Drug Policy

Suited and Booted

How anti-doping hysteria is ruining sports


Typically, swimwear creates scandal in inverse proportion to the amount of fabric it's crafted from, but not so the Speedo LZR Racer. Like most of the high-tech bodysuits that have become popular among the world's fastest swimmers since the 2000 Olympics, the LZR is as modest as Mormon underwear—it leaves only one's ankles, arms, and shoulders exposed. And yet for the last several months, it's been attracting more attention than a fake Kazakh journalist in a neon green banana hammock.

With its ultrasonically bonded paneling, corset-like "core stabilizer," and fabric that sheds water like the Tour de France sheds dopers, the LZR Racer reduces drag significantly better than any other suit currently available. It's so form-fitting it takes Olympic medalist Natalie Coughlin 20 minutes to put hers on. Five-time Olympian Dara Torres requires two helpers to wedge herself into hers. Still, if the LZR isn't breaking any world records in locker rooms, the pool's a different story. Since the LZR's introduction four months ago, 44 world records have fallen to those who've managed to squeeze into one.

But what sort of message is such promiscuous record-breaking sending to our children? With the Olympics just around the corner, and the Tour already under way, this is high season for leather-lunged oratory about level playing fields, the spirit of sport, and the character-building that comes from joyless, obsessive, meticulously plotted training regimens that nonetheless do nothing to compromise the size of one's genitals.

A common theme of such rhetoric is that sport loses its metaphorical value and instructive authority as soon as things like magic Speedos—and even worse, magic anabolic agents—enter the picture. We value athletic competition in part, this reasoning goes, because it teaches us important life lessons about hard work, sacrifice, discipline, the passionate commitment to exceed one's limits. But when an athlete employs unsanctioned performance-enhancement techniques, somehow that all goes out the window and sport becomes an empty, meaningless, completely corrupt sham.

Or is it just that we're setting new world records for performance-enhancement hysteria? According to swimming's governing organization, FINA, the LZR Racer is legal because there's no evidence that it improves a swimmer's buoyancy—and yet its detractors characterize the suit as "drugs on a hanger." At this point, apparently, we're so wary of doping and its pernicious impact on sport that doping can occur even when no dope is actually involved!

And when dope is involved, it overshadows everything else. Versus, the cable channel that broadcasts the Tour de France in the U.S., has chosen to characterize this year's edition with the theme "Take Back the Tour." A promotional spot that airs repeatedly during the channel's commercial breaks features footage of Floyd Landis, Michael Rasmussen, and other pharmacologically suspect cyclists playing in reverse as singer Paul Weller warbles soulfully about clearing out his head, getting himself straight, making a brand new start. It's as if Versus believes the Tour must erase its entire recent history and go backwards into the future, toward some purer past, before EPO and testosterone digestifs, before autologous blood transfusions. Ah, yes, the good old days, when only cocaine, strychnine, and peppermint fueled the peleton, and the heroic alpine exploits of Gallic ectomorphs could still legitimately inspire us to push past our own boundaries and pain thresholds.

During the chatty intro segments that start each Tour broadcast, the Versus announcers have been taking special care to mention the new procedures and policies designed to keep riders clean. During the broadcast's up-close-and-personal profiles, past and present luminaries issue vague, halting platitudes about the positive new attitudes, positive new beginnings, the potential for change. Eventually, as one of the world's greatest sporting events is reduced to tedious a AA meeting, one can't but wonder: In all those prior Tours that we're supposed to wipe clean from our memories, were the drugs the only thing that mattered? What about rain, wind, flat tires, crashes, feuding teammates, efficient mechanics, drunken fans creating havoc in the roadways, routes that favored one type of rider over another, injuries, illnesses, perfectly executed race strategies?

If banned substances or other unsanctioned performance-enhancement techniques can single-handedly render a sport meaningless, that sport must not have much meaning to begin with. If a tremendous appetite for steroids is all that's required to achieve athletic excellence, Hulk Hogan wouldn't just be a D-list reality TV star—he'd be wearing the Tour's yellow jersey, closing in on Barry Bonds' home run record, and, provided he could shoehorn himself into Natalie Coughlin's LZR Racer, breaking the 100-meter backstroke record too.

