Book excerpt from Spitting in the Soup: Inside the Dirty Game of Doping in Sports

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Republished with permission of VeloPress from Spitting in the Soup: Inside the Dirty Game of Doping in Sports by Mark Johnson. Read more about sports doping at


The morality parable of dope-free sheep and drug-fiend wolves satisfies our innate need for order. Sorting the world into good and bad reassures us that chaos can be held at bay. Like religion, a war for pure sports offers a reassuring hope in the unseen. We fix our eyes on the possibility of a comforting state that in fact never existed in elite sports.

“To me, sport was a religion with its church, dogmas, service,” Olympic founder Pierre de Coubertin wrote. Anti-doping is a contemporary manifestation of Coubertin’s view of athletics as a pedagogic project, “a practical school of chivalry” where youth learn that success and soul-saving chastity are “affirmed only through uprightness and loyalty.”

Contemporary clean-sports efforts carry on this religious mission: based on fears of a fall into a moral and physical hell, anti-doping campaigns attempt to save athletes from the irrepressible will to win that makes them great competitors in the first place. Allowing an alternative version of events in which the hand-wringing public, media, and anti-doping puritans would be complicit alongside doping athletes is upsetting. It suggests the fair play “everyone says” is so important is in fact a cheap illusion that’s been used to manipulate us—all while we’ve been thinking it has been inspiring us. To admit the illogic of anti-doping religion overturns the reassuring moral order, makes us one with the scary wolf we despise, and does not satisfy our need for stability.

Especially in the United States, we celebrate the science of changing self and performance as an American virtue. Untrammeled by tradition, scorning aristocratic ways, and unburdened by Old World religious orders, Americans built a name for themselves as a people who are always willing to reboot to realize the unthinkable—what Mark Twain described in 1873 as a pioneer ability to rush through “astounding enterprises” with “a magnificent dash and daring and a recklessness of cost or consequences.”

Public and press hysteria about the doping of athletes may be a way for us to deflect deeper social and personal complicities over our simultaneous desire for constant progress — faster, higher, stronger — and our need for social stability.

It’s hard to confront our own collusion in the government sanction of wholesale direct-to-consumer drug and supplement pushing and our willing cooperation as consumers of lifestyle-enhancing drugs. So we don’t. Maintaining the useful illusions of chemical purity and the inherent evil in drug-using athletes allows us to blame individuals like Lance Armstrong and Ben Johnson and saves us from dealing with the more difficult reality that doping is a social and political problem, not just a matter of weeding out dishonest individuals.

As John Hoberman puts it, “The failure of national and international sports federations to control doping is primarily a political phenomenon, though it is conventionally misrepresented as being caused by the moral degeneracy of individual athletes.”

Confronting our own complicity with performance-enhancing drugs demands a level of intellectual humility that is hard to conjure up when the easier option of blaming others is so close at hand.

There is an instructive parallel between the incentives fertilizing doping in sports and the motives that encourage Big Pharma to spend $42 billion a year creating demand for its products — far more than it spends on research.

In a 2013 essay on the corruption of pharmaceutical markets, Carlton University professor Marc-André Gagnon writes that the pharmaceutical industry’s financial emphasis on sales and marketing over developing life-saving drugs is not the product “of rogue corporations, but rather of systemic market incentives. Individual companies are left with little choice but to use these objectionable practices in order to survive in the corrupt market structure.”

Every year the pharmaceutical industry spends an average of $61,000 per American doctor marketing its wares to physicians. Drug companies conduct and ghostwrite research as much to create sales arguments for existing drugs as to invent new ones. Even as the industry stimulates demand by manufacturing new pathologies through savvy marketing, it rewards its shareholders without technically committing an ethical trespass.

Although the hardworking scientists inside these pharmaceutical companies may have the best of intentions to end disease and suffering, a mesh of economic and political incentives has moved an entire industry’s moral compass in a direction that is at odds with those noble goals.

Writing of corruption in the pharmaceutical industry in 2013, Harvard University ethicist Lawrence Lessig defined institutional corruption as the systemic, legal, and even ethical influences that corrode an institution’s ability to execute by sidetracking it from its original purpose.

