The Lance Bomb

By Jason Mazanov, School of Business, UNSW-Canberra

The Lance Bomb has finally detonated with the USADA report into Lance Armstrong's alleged doping continues across the world.  As the fallout drifts around the world, implicating a host of individuals and teams, it leaves the sports world wondering what happens next. 


To some extent, USADA has let the proverbial genie out of the bottle.  The fundamental reason for anti-doping is to protect the integrity of sport.  If the Lance Bomb is to be about the integrity of sport rather than Lance Armstrong, the UCI needs to command an in-depth retrospective investigation into the extent of doping across all the Tours. 


Given the general sentiment that the majority of peloton doped through this period, it stops being about who won Le Tour and identifying the “first clean athlete”.  For example, it may be that the first legitimate winner came 87th.  Completing Le Tour is a feat in itself and perhaps the 87th place deserves to be declared winner if all other places are disqualified. 


Ironically, this makes Le Tour about competing managers rather than athletes.  The “first clean athlete” may end up being the athlete whose team closes ranks and says nothing.  The Lance Bomb only went off because enough people were willing to testify.  In this case, the “first clean athlete” is actually “the first athlete who can get away with it”. 


Alternatively, the “first clean athlete” could be the team whose support team (managers, physicians and soigneurs) made the strategic decision not to dope.  Assuming the winner ends up being well outside the top contenders, this means Le Tour was still decided by a decision about doping. 


Another way of looking at this is the level playing field argument.  These arguments have been played out many times.  Doping only confers a systematic advantage when others abstain.  If doping is systematically used by all then all competitors achieve some advantage and they should cancel each other out. 


This view is, to some extent, based on a naïve understanding of how doping works.  Pharmacogenomics tells us that different athletes react differently to different drugs due to their genetics.  The advantage to one athlete from doping is different to that of another athlete.  Assuming doping adds a constant to performance fails to reflect how it really works. 


However, the fundamental concept of a level playing in sport is ridiculous anyway.  Rich countries outperform poor countries because of their wealth.  Countries who invest more in sport do better than countries who invest less in sport.  Teams who have sponsors with deeper pockets do better. 


The outcomes of the Lance Bomb are also more far reaching than just the Tour. It raises questions about whether anti-doping can ever work. The prohibition approach to anti-doping has been criticised since it started, and the Lance Bomb suggests that no matter how much money is poured into it sports can and do get away with doping.  It is time to think of alternative ways of handling drugs in sport.


Part of the problem is the “drugs are bad” approach taken.  It is worth noting that some drugs are allowed.  For example, caffeine has been established as performance enhancing and is permitted.  As a result, the use of caffeine in competition is rife.  Importantly, caffeine used to be banned and is now permitted.  This says that some drugs can be good, even if they were bad in the past.  Even under the anti-doping system drugs are a fundamental part of sport. 


This says that the role of drugs in sport needs to be managed.  The question then becomes how we manage it.  The current approach has been widely critiqued, with key points being that it protects the integrity of sporting institutions over athletes’ human rights and prohibition is administratively impossible.  These critiques suggest one of two ways forward. 


The first is to look at ways to make prohibition work more effectively.  That is, take the lessons of the past that have worked well and try to fix the bits that have failed.  Unfortunately, the 2015 update to the World Anti-Doping Code looks like it will consolidate the existing system.  For example, there is still no indication of what is meant by the Spirit of Sport, the 11 values of Olympism that doping is fundamentally contrary to. 


The second is to develop entirely new ways of managing drugs in sport taking the best bits from anti-doping and trying something different.  This is the approach advocated by the Global Commission on Drug Policy. 


The only other candidate on offer at the moment is harm minimization.  This accepts that drug use is harmful, but also argues that sport is more harmful.  For example, the damage of Le Tour to an athlete’s health is more than the damage that might be wrought from using drugs.  In this case, harms are “traded” towards the least worst outcome.  This suggests that participation in elite sport is inherently harmful and the best that can be done is minimise the harms, a view consistent with Waddington’s arguments – sport is inherently bad for health, and elite sport is worse. 


A reinterpretation of harm minimization is “athlete health and welfare”.  This idea comes from Sports Medicine Australia, an umbrella organization for sports health professionals.  The aim is to do things purely on the basis of what is in the best interest of athlete medicalised health, but also ensuring sport does no harm in the short or longer terms outside of medicalised health.  In this context, doping is about protecting athlete health such that endurance events might use EPO to prevent catastrophic exhaustion. 


However, these approaches only serve to acknowledge the role of health in sport.  Sport is far more diverse.  Sport-as-business needs to be explicitly acknowledged.  For example, making coaching contracts contingent upon how well athletes are treated, as well as their performance outcomes, might go a long way to stopping coaches pushing athletes and the support teams to dope. Equally, changing contracts so sponsors are less interested in outcomes might help reduce incentives to dope.


Another approach is to prioritise different elements of sport.  For example, instead of health the role of “fun and joy”, one of the 11 Spirit values, could be used as the basis for managing drugs in sport.  This might work on the basis of redefining the harms such that it is more important to preserve the enjoyment of other athletes or spectators.  In this case, having a well contested event is given priority over who actually wins.  This may be idealistic, but represents a fundamentally different way of thinking about the issue. 


Like the Global Commission’s claim the war on drugs has been lost, it seems that without a serious rethink the fallout from the Lance Bomb might well be decisive in which way the war on drugs in sport will go.  The time has come for the best and fairest to step forward and rethink this issue innovatively rather than repeating the same tired arguments about cheating.