Which is not to say that EPO, anabolics, and all the other substances athletes illicitly consume in an effort to beat those blessed with superior aerobic capacity or God's favor don't have an impact on outcomes and the culture of sport in general. Obviously they do. But they don't have nearly as much impact on sport's metaphorical value as anti-doping crusaders insist. Indeed, while Versus' cyclists-in-reverse commercial is supposed to signal a new beginning for the scandal-plagued Tour, it plays more like a highlight reel. Look at Floyd Landis as he hunches over his handlebars while barreling down a mountain at more than 50 mph and abnormally high testosterone/epitestosterone ratios are not what comes to mind. Instead, you see his courage and skill, his intense desire to win, his love of the sport. Dope-fueled or not, he looks like a hero and continues to inspire.

Meanwhile, consider the kinds of messages that arise from sport's current War on Doping. Be suspicious of achievement, wary of innovation. Embrace progress only if it's rare and gradual. According to the War on Doping mindset, the only way to ensure fair play is to monitor athletes more intrusively than we monitor paroled felons. Long hours in the pool, a knack for guessing curve ball when indeed a curve ball is coming, and all the other elements that lead to exceptional athletic performance mean nothing in the face of the awesome, incontrovertible, game-altering powers of dope. But are these really the messages we want to be teaching our children? And if the human spirit really is so impotent and inconsequential compared to a few hundred IUs of EPO or a magic Speedo, why are we even bothering to suit up at all?

Contributing Editor Greg Beato is a writer living in San Francisco. Read his reason archive here.

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  1. The answer is no.

  2. And world records have fallen to those who haven’t worn them. I believe Aaron Piersol broke two world records and he does not like the new suits and did not wear them.

    And speaking as someone who has a son that swims competitively and had two teammates go to Omaha this year, the message of the suit was mostly ignored. The hard work, dedication, and drive to win is what people have focused on.

    Stop your fretting Greg, have a drink and relax a little.

  3. Apples, oranges, and vacuum cleaners.

    Roids are the only things anyone not following baseball thinks about when they hear the word “baseball.” But those legion of fans who do follow baseball don’t care.

    Biking is a major sport in Europe, and can’t keep ANYONE interested anymore because of scandal. Like if the US walked away from the NBA en masse.

    Swimming, while I love it to death, is an olympic sport (in the public’s eye.) Huge every 4 years no matter what. Insignificant the other 3.9 years.

  4. Ah, one of my favorite topics…

    I was watching le TdF and the Olympic trials this morning and thinking about doping in general. If a “level playing field” is what sports organizers are looking to achieve, then most athletes would not be able to compete, period. There will always be someone who has a genetic/physical advantage, or a financial advantage that affords them better equipment or more time to train or superstar coaches, or access to any one or a combo of myriad training advantages. I look at my $2000 road rig that weighs about 19 pounds (mournfully; my current gravid state prohibits me from riding) and ponder the worth of $1500 of carbon fiber and grouppo upgrades to shed 2 lbs, or the alternative of buying another bike, just so I can be a tiny bit faster on the bike, and I mourn my lack of financial advantage over some of those at the local Tuesday night crit.

    The IRL (Indy racing’s governing body) and Indy drivers/fans have gone back and forth over Danica Patrick’s weight. At 100 lbs, she is the lightest driver on the Indy circuit and her low body weight makes her overall car weight very low, thus giving her a slight competitive advantage. Some have argued that her car ought to be weighted down to level her advantage. Perhaps she should just be encouraged to eat more and give up her career as a spokesmodel as a sacrifice to her sport.

    I would not dope if the opportunity were presented to me, and as an aging amateur with neither the hope nor desire to turn pro, I have no incentive to do so. But there are training aids available to me – quick digesting carbo-protein shakes to speed recovery, glucosamine chondroitin supplements to help maintain joint health, etc. etc. etc. that definitely give me a small (perhaps only perceived) competitive advantage, or at least a competitive chance. Where should the line be drawn on doping?

    I may have lost a bit of respect for Landis personally due to his doping scandal, but more for the lies and roundabouts of his story than that he doped. I watched his stage 17 win and was amazed by the feat he accomplished, doped up or not on testosterone (which is banned, but not considered to be a PHS by most sports physicians).

    Steve Verdon is right, it is the dedication and determination to win that I find most enjoyable about athletic competition. But Steve, I think Greg is getting to the larger point about competitive advantages being something that exist due to nature, nurture, equipment, time, supplements, and drugs, whether it be one factor or a combination thereof. It’s a question of where to draw the line. Should swimmers no longer be permitted to remove excess body hair, since it alters their natural outer appearance and said removal makes them more hydrodynamic in order to be faster? How about banning them from doing any weight training for a competitive advnantage, or eating a certain diet, or learning how to breathe properly during their workouts? See how silly it gets when you take the argument to the nth degree?