In the same way that a magnet can draw a compass needle away from true north, institutional corruption can pull an organization and its collective members away from their ethical North Star. This is not a sudden eruption from the norms binding civil society—a shooting death, a bank robbery. Instead, it is a gradual drift that takes place in plain sight and often within the boundaries of existing laws and moral standards.

When it comes to performance-enhancing drugs, both professional sports and the fans of those sports have been pulled away from a pole star that is itself a useful illusion, an idealized state of fair play unsullied by pharmaceutical cheating.

This “corruption” of a pure state that never existed has come around not because bad people took advantage of good people. To borrow Lessig’s term, that kind of interpretation of institutional corruption is “kindergarten ethics,” a simplistic filtering of life’s complexities that sees the world as black and white, good and bad.

“Sometimes perfectly decent souls intending the very best for all nonetheless produce harm,” Lessig writes.

The task of understanding this institutional compass drift is difficult because it is so complex; in the case of pro sports, it is doubly so because the hope in an unseen standard of chemical-free, pure-sports perfection is a recent fabrication forced upon sports that, like society at large until the 1960s, had previously accommodated drug taking as a necessary and even moral act.

The rise and fall of Lance Armstrong exemplify how institutional moral drift affected cycling’s enforcement of anti-doping moral strictures. “Lance Armstrong was the most bankable cover subject Outside has ever had this side of Mount Everest,” wrote the magazine’s editor Christopher Keyes in 2014.

Outside featured Armstrong on the cover 10 times. The Texan also made the cover of Sports Illustrated 11 times, and like the stardom that led to Muhammad Ali’s 38 SI covers and Michael Jordan’s 57, Armstrong was a cultural phenomenon whose influence radiated far beyond his own sport and whose draw was critical to justifying the $600,000 fee Sports Illustrated charged for an advertisement on its back cover. The Lance Armstrong story was not just about his wins; it was also about how he made the sport of cycling a much bigger American story than it was before his first Tour de France victory in 1999.

Former USA Cycling president Steve Johnson. Photo: Casey B. Gibson.
Former USA Cycling president Steve Johnson. Photo: Casey B. Gibson.

Knowing Armstrong represented a financial jackpot for the sport and that he inspired millions of Americans to get off their butts and exercise, cycling governing bodies focused on the good he brought to the sport. Steve Johnson was the president of USA Cycling during the Armstrong era.

When I met with Johnson at USA Cycling headquarters in Colorado Springs, he told me, “I can tell you categorically that I’ve never had a conversation with anybody that I’ve known in the Olympic movement that’s talked about institutionalized doping programs as a solution to the problem of international success.”

Johnson’s careful wording allows him to avoid complicity with institutionalized doping while sidestepping any claim about the individualized doping that was rampant among Euro-level American pro cyclists during his tenure.

The small-government design of the Amateur Sports Act of 1978 ensured that doping would never be a state-funded effort in the United States as it was in East Germany. However, USA Cycling’s passivity in the face of common American doping was a lingering effect of the Amateur Sports Act’s presidential demand that Olympic sports deliver victories on international stages.

Armstrong’s story of a return from near-certain death to world champion was a magnet that pulled USA Cycling and the UCI away from their commitment to clean sports. Not a force that caused a sudden change in direction, Armstrong’s success instead precipitated gradual institutional drift at USA Cycling that led it to allow doping through omission rather than feed or halt it through commission.

Johnson was a University of Utah sports science professor when he began consulting with USA Cycling. Over time, his relationship deepened, and in 2000, Johnson became the organization’s CEO. How he came into that position helps illustrate why a single-minded focus on ridding the sport of doped cyclists could clash with the gravitational pull of a larger set of incentives motivating the Olympic organizing body’s actions. It also shows how anti-doping ethics is not a black-and-white issue, but rather a matter of interpreting varying shades of gray.

In 1987, a 47-year-old banker and ex-American speed skating champion named Thomas Weisel hired Eddie Borysewicz to coach him in cycling. When Weisel started a pro team in 1989, Borysewicz led the squad, which eventually became the Subaru-Montgomery pro cycling team in the early 1990s.

