sport where winning depends on very simple mechanics – pedalling faster for longer than the competition – in which all of his major competitors had been caught doping. How could he possibly not be doing likewise? Yet people went on defending him and proclaiming his innocence, despite evidence from eye-witnesses published by British journalist David Walsh and, eventually, similarly disgraced fellow cyclist Floyd Landis – and despite Landis’s own repeated denials followed by exposure and admission of guilt. Further, even after it was proved and Armstrong finally admitted to long-term grand-scale doping, there were those who continued to defend him, most notably the Washington Post journalist Sally Jenkins, who had co-authored books with him. Armstrong passed hundreds of tests in his career.
This year, still another sport: tennis. All these years, tennis has somehow persisted in people’s minds as a clean sport. Insiders give all sorts of reasons, of which the main one is that there isn’t any drug you can take that can make you a better tennis player. What tennis insiders are in denial about – and I honestly don’t think it’s all PR – is that the sport has changed. Up until about fifteen years ago, a tennis player won through skill, talent and fitness. Now, almost all the top players, barring weird throwbacks like Roger Federer, win by power, fitness and endurance. So where fifteen years ago only one of the three main characteristics needed to win big was susceptible to doping (fitness), today all three are. The reality of this was brought home to me a couple of years ago when I was going through old video clips of old matches; you can actually watch the players progressively shrink.
There have been moments, even in tennis. In 1998, the Czech player Petr Korda tested positive for nandrolone at Wimbledon, some months after his biggest career win, the Australian Open title. In the early 2000s, there was a strange run of Argentinian players caught through testing. This year, the Croatian player Viktor Troicki was banned for refusing to give a blood sample when asked; he claimed the doping control officer had told him it would be acceptable to postpone it for a day because he wasn’t feeling well. Almost simultaneously, his countryman Marin Cilic failed a drug test. The most notorious case, however, did not involve testing at all, as per the larger point: Wayne Odesnik was caught by Australian Customs when they found eight vials of HGH (human growth hormone) in his suitcase. But to date, no major tennis star with real economic significance to the game has been caught.
There’s a lot to dislike about the testing ritual. It up-ends the burden of proof, so that athletes are presumed guilty and are required to constantly prove otherwise. It is privacy-invasive, requiring athletes to keep the authorities informed of their whereabouts so that testers can drop in unannounced (quite apart from having to pee or give blood on demand in front of witnesses). It creates an entire extra-judicial system with absolute control over an athlete’s career. The morality plays – teary athletes proclaiming their innocence – it produces are distasteful. And it catches the wrong people. Yet it remains the touchstone of belief for everyone who wants to look at their sporting heroes and believe that behind the scenes lies just punishingly hard work training, not an array of pills, syringes, and specialist chemistry.
Wendy M Grossman (pelicancrossing.net) is founder and former editor (twice) of The Skeptic Magazine (skeptic.org.uk)
1ST QUARTER 2014 tpm o pi n i t h o u g h t s / e m p t y i o n/skepti c d e a s