Anti-Doping: Is the Cure Worse Than the Disease?

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Editors’ Note:  Although most participants in the day-to-day hustle and bustle of pro cycling and the mainstream cycling press may not be too aware of it, there is actually an on-going and robust discussion in academic circles regarding the effects of anti-doping regulations on elite sports.  Indeed, there is a significant community of scholarly practitioners around the world who are actively researching and debating the longer-term effects of anti-doping programs, conducting regular global conferences on the topic, and writing interesting and provocative papers and books. 

Two of the primary observers and critics of existing anti-doping approaches are Professors Paul Dimeo of the University of Stirling in Scotland and Verner Møller of Aarhus University in Denmark.  This duo has produced a number of recent papers essentially arguing that in the wake of the systematic doping scandals of the past, a sweeping anti-doping hysteria has created what economists refer to as “moral panic” – a perceived crisis which threatens the existing social order.  Worried that these scandals could effectively destroy the sport, its leaders have often and impulsively addressed the doping problem in zealous, arbitrary and even irrational ways.   Møller and Dimeo argue that differing objectives and an uncoordinated alliance between WADA, national anti-doing agencies, law enforcement authorities, sports organizers and the media has led to an often confusing and disastrous situation – resulting in an array of unintended consequences, inconsistent and inequitable application of the rules, and a situation where anti-doping efforts may actually be doing more harm than good.

This perspective may seem improbable or dubious to some.  And it is a somewhat politically perilous position to take in today’s environment of moral outrage about past doping practices;  it is often much easier today for previously fawning fans or journalists to “pile on” to Lance Armstrong and his compatriots, than it is to step back and objectively look at the underlying situation and current approaches.  But Møller and Dimeo’s thesis is interesting and worthy of closer examination.  In their recent paper “Anti-Doping: The End of Sport” they review the era of the Festina and Puerto scandals, and make the argument that anti-doping approaches must be more rational, consistent and compatible in order to protect the competitive spirit of sports.  The Outer Line has recently had an extended discussion with Professor Dimeo, and he has worked with Professor Møller to provide the following brief summary of their primary ideas and findings. 


Many people within pro cycling are now saying that the war on drugs in cycling appears to be won; the conventional wisdom is increasingly that “things have turned the corner.”  It appears that we’ve had a clean winner of the Tour de France for the last four consecutive years.  There have been no major new drug busts or cheating scandals for several years.  It no longer appears possible to dope with impunity, as so many riders did a decade ago.  Today’s riders say that omerta is an anachronism, and that they don’t face the same no-win decisions that their elders did a decade or two ago.  And all stakeholders within cycling are certainly eager to promote this new vision of a cleaner sport – to help attract new sponsors, larger audiences, and more television coverage.

One hopes that we have indeed turned the corner, and that the various international and national anti-doping organizations – WADA, USADA, UKAD and so on – formed over the last two decades have finally begun to have a lasting impact on addressing this problem in cycling, as well as in other professional and Olympic sports.  But we would argue that the agencies involved with anti-doping and the approaches employed to date to solve the problem are so overlapping and complex, so inconsistently utilized, and so inequitably applied that, in effect, the cure may be worse than the disease.  We argue that anti-doping has gone too far and now poses more of a threat to the spirit of athletic competition than a solution.

We highlight a number of well-known examples in pro cycling to illustrate this argument:

There has also been broad variability and inconsistency in the application of anti-doping approaches and practices. Armstrong was identified as a ringleader of doping practices, and then was convicted on the basis of witness testimony. He has had a lifetime ban imposed and is being sued by various parties seeking to recover sponsorship and prize money. Yet, most of the witnesses – all of whom also doped – received six-month bans and have largely been welcomed back into the fold. George Hincapie owns a prominent developmental cycling team, a successful sports clothing business, an upscale hotel and other economic interests.  Christian Vande Velde is now an announcer for NBC Sports, while Tom Danielson has returned to racing for Garmin Sharp.  Many other well-known ex-dopers have settled in to management or team direction with the pro sport – with relatively little concern or fanfare.   Some observers will argue that it may sometimes be necessary to make a strong example –  as USADA did with Armstrong – but the outcome is that some athletes suffer a great deal more than the others.