By 1997, as Weisel worked on the IPO of a new company called Yahoo, he combined forces with Mark Gorski, a retired Olympian, Wells Fargo banker, and USA Cycling coach, to create the U.S. Postal Service team. That squad hired talented young Americans, including Lance Armstrong, George Hincapie, Tyler Hamilton, and Marty Jemison. Spanish doctor Pedro Celaya was brought on to manage the team’s use of EPO and other performance enhancers.

When Celaya proved too cautious, the team managers replaced him with another Spanish doctor, Luis García del Moral, who prescribed more aggressively than Celaya. In 1999, Armstrong won his first Tour de France. The post-race celebratory dinner saw Armstrong’s manager Bill Stapleton and coach Chris Carmichael toasting the team’s success with its new manager, Belgian Johan Bruyneel.

Johan Bruyneel (left) and Lance Armstrong on the Champs Elysees in Paris, at the conclusion of the 2001 Tour de France, Armstrong's third consecutive Tour victory. Photo: Cor Vos.
Johan Bruyneel (left) and Lance Armstrong on the Champs Elysees in Paris, at the conclusion of the 2001 Tour de France, Armstrong’s third consecutive Tour victory. Photo: Cor Vos.

Upon his return to the United States, Armstrong met President Bill Clinton and Vice President Al Gore at the White House. Sponsorships flooded in. Gorski drew upon the sales talents honed during his five-year stint as a Wells Fargo executive and inked some 20 new deals that made the team flush with cash. In the months following his July 1999 win, Armstrong personally closed $7.5 million in sponsorship deals, including one that made him spokesman for pharmaceutical company Bristol-Myers Squibb.

Riding on this public interest and flush with money from his investment business, Weisel started a new sports marketing company, Tailwind Sports. With Gorski as Tailwind CEO, in 2000, Weisel capitalized on cycling’s growing cachet as “the new golf” among affluent business people and created the Champion’s Club, a group of wealthy executives who donated upward of $100,000 a year to the USA Cycling Development Foundation, a charitable organization that benefited young American riders.

In exchange for their philanthropy, these highly driven businessmen (most were men) got behind-the-scenes access to the U.S. Postal Service team and VIP treatment at the Tour de France. The foundation gave Weisel insight on how USA Cycling was run. He did not like what he saw.

Weisel knew Steve Johnson because they were teammates on a masters cycling team. At the time, Johnson was still working as a professor and consulting with USA Cycling. Johnson told me that the organization was a financial and organizational mess. It “had a lot of divisiveness,” Johnson said. “It was chaos.”

Over time, Weisel’s foundation gained a voting position on the USA Cycling board of directors, and that gave Weisel the foothold he needed to clean house. Johnson stepped into the CEO position, and later Weisel selected former Motorola director Jim Ochowicz as USA Cycling’s president.

Ochowicz also took a job as a broker with Weisel’s investment company and began managing money for UCI president Hein Verbruggen — a personal relationship with the UCI chief that Ochowicz had enjoyed since 1999, when Ochowicz had managed the Dutchman’s investments at another brokerage firm in Milwaukee. The world of elite cycling management was as small and interrelated as the characters in a Jane Austen novel.

The meshed connections created a system of small incentives and personal allegiances that worked to pull the sport’s moral compass needle away from the still very aspirational direction of clean racing. While anti-doping missionaries were trying to impose post-Festina purity on the cycling natives, other factors, including the UCI and USA Cycling’s mission to grow the sport in the United States, did not always align with this clean-sport project.

When the French newspaper Le Monde broke the news that Armstrong’s urine sample from the first day of the 1999 Tour had come up positive for illegal corticosteroids, the UCI, under Verbruggen’s leadership, knowingly or unknowingly helped get Armstrong off the hook. Dr. García del Moral wrote a prescription for a saddle-sore ointment containing the steroid and backdated it. The UCI accepted the scrip and Armstrong was free to continue down the path to winning his first of seven Tours.

Lance Armstrong and former UCI president Hein Verbruggen in Antwerp, Belgium, in 2001. Photo: Cor Vos .
Lance Armstrong and former UCI president Hein Verbruggen in Antwerp, Belgium, in 2001. Photo: Cor Vos .

