Let Them Take Dope—and Make Them Tell

The stadium scene.
Sept. 19 2000 3:00 AM

Let Them Take Dope—and Make Them Tell

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This week in Sydney, more than 400 top athletes will be pulled aside and given a much-ballyhooed urine test for erythropoetin, or EPO, a previously undetectable blood-enhancing compound favored by cyclists, swimmers, and other endurance athletes. As with most drug tests, this one won't catch all the users—just the stupid and unlucky ones. The problem? The urine test detects whether EPO was used within 72 hours, while the drug is generally used six to eight weeks before a big race. A handful of athletes will be expelled, and the dirtiest Olympics in history will go on.

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More and more, the war on drugs in sports is starting to resemble the one in society at large. Tiny victories are hailed while the general, crushing defeat goes on. White House commissions issue thunderous, instantly ignored reports. Rigid orthodoxies are enforced, while an obvious question is declared taboo: Why not legalize?

Even IOC President Juan Antonio Samaranch has been tempted. "The list of [banned] products must be reduced drastically," he declared in a 1998 interview. "Anything that doesn't affect the health of the athlete, for me isn't doping."

He was quickly shouted down—but his idea was welcomed in the most dope-ridden sport of them all, professional cycling. At the time, cycling was mired in drug scandals stemming from the 1998 Tour de France, which saw several teams caught red-handed and kicked out of the race. It was an agonizing spectacle, and in its aftermath drug use declined—but only temporarily. This spring, the French sports daily L'Equipe mourned that cycling had returned to "the route" of doping. And murmurs about legalizing drugs continue within the sport.

Why do cyclists use drugs? It seems like dirty play to civilians, but performance-enhancement is part of the culture of the sport, legal or otherwise. A top professional might race 80 days a year, including three straight weeks at the Tour de France, a schedule so demanding that virtually no one could survive it without vitamin supplements, amino acids, and constant medical attention. Caffeine is on the banned list, but a pre-race triple espresso is considered almost mandatory (and is usually invisible by the time the piss tests are done). On top of that, the current rules are really no more than a set of interlocking loopholes that practically encourage a certain level of doping. Many riders are actually permitted to use many of the key items on the banned list, including corticoids (which reduce stress and soreness) and anti-asthmatics (which aid breathing), provided they have a doctor's prescription. Needless to say, there are quite a few diagnosed asthmatics in the pro peloton.

But the drug of choice for the last 10 years has been EPO, which raises the percentage of oxygen-carrying red blood cells (the "hematocrit"). A normal male has a hematocrit between 38 percent and 46 percent, while the International Cycling Union has set an arbitrary limit of 50 percent. Message: Use EPO, but only up to 49 percent. (The UCI has admitted that the average rider's hematocrit has risen 5 percentage points since 1992.) Many of the top riders challenging Lance Armstrong in this year's Tour de France—including Marco Pantani, Richard Virenque, Alex Zulle, and the young phenom Franck Vandenbroucke—have served suspensions for EPO. Before EPO, a genetic freak like Lance Armstrong would have dominated every race he entered because of his superior lungpower. Now he has a tough time eking out victories—and even he is tainted by the clouds of suspicion that loom over the entire sport.

Armstrong's situation shows the downside of partial legalization, which is essentially what is in effect. But what if cycling—and other sports—took up Samaranch's proposal and changed the rules to permit anything that does not endanger a rider's health? Dope-ridden chaos would ensue, naturally. But what if the athletes had to tell us what they were taking?

Under this interesting modification (proposed on the cult Web site cyclegossip.com and elsewhere), non-harmful substances would be permitted, with a catch: Each team doctor would be required to keep a dossier for each athlete, listing the products used, the dosages, and the dates. The doping dossiers would be released along with the race results, allowing the public—and the sponsors—to judge the true victor for themselves.

Drug use, now hidden and prevalent, would become open and prevalent, with worrisome possible consequences: Following their heroes' example, young athletes would queue up for the latest blood boosters and synthetic hormones, whose makers would proudly sponsor them. There would be cheaters, of course, and so the athletes would be tested frequently; any discrepancy between the dossier and the test results would result in severe punishment for the rider—and the team doctor. But would fans bother watching a contest of pharmaceuticals rather than athletics? It seems unlikely. Without fans, there are no sponsors; without sponsors, no sport, at least in a professional sense.  

Bill Gifford has written for Outside, Wired, Men's Health, and other magazines. He is working on a book about the future of medicine.