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Virtue and jealous wishful thinking in cycling

Kenneth D. Gough • May 30, 2018 at 8:00 AM

Remember Lance Armstrong? Cycling fans (we few) certainly do. Seven-time winner of the Tour de France and the miraculous survivor of testicular cancer, he was the biggest personality in cycling for over a decade, a fierce competitor (and fiercely disliked by many of the other riders, even some of his teammates) and a favorite in any race he entered.

A few years ago in this column I expressed skepticism over the charge that he was guilty of doping, on the grounds that (1) he vehemently denied it, (2) he never failed a drug test, and (3) given his prominence, there was no way he could keep it under wraps. He was finally caught, admitted his guilt in a televised interview with Oprah Winfrey, and was stripped of his Tour titles and just about everything else he had won in his long career. The scandal destroyed the careers of many people in cycling who helped uncover the story of a corrupt athlete and the corrupt teams built around him. The case confirmed an open secret — that cycling didn’t just have a doping problem, it was corrupted to the core by drugs.

Cycling finally admitted its drug habit and has spent more than a decade trying to get clean. By all accounts it’s a qualified success; although the pressures to cheat are still enormous, most of the riders, tired and ashamed of living under an ethical cloud, and growing worried about the long-term health effects, have decided that enough is enough. Sponsors, on which the sport is completely dependent, grew weary of the bad press and read the teams the riot act, or gave up and left the sport. Cycling has instituted the most rigorous anti-doping program in sports and has helped drive the continuous improvement in drug testing.

But still, it’s hard to live down the past, and the suspicions and accusations persist. The latest to feel the heat is the sport’s current top rider, Chris Froome, now a three-time winner of the Tour de France, and last year’s winner of another top event, the Vuelta a España (Tour of Spain). Rumors have swirled around him for several years, although much of it could be dismissed as the jealous wishful thinking of beaten rivals.

But, finally, the accusers got what they were looking for. During the Vuelta last year, Froome tested positive for a performance-enhancing drug, salbutamol, and not by just a little bit; he had double the allowable amount in his blood. It should be an open and shut case. Except it isn’t.

The fly in the ointment is the Therapeutic Use Exemption. Many common and widely-used drugs, like salbutamol, have performance-enhancing capabilities. Given that the effects are usually minimal and fleeting, should athletes be denied their use for legitimate purposes? That doesn’t seem right, so the drugs are controlled through the use of TUEs, which are routinely granted.

Froome has a well-documented history of asthma and has a prescription for salbutamol. He had a TUE for it during the Vuelta, freely admits that he used it, and insists he followed the rules and did nothing wrong. So how come the high level in his blood? That’s the multi-million-dollar question, and it may have a perfectly legitimate answer. Or it could be he used too much. If so, it’s impossible to know whether he did it inadvertently or deliberately, although, with cycling’s sad history, it seems naïve to give him the benefit of the doubt.

TUEs have become controversial among the riders, who, as mentioned, are self-policing to keep the peloton clean. Many see them as a way to cheat legally. In a sport where races are routinely decided by the width of a wheel, even the slightest edge provided by a drug could be all the edge that’s needed. Sure enough, TUE requests have been growing; it’s awfully interesting, say the cynics, how many of these world-class athletes have asthma and other conditions that must be treated by drugs with performance-enhancing characteristics.

Any junkie will tell you it’s hard to stay clean. For some, the temptation is just too great. Self-policing by the riders, teams and sponsors is necessary but not sufficient; some people will cheat come what may. It appears that cycling has little choice but to allow TUEs with strict accountability, which means that they impose appropriate penalties for any and all infractions, inadvertent or not.

So, bye, Chris, we’ll miss you, but we hope to see you race again after your suspension.

Kenneth D. Gough of Elizabethton is a semi-retired businessman.

Editor’s note: The opinions expressed by all Community Voices columnists are their own and do not necessarily reflect the official positions of the Johnson City Press.

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