Let Le Tour competitors take drugs

As the Tour de France ends in druggy chaos, a German journalist says it's time to relax the rules on performance-enhancing substances.

Matthias Heitmann

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The 2007 Tour de France ended in Paris on Sunday in disarray. Two competitors, including the race favourite Alexander Vinokourov, were disqualified for drug offences, leading to the withdrawal of their teams. The race leader, Michael Rasmussen, was kicked out by his own team under suspicion that he also took performance-enhancing drugs. This comes after the 2006 winner, Floyd Landis, was accused of drug-taking, too (his case and his status as 2006 champion are still the subject of legal wrangling).

In this article, first published on spiked in May, German journalist Matthias Heitmann says it is illogical to differentiate between ‘natural’ and ‘artificial’ methods of enhancing performance, and thus Le Tour competitors should be free to take drugs.

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The annual Tour de France competition has fallen into disrepute after renowned cyclists admitted to ‘cheating’ by using additives and various forms of pharmaceutical products in the past. Many have claimed that the recent confessions have eroded the credibility of the sport’s premier race. Tour director Christian Prudhomme said of the Danish former champion Bjarne Riis, who admitted last week to using performance-enhancing drugs in 1996, that he ‘said himself that he did not deserve to have won the Tour in 1996 because he cheated. I think the same thing, because he has soiled the [race leader’s] yellow jersey.’ (1) But is the revelation that past participants were linked to doping really so scandalous?

Amidst all the fuss about the Tour de France cyclists, no one has asked what seems like an obvious question to me: Why shouldn’t sportsmen take additives, dope, drugs and whatever else they choose to use in order to improve their game?

After all, who has never used additives or any form of product, chemical or natural, to perform? I confess: I need an espresso every morning to get going and I enjoy a beer in the evening to relax after a long working day. Whenever I have a headache (or a hangover), I use painkillers to get rid of it. And I brush my teeth to make them last longer. In fact, my lifestyle is quite unnatural; I am fighting against diseases and against natural physical decay. And by the way, I’m winning.

I have more or less adapted my physical condition to my needs – often by questionable means. This might not be healthy, but it is legal. My body is heavily influenced by hormones and I continuously manipulate myself with carbohydrates and other stuff commonly known as food.

A lot of people, such as professional cyclists, get more out of their bodies than I do. They have different aims and visions of what they want to achieve and in order to do so they use their bodies and influence them directly. They exercise every day to be able to perform better than the average couch potato. They work hard, use proteins, vitamins and the most extraordinary physical techniques. In a way, they do what everyone does, or would like to do: They use their bodies as tools of their free will.

We all live very unnatural and artificial lives and we all shape our bodies accordingly. In order to improve and advance, mankind has always used additives. Everyone. Always. To be able to survive under harsh weather conditions, man started wearing furs and building houses. Axes were developed to enable them to catch their prey, which they cooked to ensure better digestion, allowing them to maximise the efficiency of energy input. Ergo, they could perform better. To cure diseases and to extend their lifetime, men started consuming certain plants. They developed agricultural techniques and domesticated wild plants and animals to human benefits. More or less all leguminous plants we consume today, as well as cattle and sheep, are products of our own making.

We have always used the brain to overcome the limitations of our existence. Our greatest strength is our reason and to develop our brains we do the most unnatural things. We spend years in school sitting down and listening. When we read, we force our eyes to concentrate on minor characters – and if they can’t cope, we wear glasses to make them work properly. Without mental training we would not be able to survive.

So what would we be like without additives and body enhancing products? The answer is straightforward: We would be less human and definitely worse equipped to adapt to our environment. The use of additives is a fundamental human trait that enables us to do and achieve things we are physically not made for.

Where should we draw the line between legal and illegal additives? Should it be legal to take ginseng to increase mental performance, but illegal to take ‘proteins’ to become stronger and faster? What is the reason for the celebration of some additives and the condemnation of others? We could just say, the difference is that some are forbidden and others are not. But rules are man-made, not god-given. They have to make sense and if they don’t, we should question them.

Bjarne Riis, now retired, said he used the blood-booster EPO from 1993 to 1998, including during his 1996 Tour victory, and also admitted to having taken cortisone and human growth hormone. Once a national hero, he has now been condemned as unethical and immoral by authorities in his native Denmark. Riis’ support riders on the German Telekom Team, Eric Zabel and Rolf Aldag, also admitted to using EPO and since the revelation German Chancellor Angela Merkel has urged cyclists who used doping to break a ‘cartel of silence’. (2) But despite this moral outcry across Europe, does it really make sense to ban additives in sports?

Some argue that performance-enhancing drugs should be banned because sports competitions have to be fair. But is it really fair that some athletes have the opportunity to use high-tech training schemes and methods to improve and others don’t? Is it fair when a tall person competes against a shorter one? Should we set a height limit for basketball players? And why is it ethically correct to attend mountain training sessions in order to increase one’s haemoglobin level to acquire a better oxygen intake and achieve better results, while injecting your own blood in the process of an autohemotherapy is frowned upon? And where is the moral gap between taking vitamins supplements and erythropoietin, the glycoprotein hormone that stimulates the production of red blood cells by stem cells in bone marrow? Whether I deliberately inject additives into my body or simply wear them on my skin in the form of makeup or lotions – what’s the difference?

Some argue that the use of additives might be unhealthy and dangerous. This may be so. On the other hand, professional sport such as Tour de France is not about health and safety. Professional athletes use and spend their physical strengths to make their personal dreams and visions come true. Quite often the bodies of athletes are exhausted, but the athletes are still championed as heroes.

The moral rejection of doping cannot be explained by that fact that someone simply broke a rule or that it may be unhealthy. The moralisation of the debate is based on a strange understanding of ‘natural’ performance. Considering that human performance – and human life in general – is all about continuously going beyond natural barriers and physical limits, to define doping as unnatural or as a form of cheating is absurd.

If we defined doping as an unnatural way of accelerating our performance we would all be guilty as hell. But the official definition of this so-called crime is even more banal: Additives are claimed as illegal when their names have been listed by a sport federation. That’s about it. We should be thankful that 10 000 years ago mankind didn’t have these kind of bureaucratic federations – neither in social life, nor in sport. Otherwise they probably would have banned everything from the use of axes to the domestication of cows in the name of fair play.

Matthias Heitmann is co-editor of the German magazine Novo. View his personal website here. A version of this article was published in the German newspaper Die Welt.

Previously on spiked

Andy Miah doubted that the World Anti-Doping Agency could keep up with Frankenrunner. Alan Hudson argued that competition is the only thing about the Olympics which is not vulgar or demeaning. Alex Standish feared that as competitive sport is chased out of schools, so too is teamwork and ambition. Paul Bickerton analysed the making of an Olympian and Josie Appleton wondered what was so extreme about extreme sports. Or read more at: spiked issue Sport.

(1) 1996 Tour De France Champ Admits Doping, Associated Press, 25 May 2007

(2) ibid

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

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