The following year, a French TV crew filmed U.S. Postal Service team doctors dumping medical debris at a highway rest stop. The waste included a blood-doping product called Actovegin. Though it was not listed as a banned substance, Actovegin violated the spirit of anti-doping rules. When news of the discovery broke in the fall of 2000, Gorski deflected it with a story that the team carried Actovegin to treat road rash and for a diabetic team mechanic. The UCI did not take action.

While Weisel has long denied any knowledge of doping on Armstrong’s teams, in 2008, he expressed a pragmatic point of view, telling the Wall Street Journal that when it came to performance-enhancing drugs in pro cycling, the sport should follow the model of U.S. sports like baseball and football: “Handle the problem below the surface and keep the image of the sport clean. . . . Most fans couldn’t care less.”

When I asked Johnson how he could not have known that U.S. cyclists were doping, he told me that he never had any hard evidence to run with. The network of connections between Armstrong’s long-time financial backers and USA Cycling’s leadership and board of directors made it likely that if anyone came to Johnson with news of Armstrong doping, Johnson would tell the Texan before alerting anti-doping agencies.

Personal allegiances, financial obligations, and even love of cycling pulled USA Cycling’s ethical compass needle toward growth and asset protection, rather than antidrug campaigning — which was the job of WADA and USADA, anyhow.

In 2010, when Floyd Landis sent a 1,080- word e-mail to Johnson detailing the U.S. Postal Service team’s drug use, Johnson responded by having a USA Cycling attorney contact Armstrong’s agent Bill Stapleton. Armstrong quickly contacted the domestic team Landis was riding for and told it to fire Landis. With proof in his hand that USA Cycling leadership would put protecting its golden goose ahead of staying on board the anti-doping morality bandwagon, Landis set up a meeting with USADA’s Travis Tygart — and in so doing, pulled the first thread that led to the eventual unraveling of Armstrong’s claims that he never doped.

To understand the forces that would lead governing bodies like USA Cycling and the UCI to selectively enforce their anti-doping rules for Armstrong, it helps to look back at Lessig’s definition of institutional corruption as a “strategic influence” that is legal and even ethical.

It diverts an institution from its primary purpose and also undermines that institution’s inherent trustworthiness. There was nothing illegal about the nest of relationships built around Weisel, Johnson, Verbruggen, and Armstrong. And in terms of growing the sport of cycling by getting more Americans riding and racing and watching European racing on television, the relationships made a lot of strategic sense. Even letting Armstrong off the hook when his team was discovered with a blood booster in 2000 is also within the bounds of legality, since Actovegin was not specifically banned. Keep in mind, too, that in 2000, WADA was in its infancy and did not have today’s moral and scientific authority.

Seen at the policy level, Weisel’s efforts were doing a lot of good for American cycling by funneling funds into development programs that gave kids vital experience — hard times racing on mud-slicked Belgian roads while lashed by wind, rain, and Europe’s best young riders.

Thomas Weisel in the U.S. Postal Service team car at the 2000 Tour de France. Photo: Cor Vos.
Thomas Weisel in the U.S. Postal Service team car at the 2000 Tour de France. Photo: Cor Vos.

The program helped set the character- and muscle-building foundation for the American riders, who could now consistently challenge the Europeans on their own turf. Nonetheless, the subtle network of incentives, the small “economies of influence,” would seem to make it more likely for Verbruggen to accept a ginned-up steroid prescription, knowing that the man who started Armstrong’s team also could get him invested in Silicon Valley’s hottest IPOs and help cycling recover from the devastating crisis that was 1998’s Festina affair.

In a sense, the quiet institutional deviances that allowed Lance Armstrong to thrive on the roads of Europe, and in turn helped cycling bloom in America, can be seen as an ethical drift that served a legitimate moral end. After all, if the price of getting thousands of Americans off their couches and out spinning their legs and revving their hearts while pretending they are Lance on the Col du Galibier is overlooking a few doping positives, is that such a bad trade off—especially when anti-doping enforcement was so new and widely disregarded?