  5. If banned substances or other unsanctioned performance enhancement techniques can single-handedly render a sport meaningless, that sport must not have much meaning to begin with.

    This doesn’t make much sense to me. It seems fundamental that sports competitions are based on following the rules, and many of the rules are arbitrary–why is a football field 100 yards long instead of 110? Why is a touchdown worth 6 points and not 5?

    If people aren’t playing by the rules, whatever meaning was derived from competing in a rules-based system (rather than just running around throwing and catching a ball) is lost. That fact doesn’t seem to suggest anything at all about how meaningful the rules-based competition was to begin with.

    I’m sympathetic to Beato’s major premise that the reaction of some sports fans and officials to using steroids or other enhancements in sports is wildly overblown. I think the rules could accommodate most of the changes that others seem to feel threaten the “meaning” of the sport. But I’m sympathetic to the notion that the meaning of sports, the value that both fans and players derive from it, relies on all participants acknowledging a common set of rules.

  6. It’s just sports. Entertaining as hell and unimportant as can be.

  7. Meanwhile, consider the kinds of messages that arise from sport’s current War on Doping. Be suspicious of achievement, wary of innovation. Embrace progress only if it’s rare and gradual.

    Or, perhaps the message being sent to kids is beware of unintended consequences?

  8. Two things come to mind:

    1. Harrison Bergeron

    2. If they really want to level the playing field for swimming, why not require the athletes to compete in the nude? It might boost ratings too.

  9. I’m with Untermench’s point 2; clothing is an unacceptable modern perversion of Olympic athletics.

  10. Everytime I read about performance enhancing drugs, I think of …………..tennis. Yes, tennis. Back in the 60s and early 70s, wooden rackets with small faces were used, and it was a lot more interesting to watch. Sports isn’t about doing something faster, better, higher, or farther no matter what. It’s about doing things faster, better, higher, or farther than the next guy. You want fast swimming no matter what? Then put on a race for dolphins. Sure, you can slam a tennis ball quicker with a big-faced racket, but who cares? Drugs screw up competition, and competition is what sports should be about.

  11. Like if the US walked away from the NBA en masse.

    America almost did.

    Just priot to Magic Johnson and Larry Bird rescuing professional basketball, the NBA finals were aired tape delayed. Present basketballers owe those two a cut of their multi-million dollar salaries..

  12. If they really want to level the playing field for swimming, why not require the athletes to compete in the nude? It might boost ratings too.

    Two words of warning, Vasily Alexeyev.

  13. “It’s just sports. Entertaining as hell and unimportant as can be.”

    Too right. Sports are a distraction and entertainment, nothing more. The only reason sports are a big deal in this country is we can afford them. I predict the current economic conditions will cause a correction in the attention paid to sports in this country.

    /Playing a game or running really far or fast doesn’t put food on the table or gas in the car for most people.

  14. Vasily’s a powerlifter. Nobody watches that anyway.

  15. The story of Michael Rasmussen is really disgusting.

    He never failed any doping tests. Never. Not one. He is in trouble because he didn’t report his whereabouts daily, during the off-season. That is what he is guilty of and it is all he is guilty of.

    He was winning the tour without a supporting team, on sheer athletic excellence in a tiny little frame.

    It makes me sick to think about it.

  16. “There will always be someone who has a genetic/physical advantage, or a financial advantage that affords them better equipment or more time to train or superstar coaches, or access to any one or a combo of myriad training advantages.”

    None of those advantages are potentially dangerous to the athlete. The drugs can be, and having them be legal puts athletes who would prefer to develop their talents in safer ways in a bind. Choosing between risking their health and losing edge to someone more cavalier about the side effects.

  17. Did you have to link to the hammock? I’m scrubbing my eyeballs with a Brillo? pad but it doesn’t help!

  18. You want fast swimming no matter what? Then put on a race for dolphins.

    Exactly. Maybe some people are more interested in seeing how fast freaky, roided-out robots can go, but I prefer to see the au naturel version. Not that I want governments to start banning performance enhancing drugs, but for certain sports, I suspect that there is a bigger market for the chemically unassisted variety.

  19. “He never failed any doping tests. Never. Not one. He is in trouble because he didn’t report his whereabouts daily, during the off-season. That is what he is guilty of and it is all he is guilty of.”

    There’s a great interview with current cyclist Jens Voight on velonews.com talking about what they have to do now (post-Rasmussen). As long as they are pros they have to inform the antidoping agencies of their whereabouts 24/7/365. For any block of time longer than 2 hours, they have to notify them three MONTHS in advance of where they will be. Plus one positive now and they have to pay back their entire year’s salary. No other sport even comes close to the anti-doping mania that has hit cycling.

