This column ran on UPI’s Religion and Spirituality Forum on July 29, 2007.
So the Tour de France this year ended up looking more like a Grateful Dead show than one of the world’s premier sporting events. Drugs—both real and imagined—were everywhere. An entire team left the race after its leader, Alexandre Vinokourov, one of the Tour’s strongest competitors, failed a drug test. Michael Rasmussen was expelled from competition while wearing the overall leader’s yellow jersey, just days before an expected victory lap around the Champs-Elysees. Apparently, he mislead anti-doping officials about his whereabouts, saying he had forgotten to tell them he was going to Mexico, when in fact, he’d neglected to tell them he was in Italy.
Meanwhile, the results of last year’s Tour de France are still being worked out as Floyd Landis appeals a positive test for elevated testosterone levels.
I’m annoyed by the epidemic of doping in the cycling world. Bicycle racing is a sport that I have enjoyed following for the last couple of years, and I would like to think that the athletes who participate in the sport are taking care of themselves and are preserving the integrity of the game. Regrettably, it turns out that a good number of the world’s best cyclists have not managed to live and ride in a blameless manner. Because I’m a fan of cycling and because I care about the health of cyclists who entertain me, I’m bothered by the drug use in cycling, but I’ve decided to try to be indignant without passing moral judgment on cyclists who juice themselves.
Most of the riders who race in the Tour de France also compete in the Amgen Tour of California, which, for the last two years, has passed through my neighborhood to climb East San José’s Sierra Road. Not only is the hill on Sierra Road the toughest incline on the tour, but some folks also have called it the most difficult hill on a cycling race outside of Europe.
I’ve been over Sierra Road on my bicycle four or five times in the last few years, and I’m relatively fit for a person in his late thirties who doesn’t get out to ride as much as he’d like. Generally, it takes me an hour to ride the six miles from my office to the top of Sierra Road. I cover the first two miles in about five minutes, which means that by the time I crest the Sierra Road’s summit (something like 1800 feet in four miles), I am barely going fast enough to keep my bike vertical.
When the riders on the Amgen Tour of California hit Sierra Road, they reach the top in about twenty minutes. This happens after they have ridden all the way from Sacramento, averaging speeds I can hit only while riding down steep hills.
Then these riders get up and do it again the next day. And the next. And the next for weeks at a time. I cannot imagine completing such a race, let alone winning one, but I can imagine being tempted to turn to chemical assistance to help me cross the finish line with a respectable time.
After all, a lot of us use various kinds of drugs to help us get over life’s steep hills. We do this under the care of physicians, consuming legally-prescribed pharmaceuticals for maladies such as chronic physical pain, depression, and erectile dysfunction. We also self-medicate using left-over meds or marijuana, serious narcotics or wee drams of Speyside single malt.
I’ve learned not to be morally judgmental in the face of such drug use. Many of the drugs we use are legal, safe, and can be tremendously helpful. Other drugs are dangerous, destructive and illegal. Either way, my experience tells me that those who use drugs—whether the drugs are healthy or harmful—need help and not moral indignation.
So it is with athletes who use performance-enhancing drugs. They need help. Life is more than a game, more than wearing a yellow jersey through the Arc d’ Triumph. Staying healthy and living a life of integrity are more important than winning. Cyclists and other athletes who use performance-enhancing drugs have forgotten this lesson and they are poorer for their amnesia. Certainly strong anti-doping measures must be in place to protect the health of athletes and the credibility of the world of sports, but those who have forgotten the importance of personal well-being and fair-play are to pitied and not pilloried. They need our compassion and not our condemnation.