Dopers Suck Part 2: Would I Have Given In?
As the cascade of doping confessions continue to roll out of the Lance Armstrong debacle, a common refrain from those caught up in the doping during cycling’s dark age is that they felt “forced” to give in. That they had no choice. That they were trapped. How true was this? More importantly, before we begin casting stones, what would any of us have done in the same situation? What would you have done? What would I have done?
First, it is obviously true that no one was forced. No one was forcibly strapped on a gurney and injected with drugs by some evil Dr. Frankenstein of a team doctor. A rider could walk away. Some did. Scott Mercier saw how it worked, tried to keep up clean, knew he would fail, failed anyway, packed his bags and went home. In his interview, he states simply that he didn’t want it that much. Life as a pro cyclist had its attractions, but spending thousands on drugs that were against the rules (though basically undetectable) and had definite health risks just wasn’t worth it.
Bt what if you really did want it? What if being that guy flying up Alpe d’Huez was your boyhood dream? What if you struggled and suffered for a hundred thousand kilometers and you finally had a chance? A pro contract, and a shot at making the Tour de France team? And the team doctor said the only way you could recover enough or get fast enough was to get with the “program?” The program of course being the drugs necessary to produce that kind of performance. And that is what the Europeans meant by being “professional.” And that is what you always wanted to be. A Professional bike racer. You roll up your sleeve…
Would I have done it? The truth is, I don’t know. I can picture it two ways. The easiest cop out is my general lack of athletic ability. I can blame my genetics. I can easily believe that no matter what, I could never get to that point where I would have to make that decision. But what if I did? Would I walk away like Mercier? Or would I make room in the fridge next to the butter for a stash of EPO?
I would like to think that I would politely decline, buy a plane ticket back to the US and race domestically for a pittance until I was done and then get a real life. But I think I would have rationalized my way into it. I would have done what Tyler, George, Levi, and many others did. I would reason that everyone else was doing it. That it was a level playing field. Just as no one showed up with a beach cruiser, but equally state of the art racing bikes, real racers only showed up with “racing blood.” My paranoid side would be reassured that there was no test for EPO (the test showed up only on 2001) and a little paranoia would keep me testing clean. Most of all, in my head I would refuse to see myself as a “doper.” I would not let it define me. I would see it as temporary. I would raced for awhile, take advantage of the opportunity, then retire quietly and leave the scene. I would tell myself these things. I would probably believe them.
I don’t think I could let go of the question of “What if?” If I didn’t dope when so many others did, I would never know how good I could have been. And that unanswered question would haunt me. I don’t think I would see it as cheating if so many others did it and got away with it.
I guess then that I am a doper. At least mentally. I may never have taken EPO, testosterone, cortisone, HGH etc. but given the right circumstances, I would have. Fortunately for me, I was never faced with that decision, and my life is much more like Mercier than Armstrong. The truth is I don’t want it that much. I’m quite content to pedal around the woods aimlessly for fun. But the same mentality that leads to trying to improve performance chemically and illegally shows up in the motivation to try all sorts of dietary supplements. Same idea, just less performance and less risk. I confess to trying all manner of supplements. It’s not a big leap to doping. While we might justly condemn the dopers, we should reflect on the very natural and human feelings that lead to those decisions. Most of us cut corners, work the angles and chisel a little when we can. And who hasn’t suffered on a climb and wondered if a few more pharmaceutically acquired red blood cells might make all the difference? We can all be thankful not to be put ito a position where we have to compromise one part of our soul to give flight to another.