Thursday, January 20, 2011


Good old Floyd tried to make more headlines today by declaring that we should just legalize doping. While  that statement is unlikely to gain much support or credibility, and is assured to further malign his name, there are a few interesting observations to be made. First, Floyd said, "It is just like guns, they are there and there is nothing you can do about it."  Second he claimed, "doping controllers lag so far behind developers that they will never catch them." He went on to say that EPO use was virtually  undetectable and that one "had to be an idiot to get caught using it." Finally, he added that the situation "will only be worse 10 years from now."

Drugs, vitamins and supplements

I want to remark that from a psychological perspective the link to guns is fascinating. Both guns and drugs (of which doping is a subset) are highly emotionally charged, and polarizing subjects. We only need to add abortion (which is a stand-in for free sex) to complete the trinity. Not surprisingly all three categories have sexual overtones.

These are not topics people debate in a calm manner or on a rational level. These are issues people have strong feelings about, and if you disagree with those feelings, they are very likely to unfriend you rather quickly. Nevertheless I think it would be worthwhile to try and have a rational discussion.

Merely expressing the fact that there might be some truth to what Floyd said is enough to discredit a person in the eyes of many, so I am walking a fine line here. Yet there is no denying reality and those who do so, will sooner or later pay the price.

Dark side of the moon

In any case, I have already said as much earlier by stating -and this is not my opinion, but rather a conclusion based on facts- that phony wars rarely, if ever, achieve their goals. They are ineffective, costly to society and give rise to other problems. The war on drugs is certainly no exception. The reason why people choose to initiate and fight those wars is often much more complex than it appears.

In many cases, a profound fear lies at the bottom of such wars but this fear is never expressed or mentioned. The drug war for example is very likely based on a fear of losing control (over one's mind). It is a modern version of the war on witchcraft and magic. Many people treat drug addicts as possessed by evil spirits/the devil or even think of them that way.  So it is not surprising that the war on drugs shows similarities with the inquisition.

The war on doping has another overtone: that of purity. Sports is in many ways a modern form of chivalry. It is closely linked to real warfare and so the mention of guns is not entirely gratuitous.

When it comes to understanding the war on doping in sport the first thing one has to do is examine one's motives. While the obvious motive -and the one people always put forth- is cheating, it is highly doubtful that cheating is the key issue. If it were the solution would be rather trivial. And not only that, it would be rather easy to remove doping from sport by providing the right incentives. But cheating is not what bothers people. The idea of doping is linked to the idea of "purity" or "virginity" and the doping battle is a battle for "the purity of the sport." The religious overtones are so obvious that most people fail to see them.

If cheating were the issue, one would have simple rules that are based on advantage gained and the mechanism by which the advantage is gained. All of that is easy to do. Rather than making lists of forbidden fruit or using tests to detect forbidden fruit, one would just measure the physiological parameters that are known to affect performance. One would then calculate the advantage gained and institute a simple penalty (a time penalty) to nullify the effect. The end result would be a serious disincentive to use doping and doping use would be reduced or disappear.

Take the most effective form of doping, i.e. the one that increases the level of red blood cells. (Mind you I am not saying this is proven to be effective, esp. in the long run, but so be it). This form of doping also happens to be the hardest to detect. The list includes high altitude training, oxygen tents, -I know technically these are not considered doping, further evidence of irrational thinking by the way, but they are on par with it- blood doping, EPO, CERA, testosterone, and whatever other compounds or methods people may discover in the future. Rather than going on a wild goose chase to detect these substances or their metabolites, let people use whatever they like as long as (and this is the catch) their red blood cell level, or hematocrit, stays below a certain value.

Hematocrit, you can do it in your kitchen

I am willing to bet this approach would work wonders. First of all it is easy to test hematocrit. It can be done in 5 minutes, and only requires a simple pin prick and a centrifuge. One could test all the riders before the race and before the promenade was over one would know all the results. One could then apply time penalties in proportion to the % excess. The correction factors could be worked into the final results and these would be available within minutes of the finish. There would be no delays, no recalls after months or years and no arguing or lawyering (lawyers we all know destroy the sport).

Furthermore the incentives are right because they address performance issues and cheating on performance is what we want to stop.

Riders who consistently overshoot would know better than to keep doing whatever it is they are doing. They would quickly learn that it does not pay off.

Similar tests could be developed for all commonly used forms of performance enhancement. One could measure muscle mass for example and set limits. We have weight limits on bikes so why not have limits on muscle mass?

In short, these issues are easy to remedy as long as we are clear as to what it is we want to fix.

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