Opinion: A cycling media that is soft on doping serves to normalise it

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In light of my recent article on Lance Armstrong’s ‘Stages’ podcast and the discussion that ensued, there were many interesting and valid points raised. As always, Armstrong continues to polarise people in ways like nobody else. Craig Fry is a longtime contributor who I respect and value his opinion. Although critical of my piece acknowledging that Armstrong is back, I thought Craig’s perspective worth sharing. –Wade Wallace

Lance Armstrong is not going away, and we should all get used to it. That’s the gist of Wade Wallace’s latest Cycling Tips article from 22 July: Lance Armstrong comeback v3.0 – sport is forgiving, but will time heal these wounds?

I’m a card-carrying fan of Cycling Tips. I have written for CT multiple times over the last four years, and I consider it one of the best outfits in cycling media anywhere.

But that said, I have a problem with Wallace’s recent ‘Armstrong comeback’ article. It takes a disappointingly soft stance on doping at a time when, despite the official line that ‘things are cleaner now’, it remains the biggest issue facing the sport of cycling.

Let me explain.

Like many others, I believe ‘doping’ through the use of banned performance enhancing drugs, substances, or other prohibited methods has no place in sport. My view is there should be significant consequences, not rewards, for people who cheat in sport by doping.

I also believe strongly in the mission of doping prevention in cycling. And while I concede this mission is a difficult one, I think achieving it would be possible if we could get all stakeholders on board with coordinated anti-doping efforts at every level of the sport.

While they may not realise it, the cycling media in all forms have a key stake in the prevention of doping. As a sector with privileged insider access and the means to create powerful and influential narratives about this sport, cycling media has a responsibility to contribute to this anti-doping challenge.

That’s my main gripe with Wallace’s latest CT article – he fails in this responsibility by arguing that ‘Armstrong 3.0’ is worthy of attention. In effect, Wallace implies that Armstrong’s cycling experience, voice, and analysis (and his assessment that Armstrong’s podcasts are high quality) trumps any remaining concerns we might have about those well-known doping and other transgressions.

To be frank, after reading the Wallace article, the words ‘name laundering’ came to mind. That is perhaps a little unfair because I know that was not his intention. But bear with me.

Consider for a moment how doping happens, and the messages we see about it.

Doping in cycling (or any form of planned cheating for that matter) is a socio-cultural phenomenon. Despite what some ex-riders have said publicly about their past doping, there is no such thing as lone individuals doping in a social vacuum.

In simple terms, doping is all about social groups and structures not the individual acting alone. More importantly, doping choices in cycling are informed by the messages that exist in and around the sport about approved and disapproved behaviours.

I’m not talking here about the messages on anti-doping and other cycling rules from sports governing bodies and other institutions – the official messages about the theory or ideals of sport as we want it to be conducted. These are a part of the landscape, but far more influential messages come from observing actual behaviours and outcomes in the sport of cycling as it actually happens – i.e. how the sport is conducted in reality.

So, what are these observable messages? Again, despite the official line from cycling’s governing bodies, there are plentiful signs around that suggest doping is perhaps not such a serious concern for the sport as it is actually conducted day-to-day.

Consider the long list of well-known riders from the history of cycling who have doped, and reflect for a moment on how they are regarded and the influence many (I’d say most) still have today. There are people who have tested positive or confessed to doping:

  • currently in positions of influence at all levels of cycling (working as DS’s, as team support staff, or in other capacities in the industry);
  • still competing in the World’s biggest races;
  • enjoying the public attention and profits from their ‘tell all’ books;
  • working in high profile cycling media jobs;
  • performing official promotional roles around major cycling events and races.

Need I go on?

In this context, the Lance Armstrong phenomenon (in version 3.0 and apparently here to stay) suddenly looks unremarkable. But it is no less concerning.

The point is you don’t have look very far for evidence that the sport of cycling has always tolerated and celebrated past dopers and cheats. Indeed, as I have argued before, cheating (from the minor to most severe rule breaches) is part of the culture of cycling.

So, if you’re against doping in cycling, you have to focus on the culture of the sport. That’s where doping lives, and it’s also where the most influential messages about doping emerge – out of the social norms, hierarchies, traditions, and unwritten rules of racing and other behaviours that influence and become adopted through various social groups and structures in the sport (e.g. clubs, teams, bunch-rides, friendship networks, social media etc).

This is why I think we should be concerned by Wallace’s recent CT article, and other similarly uncritical media pieces on doping and/or riders who have doped.

The continued and largely unchallenged presence of past dopers in and around cycling is a problem because it normalises the place of doping in this sport. This ongoing presence breeds a familiarity over time that inevitably works to distance individuals from past doping transgressions. It is through this process that doping can easily become an accepted part of the cycling story and culture.

The main reason why cycling media shouldn’t be equivocal or uncritical on doping therefore, is that adopting such a stance amplifies the ‘doping is normal in cycling’ message that currently exists. Worse still, such a stance implies tacit approval and acceptance of doping as an inevitable part of the sport of cycling, and paves the way for softer consequences, easy redemption, and ongoing rewards for cheats.

By continuing to provide an uncritical public platform, and by adopting a soft stance on the doping issue, the cycling media has played a significant role (arguably the biggest) in facilitating the redemption and return of dopers to this sport.

While there have been notable exceptions to this (e.g. Walsh, Kimmage), for the most part a conspicuously uncritical and inconsistent stance on doping and the continued influence of ex-dopers in the sport still persists in cycling media today.

I argue that cycling media have a greater responsibility to the mission of anti-doping. The prevention of doping in cycling, and the future of the sport depends on it.

Craig Fry is a freelance cycling writer and public health academic based in Melbourne. His 2016 book Ride: A Memoir to my Father (Hampress), is available at Amazon.


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