An argument can be made (and Johnson and Verbruggen seemed to have made it to themselves in 2000) that the act of letting the cancer survivor Armstrong slide after his Actovegin positive was outweighed by the cost of kicking an already staggering Tour de France and its fresh American cancer hero less than two years after the Festina affair.

Hypocrisy? Sure, but seen in the light of the larger troubles caused by another ruined Tour de France and further bedraggled sport, they had good reason to deviate from still coagulating anti-doping norms in the interest of serving the larger good of cycling growth. In the interest of protecting sponsors and building the sport’s feel-good image, the UCI and USA Cycling applied what doping researcher Verner Møller calls “linguistic sugar-coating” on “the bitter pill of sport.”

When I proposed to Johnson that Verbruggen and his successor Pat McQuaid might have had pragmatic reasons for not taking Armstrong down while he was raising the collective image of cycling, he admitted there may be some truth to that proposition.

Knowing that Johnson rebuffed riders Floyd Landis and Dave Zabriskie when they brought U.S. Postal Service team doping programs to his attention, his response is telling. “I understand why Pat and Hein might have done what they apparently did,” Johnson told me. “But you don’t condone it, necessarily.”

Floyd Landis and Lance Armstrong at the 2002 G.P. Karlsruhe. Photo: Cor Vos.
Floyd Landis and Lance Armstrong at the 2002 G.P. Karlsruhe. Photo: Cor Vos.

In 2013, two criminology professors compared the ethical and regulatory frameworks of pro cycling during the Armstrong era to the mortgage industry abuses and exotic derivatives trading that led to 2008’s global financial collapse.

The researchers, Nancy Reichman from the University of Denver and Ophir Sefiha from Western Carolina University, point out that both pro cycling and the financial markets are under enormous pressure to enhance performance. “How does one create a regulatory environment that encourages actors to push their limits, maximize their potential, and create new frontiers of performance while maintaining individuals’ health and the integrity of a level playing field?” they ask.

We know how EPO pumped up cyclist performances. On Wall Street, traders began inflating their portfolio performances by packaging and reselling derivative financial products like collateralized debt obligations (CDO) and asset-backed securities (ABS). In the simplest terms, these products shifted risk from one party to another.

Like the clinical-trial EPO used by early adopting endurance athletes in the 1980s, the financial instruments “were unconventional, complex, and poorly understood,” Reichman and Sefiha write. But they also created new profit centers for banks. Like EPO when it first hit the scene in the late 1980s, CDOs were designed for short-term performance enhancement. Few worried about the long-term health of the products’ users. Of course, now we know what happens when global bankers pump up returns by trading instruments that no one understands—the market collapsed and the global economy crumpled.

Pro cycling responded to the widespread adoption of EPO and other bioengineered drugs by criminalizing the behavior with minimal input from the athletes themselves. Especially after the Festina affair, drugs in cycling were presented as an immediate, pressing danger to riders’ moral and physical health. The ethics of the matter were assumed and were not up for discussion: EPO is bad; it should be prohibited and its users punished. Sports regulators banned the products, set up a 24-hour police surveillance system (in- and out-of-competition testing and daily whereabouts reporting), and created strict punishments for transgressions.

While cycling acted with quick, paternalistic sanctimony, the world of finance’s response was a thing of drowsy indifference. Wall Street regulators assumed that natural risk management would ensure that traders supervised their own behavior and would shy away from super-hazardous bets.

That is, the financial industry treated its workers the same way pro cycling did until the 1960s, when there were no quasi-religious morality police imposing value judgments on the wheelmen of the road. In the new, highly regulated environment, cyclists were no longer adults, working in a laissez-faire marketplace regulated by the desire to become rich and stay alive and healthy, but were transformed into children, assumed to be guilty, who must be watched to preserve sporting purity. This was not the case on Wall Street.

Reichman and Sefiha propose what might have happened in cycling had it been treated like the financial markets, and vice versa for Wall Street under cycling’s crime-and-control model. If pro cyclists had the power of bankers to dictate how they were governed, the criminologists speculate that EPO blood doping, like derivatives, “would be understood not as cheating, but as innovation.”

