Mike Rowbottom @ITG

A paradox: being honest about cheating.

The recently published book by Christophe Brissonneau and Jeffrey Montez de Oca - Doping in Elite Sports - Voices of French sportspeople and Their Doctors, 1950-2010  - is, as you might surmise from its catchy title, an academic work.

Based on interviews with "55 former dopers", this collaboration by interviewer Brissonneau, of the University of Paris V Descartes, and editor De Orca, of the University of Colorado, focuses on two main areas.

The first part details how the concept of "doping" has been defined and constructed over the years by sports doctors; the second looks at doping from the perspective of elite athletes and “explains how the use of pharmacology became a normal part of training in elite French sports.”

The last is a simple but devastating conclusion.

The introduction to this work tells the tale in its headline - "When the extraordinary is normal, deviance is good".

The authors use a graphically vivid method of illustrating that idea, citing an interview with "Pascal", an elite road cyclist. Pascal tells the story of how, one day, he woke up paralysed and was only discovered the next day by his father, who took him into hospital.

Pascal explains to Brissonneau, amid much mirth, that he had injected himself with a drug he had got from a friend, and it turned out that the drug was meant for snakes.

Hey - sometimes the doping thing can go wrong. But no lasting harm done.(Maybe.) So on we go…

Brissonneau apparently found many of his interlocutors quite relaxed about discussing their doping experiences - but only when he had divested himself of what was deemed by early subjects to be a judgemental, "insider"-type stance. Questions were framed neutrally, anonymity, where requested, was honoured; trust established; and truth, it would certainly appear, illuminated.

A newly study published in the book Doping in Elite Sports - Voices of French sportspeople and Their Doctors, 1950-2010 offers a richly researched view on how doping in elite sport has developed and operated since 1950 ©Routledge
A newly study published in the book Doping in Elite Sports - Voices of French sportspeople and Their Doctors, 1950-2010 offers a richly researched view on how doping in elite sport has developed and operated since 1950 ©Routledge

When Lance Armstrong, stripped in 2012 of all seven of his Tour de France titles for doping offences, eventually discussed his own "come clean" experiences the format was rather more high profile – an exclusive television interview with Oprah Winfrey in December 2013.

"Did you ever take banned substances to enhance cycling performance ?" asked Winfrey.  

"Yes," Armstrong replied. 

"Was one of those substances EPO?"

 "Yes." 

"Did you use any other banned substances?" 

"Yes."

But Winfrey, in the pre-broadcast trailers, had said that Armstrong did not "come clean" in the way she had expected.

"I looked up the definition of cheat," Armstrong said. "The definition of a cheat is to gain advantage on a rival or a foe. I don’t view it that way. I viewed it as a level playing field."

There, in four sentences, is the standard default position of the elite doper. It was iterated in different words by the only other elite athlete whose drugs bust matched Armstrong's in terms of world publicity, Canada’s Ben Johnson, who was stripped of his Olympic 100 metres title and world record from Seoul 1988 after testing positive for the banned steroid stanazolol.

Lance Armstrong tells Oprah Winfrey in 2013 how he doped but did not consider he cheated ©Getty Images
Lance Armstrong tells Oprah Winfrey in 2013 how he doped but did not consider he cheated ©Getty Images

Johnson subsequently told the Toronto Star : "It’s only cheating if you’re the only one doing it. I’ve been trying to say it for 24 years. Almost every professional athlete does something."

Pressing Armstrong on the subject of his doping, Winfrey asked: "Did it feel wrong?" Armstrong’s reply: "No." 

"Did you feel bad?" 

"No." 

"Did you feel that you were cheating?" 

"No."

The work by Brissonneau and De Oca puts this position into a broader and deeper historical context.

At the centre of their analysis are what they describe as the  "moral entrepreneurs," that is, "the people in any given social group that have the power to define and create deviance. In our case, they are the representatives of sports medicine, i.e. sports doctors. They seized, monopolized, and formulated the issue of doping in the 1950s.

"As moral entrepreneurs, they first sought to define doping, which they ultimately did by providing long lists of prohibited products. These lists were not immediately obvious and took years to develop. For example, doctors tested to see if tea, chocolate, and yogurt were doping substances that ‘artificially’ gave athletes ‘unfair’ advantages in competitions."

They mention that doctors also considered some other advantages as possible doping-methods - such as hypnosis or "fans cheering for their favourite athletes".

As sports physicians formulated ideas of doping in the 1950s, gaining advantage from cheering fans was briefly considered for categorisation. But the lift Liverpool got at Anfield this week was strictly legal ©Getty Images
As sports physicians formulated ideas of doping in the 1950s, gaining advantage from cheering fans was briefly considered for categorisation. But the lift Liverpool got at Anfield this week was strictly legal ©Getty Images

On that criterion, Anfield this week was a pharmacological fantasia. If that’s doping, who wants to be clean? But we move on…

The research by Brissonneau and De Oca formulates some interesting scales from its mass of empirical evidence.

The first scale relates to physicians, and makes clear that, the closer and more identified they are with athletes, the more they see “at first-hand how elite sport is destructive of athletes’ health”, the more they feel it is "acceptable to give 'reasonable' doses of pharmacological products (including anabolic steroids) that exceed the legal standards to 'care' for their patients’ ailments. These doctors do not consider this ‘doping’ since professional athletics is such a harmful occupation."

The terms "athletics" is being used in its generic sense here. The work adds that such physicians would consider it to be "doping" to give similar drugs to amateur sports men or women.

At the other end of the scale are those physicians who are "close to high-level sport, far from patients", who serve as advisors to national and international  federations when they create anit-doping laws.

"As moral entrepreneurs, university sports doctors define themselves and justify their high-level positions within the sporting world by their opposition to doping."

There’s a scale, too, for athlete involvement, that starts with no substances, then moves the use of legal supplements such as iron and vitamins through intramuscular injections,  then moves to corticosteroids and anabolic steroids "to look after" their hormonal imbalance and "to do their job", and finally, "after careful consideration or following a dramatic event”, the athlete decides to “break away from the pack and become a champion" and uses substances such as EPO.

The study quotes a cyclist, "Nicholas", who comments, "with the EPO…you stop pedalling for 10 seconds with a heart rate of 185 pulsations (per minute) and you fall suddenly to 177-178 within the next 15 seconds. You get oygen (in your blood) at once. I don’t need to draw you a picture."

What should also be noted here is that this is a culture that is always shifting, and has been subject to change in recent years partly through sponsors bringing pressure to bear on activities which have begun to impact badly on their brands in terms of public opinion. This has in some places been accompanied by a police crackdown - certainly in France.

With regard to the French sporting scene that they have been observing, the writers note: "Gradually after 2003, a new style of cyclist emerged that viewed drug consumption radically different from previous generations: doping became a deviance!

"For the new athletes, the primary value of competitions is ethical performances rather than winning at all costs. Of course, doping did not completely disappear since not every cyclist races for the newer, stricter teams and some individual can always resist any regime.

"However, doping is much more individual and hidden since the organized microstructures common in 1998 no longer exist."