First, is there a more unfortunate name in the entire world of sports than Dick Pound? He’s the head of the Orwellian-sounding World Anti-Doping Agency (known also by its goofier acronym, WADA). I only mention him because he’s always come across as a supercop-type zealot, and his comments on the current unpleasantness involving the formerly unbesmirched Tour de France champ Floyd Landis remind you of a narc who’s just caught a kid swigging Robitussin. Pound calls the Landis’s situation — it doesn’t really merit the label, yet, of "charges" or "accusations" — "a stunning indictment" of professional cycling. But the sport is in denial, he says:
“They have a huge problem, a
really serious problem, but first they have to recognize it. It’s like
an alcoholic. Unless you acknowledge you have a problem, it’s very hard
to move toward a solution.”
Huh. This is the sport that banned a whole team from the Tour a few years back because doping paraphernalia was found in a team car. It stopped two stars from riding in this year’s Tour because of allegations they were connected with a doping doctor. Many lesser but still prominent riders have been suspended from competition for years for violating doping rules. Now, the Tour winner’s team has outed its champion on the basis of a test result that looks like it’s open to interpretation. You wonder what sort of solution Pound thinks might be needed to correct this sort of denial. Capital punishment?
But back to Landis. Maybe it’s a mistake to apply plain, everyday, civilian logic, but the idea of anyone in his position deciding to shoot up (or whatever) at that stage in the race simply defies belief. The upside from doping would be uncertain at best. The downside would be clear: Disgrace and infamy — exactly what’s raining down on him now, denials and protests notwithstanding. Who would take that chance? Especially after having played by the rules up to that point?
Does it matter, really? Certainly not in the way that it matters when a nation’s leaders decide to gamble with the lives of others. But even in the sports context, does it matter whether these guys are taking drugs or not? A friend and fellow cyclist in Berkeley, Steve, points to a pretty good essay by a former marathoner, triathlete and sports-doping enforcer who says maybe the most beneficial thing for athletes is to do away with all the drug rules and let the chips fall where they may. He argues that fair enforcement is impossible and that sports at the elite level require such extreme levels of physical punishment that they’re intrinsically unhealthy and that some banned substances could help competitors limit the damage. I’m not buying that — the example he uses aren’t convincing to me — but he challenges the gospel assumption that all sports doping is bad and that all attempts to stop it are good.
We’ll see about Floyd. If I were the betting sort, I’d put my money on him being exonerated. There will be a reasonable explanation for an anomalous test result. But the folks who say the damage is done are right. A few days ago, his story was about a heroic comeback. Now it’s about a desperate attempt to convince the world the heroism wasn’t fake. There’s no way you can make people put that aside and embrace the old story line. More’s the pity.