Further, what minimal regulation existed would only be verified through periodic rider “stress tests” meant to ensure that they were not going to physically collapse and bring others down with them — both in terms of crashing out riders and harming the sport’s overall brand value. Rather than monitoring athletes’ morality, the tests would watch their health and physical soundness. These stress tests would also monitor the overall financial stability of the pro cycling business.

Were the markets for financial derivatives treated like cycling, innovations like CDOs would be seen as dirty and morally insidious.

“An independent party would evaluate new instruments and either allow or disallow their use based on their impact on the spirit of the market,” Reichman and Sefiha explain.

Rules would dictate that the use of certain return-boosting financial instruments would lead to a banker’s ejection from the financial playing fields for two years or more. All market participants would be presumed guilty of fiscal malfeasance and would be under constant surveillance to curb immoral behavior. Associating with experienced CDO consultants could lead to ejection from the financial community. They would also have to register their whereabouts with a policing authority so that they could be located and examined 365 days a year. Not showing up for checkup would be the same as being caught using speculative trading instruments. Banker trading activity would be stored and could be reexamined for transgressions for 10 years. The overarching objective of this system would be to protect the moral purity of the bankers and the organizations they represented.

This thought experiment reveals the shortcomings in both a police state and a self-regulating approach to curbing performance enhancement.

Reichman and Sefiha point out that because pushing the boundaries of performance is natural and celebrated in elite sports and finance, “regulation that draws bright line rules around performance enhancement and then seeks to deter rule-breaking by sanctions is problematic given that pushing limits is routine, valued, and highly rewarded.”

The spirit of elite sports, like that of high finance, is about breaking limits in the interest of attaining unprecedented output. And the demonization of the cheater as a morally decrepit aberration ignores the larger truth that there are enormous organizational and social pressures making this “outrageous” behavior perfectly rational — forces complicated by the fact that performance-enhancing drugs and procedures are acceptable everywhere in society save under certain circumstances on a playing field.

The researchers conclude that neither the hands-off (Wall Street) nor the police state (cycling) model takes the necessary time and energy to understand what motivates sports and financial cultures and the individual players’ will to push themselves to the limits of human potential. Nor do these systems appreciate the financial and psychological rewards that motivate the actors’ actions.

By grasping the intrinsic and external rewards that inspire performance enhancement, they propose we might come up with better solutions for stopping the behaviors that can both harm athlete health and tilt the playing field against those who choose not to dope to win.

In 2004, a trio of British and Australian professors argued in the British Journal of Sports Medicine that if sports organizing bodies were serious about protecting athlete health, they would legalize doping that is not harmful to athlete health and focus their efforts on banning injurious drugs like anabolic steroids.

The article points out that classical musicians take performance-enhancing beta-blocker drugs. These pharmaceuticals help performers manage stage fright and lower the physical effects of stress. And although elite classical music is easily as competitive as professional sports, the writers point out that “there is no stigma attached to the use of these drugs. We do not think less of the violinist or pianist who uses them.”

The authors contend that if certain non-harmful drugs were legalized, fans would be able to enjoy athletic performances with the same nonjudgmental attitude we bring to a concert hall today.

The authors note that sports today are rigged to reward those athletes who win the genetic lottery. The athlete with the naturally occurring 52% hematocrit is a born winner, and the slob with the 42% just has to suck it up.

Yet because EPO is outlawed, athletes now take the drug with an eye toward not getting caught, rather than taking safe amounts. Today, the two legal methods of increasing hematocrit are relatively expensive. Hypoxic air machines cost upward of $7,000, while training at altitude requires significant travel funds — an economic barrier and playing-field-tilter, especially for athletes who live in Third World sea-level countries.

On the other hand, when the article was published in 2006, the authors wrote that EPO treatment cost about $122 a month. “Even if the Epogen treatment begins four years before an event, it is still cheaper than the hypoxic air machine,” they explain. In 2000, the cost of an EPO test was about $130 per sample.

Rather than spending mountains of money on testing athletes for doing something that merely attempts to level a genetically uneven playing field, the authors suggest sports governing bodies spend those testing funds “on grants to provide EPO to poorer athletes” as well as tests to ensure that their hematocrit stays within a healthy range. Doing so would kill two birds with one expenditure; it would preserve the fair play that sports organizations have dedicated themselves to saving while also helping to protect athlete health.