So where are we now?  Under current regulations, samples can be re-tested for a period of up to eight years, and hence Evans, Wiggins, Froome and Nibali must wait several more years to have genuine acceptance that their Tour victories may stand. However, the absence of a positive test in that time period only proves that they have not been caught; it does not conclusively prove that they were clean.  And if a positive test were to be produced, who then would gain the title? Would these winners have to hand back sponsorship and prize monies?  And what if they tested positive for a relatively innocuous medical substance or ridiculously low levels of banned substances? Would their careers and reputations be ruined?  What are young athletes to think, if their livelihoods can be taken away at any moment just for a lapse of concentration, or the unwitting ingestion of a banned substance.  Is this a logical way to try to grow the sport?

Anti-doping enthusiasts might argue that the pro-doping culture of cycling has now been replaced by a healthier anti-doping culture. Yet, the cyclists have not really slowed down that much, competitive pressures on their bodies and minds have not been reduced, and their livelihood is still precariously dependent upon their day-to-day racing performance.  In other words, the drivers or the incentives to cheat have not really changed – nor are they ever likely to change in the context of competitive sport.  There may be more out-of-competition tests, but there are still opportunities to dope during training periods. Moreover, the cultural shift towards performance science means that anti-doping rules are viewed in purely functional terms. If you are allowed to take ten of these pills but not ten of those, then by all means take no less that ten of these. The spirit of anti-doping is supposed to be about the level playing field, but the spirit of sport is about doing everything possible to gain advantage over opponents.  This is not going to change.

Anti-doping enthusiasts may also argue that the resources and tough decisions that underpinned high profile captures were worthwhile given the outcome. We would contend very simply that fairness and transparency, the competitive nature of sport, as well as athletes’ basic rights, should not be sacrificed for the sake of an imagined sense of ethical virtue.

Clearly, there is a significant change going on in the sport, as professional cycling is not now viewed as the corrupt drug culture it once was.  But cheating hasn’t gone away.  The world of cycling still has problems of distrust and speculation.  And numerous riders are sanctioned every year, many for reasons that could well be accidental (check for an upcoming story on The Outer Line for one detailed example of this possibility – editors).   What has instead happened is this: cheaters are more clever,  team managers are distancing themselves (in public at least) from doping, and the veneer of sports science has diverted attention from the fact that enhancing performance and gaining advantage are still central to sport. The main difference is that doing so through technology rather than through drugs is more culturally acceptable. The shift in zeitgeist is reflective of broader patterns of modern society – evolving from performance-enhancing chemicals to physiology, nutrition and even psychology – or to new technologies like altitude chambers, more aerodynamic bikes, and the like.  This trend is about disallowing choice among the cyclists themselves as to their methods of performance enhancement. Rather than citing a new ethical standard or reduced health risks, we argue that the past ten years can best be understood as a subtle but simple shift in power and in practices.

In conclusion, we believe that current anti-doping campaigns risk destroying the history and relevance of elite competitive sports.  When known dopers like Lance Armstrong retroactively lose their titles, a dark shadow is cast across all sport because it is not clear how criminalizing past behaviour can be consistently applied across time and sports.  Moreover, it is not clear how far back in time anecdotal evidence can be uncovered and used to pursue a case against an individual athlete.  We therefore believe that it is time to move away from the moral crusade approach to a more level-headed and rational strategy which takes the competitive nature of sport into account.

DISCLAIMER: As with all postings on, our goal is simply to provide ideas and spur debate about what constitutes real change in professional cycling. If you have an opinion about how to repair and strengthen professional cycling, please contact us, and make your ideas or opinions heard.

Paul Dimeo and Verner Møller, September 8, 2014