Let me begin by declaring an interest.
I am a rabid hard-liner on the use of performing-enhancement drugs in sport, any sport. In my view, anyone who is found to have transgressed the rules in place that are designed to catch drug cheats should – as a matter of principle – be banned from taking part in international competitions forever. With only the tiniest loop-hole for mitigation and/or the possibility of ‘innocent mistake’, i.e. the standard and clichéd fall-back defence of those who get caught in the drug-testers’ net.
As with the vexed subject of match-fixing, if one cannot trust in the fact that what is presented to the world as sport is a true, honest and competitive contest, then we might as well give up watching and participating altogether.
Only a few weeks ago, a research study proved that the effects of performance-enhancing drugs don’t just last for the period they are taken, or indeed for the duration of any ban imposed for taking them, but quite possibly have ‘beneficial ‘ effects upon that sportsman or woman’s performances permanently.
There’s no need to be specific here but, if we try hard enough, we could probably all name ten or more international-class track and field sprinters who have received drugs-use bans and since returned to competition. These latest findings show that the world athletics authorities have effectively condoned the use of drugs because – since their bodies have learned to work at rates or intensities beyond the capabilities of those mere mortals who haven’t used drugs – such ‘rehabilitated’ athletes still retain a distinct advantage, albeit perhaps (hopefully) dulled by the passage of time they spent banned.
However, if it is doubtful that we should continue to grant the world of athletics the privilege of being treated as a ‘proper’ sport, there is no doubt at all in my mind that the world of professional cycling should be placed in the bin until such time, if ever, that it eradicates its drugs problem.
A few years back – possible more than a decade and a half by now, actually – I was in a conversation with two pals, avid cycling fans, who were discussing the Tour de France that had just taken place. They talked the minutae of the sport in loving detail and spoke in awe of some of the current cycling greats and, indeed, of those of yesteryear.
Then the vexed subject of drug-taking came up. One of them quoted the comment made by some pundit, ex-pro – or was it just some friend of his? – to the effect that some considered it so demanding and arduous, such a test of endurance, that it was practically impossible to complete the Tour de France, let alone win it, without taking drugs.
My fellow conversationalists then resumed their enthusiastic discussion regarding their favourite climbing section of the Tour, somewhere in the mountains; the general standard of the television coverage; and the legendary participants and incidents of the sport.
I was personally appalled, yet also unsurprised.
Professional cycling, which makes for excellent television-viewing, is a world of its own. It has exotic jargon, complicated strategies and tactics, terrific heritage, great landscapes and exciting team, and individual, battles – all of which draw in onlookers, seducing them into believing that, by ‘buying into’ the whole, they are joining some kind of exclusive club.
The ‘us against the world’ mentality that results – echoing that of the Freemasons, perhaps – allows cycling’s followers to ignore, or park to one side, the vexed issue of performance-enhancing drug-taking [“Yes, it’s a problem, but don’t let it detract from the many joys of the sport”].
The use of immoral and/or illegal performance-enhancing substances has been ever-present in professional cycling. Years before Lance Armstrong became exposed for the cheat he was and possibly still is, the rumours about him and his team-mates were rife and the suspicions/allegations virtually open secrets.
Yesterday it was announced that the Saxo-Tinkoff rider Michael Rogers, formerly captain of Team Sky during 2012 the year of Bradley Wiggins’ triumph in the Tour de France, was provisionally suspended following a positive test for the anabolic agent clenbuterol.
Only last week, another Team Sky rider during the epic 2012 season, Jonathan Tiernan-Locke was charged by UCI, the sport’s governing body, with an ‘irregularity’ in his biological passport – this occurring before he joined Team Sky, which has now announced Tiernan-Locke will not ride for them unless or until he is proved innocent.
One of the ironies in both these cases is that Team Sky has made positive virtues of the fact that it operates totally ‘clean’ and has a zero tolerance policy towards drug-use.
Meanwhile Hein Verbruggen, former head of the UCI, has dismissed as ‘bullshit’ Lance Armstrong’s allegation that he colluded in the covering-up of a positive drugs test in 1999.
The controversies in the world of professional cycling rumble on and on. In a manner that potentially echoes the witch-hunt mentality that grew up after the Jimmy Saville sex scandals, no doubt it is quite possible that all sorts of people involved in cycling over the past thirty or forty years may come out at any time with their take on the rampant drug-taking that used to occur in their day.
I have a simple suggestion. Let’s cut through all the hypocrisy and cant and issue an immediate worldwide total ban on professional cycling, for an initial period of five years.
It’s not a sport, it’s a cut-throat business – and not a very savoury one at that. We’d be better off without it. Or, at the very least, better off without it until it has cleaned up its act. And if it cannot clean up its act within five years, let the ban run until it has.