I have two confessions: the first is that I’m fascinated with the psychology of doping in sport – both that of the athletes who choose in favour or against doping, as well as their observers, the fans (and others).
I love reading about, discussing and debating it.
It’s a little bit perverted as I feel as though I should be disgusted with and sick of it, but to me it adds another dimension to sport, making it more interesting.
The second may do no more than the first to endear me to readers: the recent revelations of doping scandals in traditionally Australian sports – AFL and NRL – gave me a deep sense of schadenfreude.
For years I’ve watched the sport I love the most – cycling – being mercilessly dragged through the gutter by doping scandal after scandal.
Such a beautiful, noble and ostensibly pure sport has been brutally and comprehensively exposed as representing anything but those qualities.
Is there really something unique about cycling which makes its pro riders so dishonest?
I’ve always doubted it. The news of Essendon AFL and NRL players players allegedly being administered banned substances was a Eureka moment for me, an open window for others to look into the truth about the moral fallibility of pro athletes that I always suspected existed.
But do people want to take a peek? I’m unconvinced.
As a Melburnian, I’m closest to the Essendon AFL scandal. It has certainly received huge media attention, more so than most cases of doping in cycling (perhaps with the notable exception of a certain retired Texan).
So how have people reacted? In a word, differently to revelations of doping in cycling.
The media’s coverage of Essendon’s ‘supplements’ program has tended to take an angle of portraying the players as guinea pigs, victims of evil doctors and charlatans who, using their powers of deceit and manipulation, have hijacked an esteemed football club whose integrity was previously beyond reproach.
In fairness, ASADA are yet to hand down the report into their investigation of doping at Essendon.
Innocent until proven guilty, and all that. It’s also a highly complicated matter, with the status of the alleged substances less clear-cut than, say, EPO.
However, many people (non-cycling fans) I’ve spoken to are blissfully unaware of how the ASADA (actually the WADA – World Anti-Doping Agency) rules work.
There is precious little allowance for ignorance as a defence – once a prohibited substance is proven to have entered an athlete’s body, it’s pretty much all over.
The fact it may have been administered by a club doctor is not an excuse. It’s not quite that simple and to be fair – I’m not pretending to be an expert – but that’s the gist of it.
Many of these mitigating factors also apply to cyclists, such as Stuart O’Grady.
Having read autobiographical accounts of their experiences in the peloton by Tyler Hamilton and David Millar, it is perfectly clear that their decisions were far more difficult than just: “Do I cheat or not?”
In fact, today I rode in a cycling race which was won by a rider who – rumour has it – could have joined their ranks, had he been more flexible with the rules (I couldn’t ask him personally – he was home and showered by the time I finished).
That’s a lot to give up. Certainly, more than the difference between finishing in or out of the top four on the ladder.
Yet, there is so much less sympathy for cyclists who dope.
I have two theories for why: the first is the relative nature of the sporting codes.
Cycling, like other endurance and power sports, are about exploring the human body’s performance limits.
Doping is perceived a bit like fitting an electric motor to your bike – it defeats the purpose of the competition.
Ball sports are viewed differently – they are primarily about skill, courage and teamwork.
Doping clearly helps, but can’t substitute for the core capabilities of an elite ball sports athlete.
For the record, I believe such a view to be misguided, but not entirely devoid of logic.
The second of my theories is perhaps more obvious – unlike football, cycling is not a mainstream sport in Australia.
The general public know less about its stars’ personalities and sometimes even treated with suspicion – those guys who live in Europe and dress up in attention-seeking, luminescent lycra.
Again, for the record, I’m not bitter about that – I’ve long found the obscure, exotic nature of the continental pro cycling scene as alluring.
The Australian public sees players like Essendon captain Jobe Watson in a very different light.
The son of an AFL legend, Jobe seems to represent everything that aspiring, young Australian footballers and sports fans look up to. He’s a role model.
Surely, his reputation will be tarnished by this scandal. But I suspect he will redeem himself over time.
He’ll cop a torrent of abuse from opposition fans at matches, but that’s arguably a given – the only uncertainty being the topic.
The real test will come if and when Essendon players are handed suspensions.
Will they be labelled drug cheats, or victims of a cruel, unsympathetic regime which refused to consider the extenuating circumstances?
Of course, in a free society, people will draw varying conclusions. But I suspect the predominant view will reflect the latter – i.e. victims, rather than villains.
So how would you describe a young, unworldly cyclist who gave up everything at home to take up a contract with a cut-throat European team that treats its riders as little more than disposable commodities, and which hands them their meagre pay with a brown paper bag full of pills?
Victim or villain?
Of course, it’s inaccurate to reduce the issue to deciding between one or the other. There is so much more to consider than can be covered in a short article, or which I know about.
But if that was absolutely necessary, I say victim – for both Jobe and Stuey O’Grady.