How much of top-level sport is clean?

Lance Armstrong
Lance Armstrong. (Photo: AFP)

After last year’s Olympic games, a columnist for CBS Chicago, Dan Bernstein, wrote an article saying that doping is widespread in top-level sprinting. To think otherwise, he wrote, involved creating “fairylands of childish naiveté. It is indefensible ground. The province of suckers”.

He quoted Carl Lewis, himself a great Olympian, as saying “For someone to run 10.03 one year and 9.69 the next, if you don’t question that in a sport that has the reputation it has right now, you’re a fool. Period.” And a former doping whistleblower from the Balco scandal, ahead of one race in 2008, said: “The winner will not be clean. Not even any of the contestants will be clean. There is no doubt about it, the difference between 10.0 and 9.7 seconds is the drugs.” Dick Pound, the former head of the World Anti-Doping Agency, admitted that many more sprinters than they actually catch are doping. (Victor Conte, the owner of Balco, said it was 60 per cent. Pound said “He is probably more likely to know than we are.”)

The article chilled me somewhat, and every time now that I think of an athlete who has gone from “very good” to “extraordinary” from one season to the next, I worry that this is that same difference, between 10 seconds and 9.7. Footballers who were slim and frail aged 22 but who bulked up to middleweight boxer levels by 23; tennis players who can suddenly hit it harder than ever before, run for longer than ever before. And cyclists and sprinters who suddenly leap from among the best to the very best.

This morning doping is in the news again, after two of the fastest men in the world – Jamaica’s Asafa Powell and the USA’s Tyson Gay – failed drug tests, and after Britain’s Chris Froome destroyed the field in a brutal climb in the Tour de France, to the immediate scepticism of some onlookers. It should be immediately made clear that there is no evidence that Froome’s performance was in any way illegally enhanced; it is simply that spectators and journalists, especially since the shame of Lance Armstrong, are suspicious of cycling success.

Cycling and sprinting are the two sports most tainted by drug scandals, and cycling – of course – is the scene of much of Britain’s recent sporting success. The trouble is that, at the very top of these sports, we know there has been doping; we know that much doping goes undetected, because in the eternal arms race between dopers and testers, dopers tend to be one step ahead; we know that doping gives a small edge which, in the fine margins of elite sport, would be hard to beat clean. So we reach a point where believing that the very best in the field are clean requires believing that everybody in the field, or at least almost everybody, is also clean.

We know that British Cycling has made extraordinary breakthroughs with perfectly legal means (for instance, it employs a sports scientist called Matt Parker as “Head of Marginal Gains”, to squeeze those tiny few fractions of a second out where they can). And since Armstrong, cycling has become the most self-critical of sports. Moreover, as the Science of Sport blog points out, Froome’s performance is entirely plausible, at the upper end of clean human capability: the only reason scepticism is called for is “the bigger picture, which includes cycling’s history and certain persistent characters”.

But scepticism certainly is required, in all sports, but most especially speed/strength/endurance sports like sprinting and cycling and weightlifting. And as much as I understand the frustration of Froome and his teammates at the immediate “doping” questioning at his moment of triumph, it’s something they’re going to have to get used to, because cycling has long since lost the right to go without constant scrutiny.

Read more by Tom Chivers on Telegraph Blogs
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