Amateur doping shaping up to be sport’s latest test as cycling bans rack up

Speed demon. Cyclist by Shutterstock

The past few months have been traumatic for the world of athletics as it struggles to fight free of a suffocating doping and corruption scandal. On the flip side, it has been quite a turnaround for cycling, which has started to emerge from the dark days of the Lance Armstrong era and is now cited widely as a benchmark for the bosses of track and field. Cycling, however, has a dirty secret.

Well, maybe two, but let’s put aside the spectre of mechanical doping for now and focus on a spate of news stories which have highlighted the murky world of amateur doping in a sport which is slogging away to clean up the professional game.

Fighting for an edge

The cases have come thick and fast. Britain’s junior national time trial champion Gabriel Evans, an 18-year-old from London, was recently caught using the banned blood booster EPO (Erythropoietin). He admitted taking the drug, and claimed it had become “normalised and justified” in his mind because he’d read about others regularly being caught.

British Masters road race champion Andrew Hastings was handed a four-year ban after testing positive for two anabolic steroids. He claimed that the failed test came after he borrowed a used syringe to take a vitamin supplement.

Spiked? marosh, CC BY-NC-ND

English masters rider, Jason White was banned for two years after refusing to provide a urine sample to drug control officers. Dan Stevens also failed to provide a sample but his two-year sanction was reduced after he assisted an inquiry into doping.

These are far from isolated examples in the wider world of cycling. Oscar Tovar, the 32-year-old winner of the 2015 New York Gran Fondo, a competitive but amateur race with little prize money, was stripped of his title after testing positive for synthetic testosterone and accepted a two-year ban. In January, 59-year-old Italian jazz guitarist Gigi Cifarelli was banned for four years for doping after a positive test at the Grand Prix Dell’Uva Fragola-Suno amateur event. He too accepted the sanction.

Testing the limits

The fear must be that this is only the start of something bigger in cycling and other amateur sports. Unsurprisingly perhaps it looks like it may be an emerging crisis in Ironman triathlon competitions – a sport where you must swim 2.4 miles, cycle 112 miles, and then run a marathon. Danish competitor Thomas Lawaetz, was banned for four years after he admitted EPO use. And a survey of 3,000 Ironman triathletes showed that around 20% admitted doping.

Sport in transition. Marc Buehler/flickr, CC BY-NC

The proposed solution is more testing of amateurs, an approach also taken by USA Cycling due to their increasing concerns that doping has spread through the lower ranks.

However, testing is very limited: it is very expensive and most of the focus is quite rightly placed on elite, professional athletes. It is nigh on impossible to undertake a systematic strategy of out-of-competition testing of amateurs, and many with some knowledge of the substances could ensure they are “washed out” their system before the competition. The implication of this, of course, is that those few individuals who have tested positive are only the tip of the iceberg.

Force of the law

While the French and Danish governments have laws against doping in lower-level sport, it is not an approach widely supported by other countries. And so responsibility and costs fall on cash-strapped sports agencies who have other funding priorities. A recent study of US cycling highlighted the challenges involved in addressing this problem.

The rising popularity of competitive amateurs, especially in endurance sports, means that doping is more than simply challenge to ideas of sporting purity and the ideal of noble Corinthian endeavour. It also poses serious dangers to the health of athletes tempted to dabble.

Weekend competitors are unlikely to find expert “doping doctors” like those who helped Armstrong and his team-mates to manage their doping regime. Risks of over-use, sharing needles and contaminated products are significant. EPO has been tentatively linked to several deaths, although without any conclusive proof. It works by releasing more oxygen-carrying red blood cells which “thicken the blood” and force the heart to work harder. Anecdotes from cycling’s darkest days tell of riders setting alarm clocks through the night so they could wake up periodically to train, and to make sure their own congealed blood didn’t kill them while they slept.

More and more, amateur competitors are prepared to spend thousands of pounds on equipment, invest 10-15 hours a week training, spend their holidays on training camps, and pay for personal coaches. It’s no great leap to seeing doping as just another opportunity for improvement. They may not be doing it for money – it seems pride and social status, and perhaps even just curiosity – are motivating principles. The paradoxical twist here is that if testing does get ramped up, then the open secret will disappear into the shadows, increasing the health risks as it goes.

UK Anti-Doping chief Nicole Sapstead admitted to the Daily Telegraph that she can only guess at the scale of the problem, and has little money available to tackle it. UKAD relies instead on tip-offs and close monitoring of social media to spot potential dopers.

It looks like a humble operation amid the scandals of corrupt sports leaders, cover-ups and organised doping in Russia, which symbolise crisis at the highest level of world sport. The attention afforded these situations arguably detracts from a much wider potential public health issue, as yet unacknowledged and without obvious solutions. By defining doping as a part of elite sport, amateur doping falls between the cracks of responsibility, allowing unregulated doping cultures to grow where medical oversight and advice is least able to intervene.