The writers argue that while prohibitions might appear to preserve health, they can instead have unintended harmful consequences. During the 1920s, the U.S. prohibition on alcohol increased the dangers of alcohol use. Without bars to go to, people drank in private, drinking more than they had before and downing noxious concoctions of homemade moonshine. Alcoholism and deaths went up, not down.

Similarly, under today’s performance-enhancing-drug ban, athletes look for drugs that are still in clinical trials and so new they do not show up in drug tests; this creates a demand for drugs whose effects on the human body are relatively unknown. They also point out what Dianabol-populizer Ziegler saw right away in the 1950s: Athletes take drugs in amounts proportional to the performance gain they want, not according to a doctor’s safe-dosage guidelines.

The British Journal of Sports Medicine writers concluded that the prohibition of doping in sports — and the default moral outrage that meets any suggestion of a rethinking of the current dope-equals-evil schoolyard approach to the problem — paradoxically encourages athletes to push the limits of both dosages and new pharmaceuticals.

When I phoned 1984 Olympic gold medalist Alexi Grewal to talk about this book, our conversation turned to Lance Armstrong’s downfall and what his rejection by the American public says about us.

Grewal pointed out that Armstrong started in cycling as a brash Texas outsider. He was a punk whose impatience with European cycling protocol raised hackles on both sides of the Atlantic. And then he became the ultimate insider whose role as cycling’s most valuable asset gave him the leverage needed to control governors all the way from the U.S. Congress to USA Cycling to the UCI’s McQuaid and Verbruggen.

“At first Lance was a little bit outside of the boundaries, the protocol that requires respect for other riders,” Grewal recalled. “And then he became the boundary. And he enforced the boundaries. And he protected many, many people in high positions who are still there because Lance never gave them up.”

Armstrong was a Texas bull in the European china shop — and after smashing around, he ended up becoming the boss of that very shop. It was a parable of American power and irreverent colonialism that appealed to a swath of fans in the United States far wider than the country’s then-limited population of leg-shaving, Colnago-fetishizing bike racers.

Lance Armstrong, 1993 world road championship in Oslo, Norway. Photo: Cor Vos.
Lance Armstrong, 1993 world road championship in Oslo, Norway. Photo: Cor Vos.

Indeed, beginning with his 1993 world championship win, where a 22-year-old Armstrong soloed to victory in a pissing Norwegian rain, Armstrong’s impudence and his seven Tour wins moved cycling off the bike geek pages of VeloNews and onto the mainstream cover of Sports Illustrated.

Reflecting on Armstrong’s brashness, Grewal observed that unlike the quiet dignity of Miguel Indurain, who had won five Tours in a row before Armstrong’s arrival, “That’s why we loved him, because he was us. Lance Armstrong is us. Lance Armstrong is the United States. And that’s why we hate him so much — because in Lance we see ourselves. Lance represented everything that is America.”

America’s most accomplished cyclist represents his nation’s conflicted attitudes about using performance-enhancing drugs and medical procedures to get ahead in life. What we do, sports people should not.

Armstrong’s success, and his spectacular downfall, put the spotlight on our own inability to confront the reality that we Americans are loath to spit in the soup that keeps us mentally sharp, muscled, and ready to get ahead. And yet, maybe it is the case that our silence regarding athletes and politicians pitching Viagra, and our seeming indifference to the pharmaceutical industry’s eager willingness to turn the United States — and its rambunctious kids — into a nation of people just one pill away from realizing their full human-performance potential, is a form of American pragmatism.

Call it victory or call it moral collapse, American society’s embrace of the very drugs we love to hate can be seen as a collective shrug of the shoulders — a sloughing off of the quaint impossibility of a doped society’s attempts to impose religious purity on elite sports and a rejection of the notion that authoritative paternalism should replace rationalism as a free human’s guiding light.

Used with permission of VeloPress from Spitting in the Soup: Inside the Dirty Game of Doping in Sports by Mark Johnson.

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