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It’s the first Tour de France since the Armstrong saga – but has anything changed?

Bradley Wiggins, Cadel Evans, Mark Cavendish, Philippe Gilbert, Tejay van Garderen, Chris Froome and Alberto Contador in front of the map for the ‘cleanest tour ever’. But have attitudes towards doping in cycling changed in the past year? EPA

It’s the first Tour de France since the Armstrong saga – but has anything changed?

Bradley Wiggins, Cadel Evans, Mark Cavendish, Philippe Gilbert, Tejay van Garderen, Chris Froome and Alberto Contador in front of the map for the ‘cleanest tour ever’. But have attitudes towards doping in cycling changed in the past year? EPA

The historic 100th edition of the Tour de France, kicking off tomorrow in Porto-Vecchio, Corsica, is being heralded by many as the cleanest Tour ever. This year’s Tour favourite, Britain’s Chris Froome, believes the 2013 peloton will be the cleanest in decades. And Tour director Christian Prudhomme said in May about doping:

That’s the past … Cycling is not a perfect world, but it’s changed.

Cycling fans and officials throughout the world rightly want to move past the damage caused by the Lance Armstrong case. But will this year’s Tour be any different to previous competitions?

Same symptoms, different year

Post-Armstrong, the focus on doping in cycling (and elite sport generally) has certainly intensified. In Australia, this has prompted more punitive rhetoric from government and sports governance bodies around anti-doping policy and practices.

ASADA CEO Aurora Andruska. AAP

This in turn has led to calls for harsher punishments for athletes who test positive for drugs, greater funding and power to anti-doping groups, tougher sports anti-doping legislation, and new links with law enforcement.

A significant recent development is that Cycling Australia is currently in the process of establishing an Ethics and Integrity Panel, following the recommendations of the review of its governance practices by Justice Wood QC.

Despite these developments, as we look to the start of the 2013 Tour de France there are worrying signs that something is still not quite right in professional cycling. For example:

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Taken together, these examples are important because they suggest that there are still grey areas and divergent ideas and practices around anti-doping responses in this sport. There is certainly not the unity of decisions, actions, and attitudes we might expect given the forceful rhetoric emerging in the anti-doping policy sphere.

Where’s the attitude change?

Consider also the attitudes towards doping and cheating recently expressed by ex-Tour riders Tyler Hamilton, Lance Armstrong and Jan Ullrich, respectively:

We knew we were breaking the rules – but … we didn’t think of it as cheating. It felt fair to break the rules, because we knew others were too.

The definition of cheat is to gain an advantage on a rival or foe – you know – that they don’t have. I didn’t view it that way. I viewed it as a level playing field.

At that time, nearly everyone was using doping substances and I used nothing that the others were not using. In my view, you can only call it cheating on my part when it is clear that I have gained an unfair advantage.

See the pattern? These high profile and influential ex-riders do not regard what they were doing as cheating. Their doping practices didn’t equate to an “unfair advantage” in their view, because everyone was doing it.

At a minimum, these examples should prove to us that there is still much to understand about the culture of professional cycling, and attitudes to drugs and doping. One also wonders how widespread such views about cheating and fairness are in the current pro-peloton – it still contains riders from the Hamilton, Armstrong and Ullrich era. And what about current attitudes and definitions of ‘cheating’ in other levels of cycling?

Tyler Hamilton won gold at the Athens 2004 Olympic Games, but failed a blood test which determined positive performance-enhancing blood transfusions a month later. EPA

The recent independent review of the Australian world tour pro-cycling team, Orica-GreenEdge, by anti-doping expert Nicki Vance came to a similar equivocal conclusion about the current situation:

There is a general feeling that cycling at the elite level is now significantly cleaner and it would seem that the important cultural change has been made in the sport although there was still some concern about doping at the lower levels of cycling where riders are not exposed to the same requirements.

Other anti-doping proponents such as Australian Michael Ashenden believe the omertà (code of silence) still exists in elite cycling post-Armstrong. Ashenden and others in the anti-doping field, notably USADA, believe the only way to tackle this problem is through a truth and reconciliation commission, with full amnesty to riders and team staff who report the truth of doping in their ranks.

Considering the above signs, such an approach is appealing. But it seems an unlikely step in this country with ASADA ruling out the amnesty idea.

In any case, if the full truth of the drugs in cycling problem is to be revealed, we will need to figure out how to look beyond the drip-feed of individual doping cases which current anti-doping policy approaches deliver.

We could do this if the governing bodies of cycling, internationally and in Australia, would make a genuine commitment to understanding of the social, cultural, and historical determinants of drug use and doping in cycling.

German cyclist Jan Ullrich as he arrives to sign in for the third stage of the 2005 Tour de France cycling race in La Chataigneraie, France. A report in a German news magazine last week says the former professional cyclist has, for the first time, admitted to blood doping. AAP

Will cheats ever be fully exposed? Don’t hold your breath

Like most other fans of professional cycling and the Tour de France, I too want this sport to move past the Armstrong era. I hope the Tour will be different now and into the future.

Unfortunately, the examples highlighted above suggest that the conditions still exist in professional cycling, and in cycling governance, that would allow drug use and doping to persist.

These signs should make even the most optimistic fan question the messages emerging from anti-doping groups and sporting officials proclaiming how things have changed. Indeed, if you look back at the public language used following most of the major drugs in sport episodes of the past 40 or so years, you will see the same messages over and over – new clean era, different athletes, new culture, better testing, harder anti-doping policies and programs.

And yet the drugs and doping scandals keep on coming.

Vive le Tour! by all means. But you have to wonder if we will ever hear the end of drugs and doping in this beautiful sport.


Further reading:
Conversation articles on the Tour de France