Lance Armstrong is back in the news this week as the United States Anti-Doping agency have brought fresh charges against him for doping. I argue that whether or not Armstrong used performance enhancing drugs is a moot point, as his team mates have admitted to doping and as the leader of those teams he directly benefited from the his team mates’ doping.
All for One, and One for All
Those who argue that doping is against the spirit of sport must conclude that dopers need to be punished for their actions, but they must also answer the much more difficult question of whether or not the team mates of those who dope should be punished for the actions of others. Take the example of Marion Jones, the US athlete who won three gold, and two bronze medals at the 2000 Olympic Games in Sydney. In 2003 Jones, along with many other athletes, was caught up in the Bay Area Laboratory Co-Operative (BALCO) doping scandal after a disgruntled US track coach tipped off authorities to athletes using undetectable steroids supplied to them by BALCO. As a result of an investigation into BALCO, Jones was stripped of the medals she won in Sydney. However, the matter is not as simple as merely striking Jones’ achievements from the record books due to the fact that two of the medals she won were as part of relay teams (bronze in the 4×100 and gold in the 4×400). As a result of Jones’ doping offenses, the International Olympic Committee (IOC) stripped Jones’ teammates, who hadn’t been doping, of their medals too. Jones’ teammates then took the issue to the Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS) who, in 2010, ruled that they should be allowed to keep their medals as they didn’t personally commit any wrong doing and conformed to the rules of competition.
Who is right in this situation; the IOC or the CAS? While Jones’ relay teammates did nothing wrong themselves, it cannot be denied that they benefited from doping. If Jones hadn’t been using PEDs she would have run her leg of the relay slower and the US team may not have medalled. While there has been some debate over the example of Marion Jones’ and her teammates, what has been largely ignored is the potential impact of this debate on the self-proclaimed “most tested athlete in the history of sport”, American cyclist, Lance Armstrong. Armstrong has won the most prestigious bike race in the world, the Tour de France, a record seven times. His feats are even more amazing given that, before achieving them, he overcame testicular cancer. In the world of cycling, success usually brings with it accusations of doping, especially as Armstrong achieved his wins during the late 1990s and early 2000s when cycling was in the grips of doping scandal after doping scandal, yet Armstrong has never failed a doping test. To those not familiar with cycling the case of Jones’ relay teammates and Armstrong may not seem compatible; cycling is a sport of individual honours. The winner of the Tour de France is awarded the Yellow Jersey for being the best individual rider. So, I will start by giving an outline of the basics of cycling tactics for the Tour de France.
The Tour de France is competed by hundreds of riders who are members of nine man teams. Each team has a leader and it is the leader of each team who is likely to be in contention for the Yellow Jersey come the business end of the Tour. It is the job of the other members of the teams (known as domestiques) to sacrifice themselves to get their leader in the best possible position. This means that at the beginning of big mountain climbs (where the Tour is generally won or lost) it is the job of the domestiques to ride as hard as they can to get their team leader into the best position possible. By allowing their team leaders to ride in their slipstreams and conserve energy, the domestiques give their teammate a better chance of capturing individual glory which will be reflected on the team. For their hard work it is traditional that the winner of the Yellow Jersey shares his prize money with the rest of his team.
As you can see, a great deal of team work goes into an individual winning the Tour de France, and this is where the problem arises. In recent years several of Armstrong’s former teammates, including Frankie Andreau, Floyd Landis, and most recently Tyler Hamilton, have come out and accused Armstrong of doping, while admitting that they themselves doped when they were his teammates. Setting aside their allegations against Armstrong himself, their admissions of doping alone should be enough to call into question the validity of Armstrong’s seven Tour victories. Without the help of good domestiques no cyclist has a chance of winning the Tour de France, as the team leader needs his teammates to help carry the burden of the gruelling race. So if Armstrong’s teammates have admitted to using PEDs then he gained an advantage from doping (Indeed, if Armstrong was clean while his domestiques doped then it seems the ultimate example of teamwork, one of WADA’s values in their definition of the spirit of sport, risking their own place in the sport to propel a team mate to victory). If his domestiques can climb faster, for longer due to the use of PEDs then he has gained an advantage over other cyclists in the same way that Marion Jones’ relay teammates gained an advantage from her having doped as she was able to run a faster leg of the relay. Which leads us to the question of whether or not teams should be punished for the offenses of an individual? And if the answer to that is yes, how many individuals are required to test positive for PEDs before their team is punished?
If it emerged that a substitute who played ten minutes in a World Cup match for a side who won the tournament had been using PEDs, is it reasonable to strip the team of the honours they achieved with little help from someone who doped? It seems in this situation the answer should be no. But what if those ten minutes were the last ten minutes of the World Cup final and the doper in question scored the winning goal thanks to his artificially enhanced pace? In situations like these it seems difficult to draw a distinction that a team should be banned if they have x number of players who played x number of minutes who were found to have been doping. There will always be those who object “Why x why not x+1?”
Peer Pressure and National Shame
I think the best answer to the situations outlined above is that teams should be punished if any of their members are found to be doping as it would increase self-policing. If someone has their own situation put at risk by someone else’s selfish behaviour then they will be more likely to stamp it out. Indeed self-policing could be the most effective way of fighting doping as it could lead to a change of culture within sports teams. Teammates often form strong bonds with each other, and the thought of letting down your teammates by getting them thrown out of a competition may be enough of a moral burden for most athletes to avoid any behaviour that might risk this; in the same way that the risk of losing a friendship will prevent most people from attempting to sleep with their friend’s girlfriend. This scenario works for incentivising those who dope without their teammates’ knowledge to stop, but I fear it may not be as straight forward for athletes who are aware of the benefits of their teammates using PEDs.
Let’s say that hypothetically Lance Armstrong was aware that his domestiques were using EPO to improve their endurance. Would he be more likely to turn a blind eye to it and let them get on with doing whatever they needed to do help him win? Or would he use his position as the senior cyclist on the team to stop them so that they wouldn’t jeopardise his chances of winning if they were caught? The latter might seem the obvious answer; why risk the accomplishment of your life’s goal just because others feel the need to cheat? Another way to view this scenario is that Armstrong may not think that he will win if his teammates don’t dope. If this is the case, the dilemma shifts to choosing between potentially having your title stripped and not having a title at all. When your life has be geared towards winning the title there may be athletes who would choose the first option. But those athletes take a massive risk in doing so, knowing that they will not just incriminate themselves but strip their teams of glory, and in the process alienate several countries, in the case of a multinational cycling team.
While it may seem unfair, teams suffering for the mistakes of individuals is part of sport. A comical own goal in football, a last minute penalty in rugby, a dropped catch in cricket, are all part of the what makes sport sport; it is part of doing your best not to let down your team mates. I think that this is why punishing teams for the doping infringement of individuals is the best policy for stamping out doping. A shift in the culture of sport is needed, not so far that competition is lost from sport, but far enough that the lengths that people will go to win are curtailed. If individuals put the team at risk they will be ostracised by their teammates, many of whom they will have strong bonds with, this would provide a much greater incentive not to cheat than an individual two year ban as is currently standard for many sports.