  20. “I may have lost a bit of respect for Landis personally due to his doping scandal, but more for the lies and roundabouts of his story than that he doped.”

    Except that if you followed his appeals (http://trustbut.blogspot.com/) you know that that is still in at least some doubt. The dopers are always ahead of the testers so the testers resort to arbitrary and Draconian means to appear effective (starting with guilty until proven innocent, moving along to we certify the labs therefore the labs are infallible, and ending–in Landis’ case–with the conclusion that though the labs did a bad job, it wasn’t fraud or conspiracy, therefore Landis is guilty). A recent study showed that these very labs couldn’t detect EPO in blood samples. It’s obvious that as false negatives increase, false positives do, too. The system is broken. The entrenched bureaucrats protect their sinecures, athletes pay with their careers, fans become disillusioned. I don’t have the answer, but I know it’s not propping up a fatally flawed system.

  21. Yes, let’s stop our overinflated moral panic over doping in sports and emulate that brilliant beacon of libertarianism and competition called Eastern Germany.


  22. “It’s just sports. Entertaining as hell and unimportant as can be.”

    Actually it’s not entertaining, that’s why the the olympics needs massive government spending to survive. Seriously who watches that crap? Who actually goes to Bejing on their own dime to see that. WWE, is the only sport (normally watched by Americans) that is 0% government subsidized. It is also the only sport that is 100% entertaining.

  23. Personally, I liked the Versus commercial with the riders moving in reverse. To be sure, doping and cheating have always been part of the Tour, but it’s undeniable that the problem has become much worse and chronically widespread (or perhaps just more publicized?). Either way, what I like about the commercial is that it addresses the doping problem head on, and says that we, the fans, have a reason to believe in riders again (presumably because there are now new teams committed to riding clean). At least that’s what the commercial meant to me. And I think that’s a poignant message. Because it takes a certain amount of trust to be a fan. Or it does for me, at any rate. If I can’t trust any of my favorite riders, I might as we be watching theater. And that’s what the Tour has been for a long time now.

    One man’s opinion.

  24. Herodotus, check your facts.

    Michael Rasmussen was pulled out of the Tour by his own team. The reason is that he lied to the governing body of the sport, on purpose, about his whereabouts. This caused him to miss three anti-doping tests, which under the rules is equal to a positive test.

    This is written plain as day in the rules. Moreover, Rasmussen’s whereabouts reporting mishaps were during the season, not the off-season. The last incident occurred in June, just prior to the Tour when he was off training. This is a prime time to dope for an upcoming event. You can sustain higher training loads because of the doping. Since you can’t be found, you can’t be tested, and by the time you show up at the race, the traces of the drugs you took are long since gone, but their effects are not.

    Disgusting was Michael Rasmussen asking a friend to unwittingly smuggle into Italy several bags of an experimental blood substitute made from bovine hemoglobin. Disgusting is his complete failure to suitably explain WHY he deliberately chose to misreport his location so that anti-doping officials would not be able to find him. That’s disgusting to me. Michael Rasmussen is out of cycling and it is a better place for his absence. Good riddance.

  25. Plus, Michael Rasmussen was a whiney prick.

  26. Joe, I would ask for some links, but it might give the impression that I take this is seriously as you do.

    But I don’t. I admit it.

    In fact I don’t take anything as seriously as you do. You fulminate more about minor incidents at minor political gatherings than I have fulminated about everything in my entire life. I strongly suspect that you took Hillary Clinton’s presidential run more seriously than I take death.

    You win joe. Always and forever.

  27. I know how to end controversy about swim suits. Let’s to back to the format of the original Olympic Games, when all events were performed in the nude! I expect it would improve viewership too.

  28. JsubD and Zigazg Man:

    You were both apparently on the chess team…hehe. Seriously, if you have never found the inner courage to stand in against a curve ball that looks like it’s coming right at your head, and then drive it for a double…if you’ve never felt the rush of threading a perfect no look pass for an assist…if you’ve never laid full out at top speed to catch a pass…you couldn’t possible understand.

  29. possibly…dammit!

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  31. this is a complex world,on the one hand, we have to suspect something for some reason.which could bring some negative thought to the next generation.on the other hand, we always believe some positive qualities,such as the words from this article:about hard work, sacrifice, discipline and the passionate commitment to exceed your extreme limits. anybody can not deny these spirits existed.

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