities even more. Everyone wants to see Britney Spears and Lindsay Lohan descend into crackwhoredom; everyone loves “Brangelina” and their incessant love drama; everyone loves to see Floyd Landis arrested by the French. Society loves a good spectacle.
Professional cyclists, in their effort to become sexual icons and fashion kings, have become celebrities in the same sense that Paris Hilton is a celebrity. They’re famous, not because of their athletic achievements, but because they’re fit individuals with overinflated egos. Obviously, cycling fame requires a balance of the two: no one likes a style-less winner (Laurent Fignon), but people also despise winless pretty-boys (all of French cycling). Fans of cycling become attached, rather creepily, to their idols in the same way that people become attached to the Megan Fox’s of the world.
So where does doping fit in?
Let’s not mince words. To succeed in cycling requires winning, winning requires a phenomenal cardiovascular system, and drugs will enhance the cardiovascular system. Doping–EPO, testosterone, blood transfusions–can be the difference between an obscure, mediocre career and timeless celebrity. The faster one rides, the more facetime one receives. Increased facetime merits a pair of fashionable sunglasses or a glitzy suit. Maintenance of the spotlight requires subsequent victories. The cycle continues indefinitely until the next Vinokourov or Ricco is busted for doping. It’s inevitable. Sadly, that’s where the truly insidious beast lies.
The media loves celebrities–even the spandex-wearing cyclist variety–because people want to read about celebrity scandals. No one wants to read about the well-behaved celebrity…just ask Toby Maguire. Rather, the world wants to read about Lance Armstrong and the Olsen twins, Floyd Landis and the testosterone patch, or Di Luca and the ungodly, solo Giro d’ Italia stage victory.
That professional cycling is dominated by fashion is a blessing and a curse. The individual character expressed by cycling’s icons makes the sport unique, dynamic, and exciting. However, it’s our collective interest in the lives of these athletes that causes the Gazetta dello Sport to publish unfounded doping rumors. It is these doping rumors that fuel more rigorous testing, and it is the rigorous testing that results in more frequent doping positives.
The cycle repeats itself iteratively.
I firmly believe that cycling is no more (and no less) dirty than any other top-level athletic event. It’s the sport’s infatuation with itself and its icons that has led to our current predicament. Let’s all stop worrying so much about who is doping, who is hacking what computers, and whose doctor supplies which teams.
Let’s all focus on winning races (stylishly, of course) instead of worrying about Oscar Pereiro’s breakfast cereals additives.