I have a theory. It is this: no one actually believes in doping. They believe it happens, but in their heart of hearts, no one really believes that it makes any difference to how fast someone can go.
Look at it this way. If we accepted that doping changed how fast someone could ride, then whenever a second place rider was elevated to first after the original winner had been disqualified, we wouldn’t feel we had to always mention as a caveat that they actually hadn’t crossed the line first on the day.
We wouldn’t do that if they’d been disqualified for holding on to a team car for 20km.
And, God knows I don’t like to bring up Lance Armstrong, but the reason that the Tours de France from 1999 to 2005 are left credited to no winner at all isn’t just to piss him off. That’s just a bonus. They’re blank because no one has a clue who should have won them. Yet, still, we continue to look at it from the point of view of the doper, not the rest of the sport.
They’re the Tours of the Unknown Rider, which is a rather more fitting memorial than the Tours that Half the World Seems to Think Lance Ought To Get Back because Jan Ullrich Was At It As Well.
I found myself thinking about this because everyone seems to have spent a lot of the last week or two talking about TUEs.
It’s a matter that has infuriated some, and confused others.
(One Twitter correspondent in response to a suggestion we ban TUEs altogether, asked how the hell we’d then get from MON to WEDS. “Would we just have a blank space, and would I still have to go to work?”)
The concern, prompted by a Russian hacking group, is that some Western athletes have been using illegal Therapeutic Use Exemptions to access things like asthma inhalers for the non-asthmatic.
The group’s motivation is to create a distraction from recent revelations about state-supported doping in Russian sport. I think it’s very sweet that so much of the Western media has been so keen to help out with this project.
I’d suggest that no one really believes doping works, because the world seems to accept that a dodgy TUE is as reprehensible as a state-sponsored doping cover-up. It’s not. One is EPO, human growth hormone, blood doping, and the other is a dodgy asthma inhaler.
Our currently scandalised sport has a bad habit of looking at doping only through the eyes of the doper or suspected doper.
The question is always, “Was the athlete honest?” And, yes, a dodgy TUE is as dishonest as blood doping.
But a second, neglected, question is, “How did the rider’s dishonesty change the racing and the sport?”
That’s because, ultimately, no one really thinks doping affects anything other than a rider’s moral standpoint. Yet in its consequences, a dodgy TUE is to state-sponsored doping as an iffy egg sandwich is to poisoning the water main.
If you still don’t believe me, then ask this: why is an electric motor down the seat tube seen as more reprehensible than a rider with a fridge full of his own blood?
No one struggles to see what a laughing stock cycling would be if everyone started riding an electric bike, but as far as the blood is concerned, the rider might as well be getting ready to make the world’s creepiest black pudding.
I’d like to see TUE abuse better controlled. But I’d like to see the bigger problems given the priority they deserve. I’d like everyone to accept that doping isn’t just a technicality, or no more than a test of moral fibre.
And I’m sorry about the black pudding joke. It was horrible.