The Slippery Slope to Becoming a Dope

By Emma Maaranen

I don’t think I engaged in as many conversations about Lance Armstrong when he was topping podiums daily at the grand tours of Europe as I have been the past few months regarding Lance’s illegal doping scandal.  Serious cyclists argue about the edge gained and strategies employed with doping on cycling teams, parents ponder the safety of their athlete children in professional sports, even my Grandfather debated the role of politics and economics in the celebrated athlete falling from grace, but beneath each persons rants is a little voice inside cautioning us that if we had been in Lance’s shoes we may have befallen the same fate.

Me, trying not to be passed at the finish line of a race.

I am a competitive athlete.  I systematically train for races, I have a nutritional strategy to maximize my fueling for efforts, and I spend hours reading and discussing the nuances of my sport, mountain biking.  I know that I must suck down a gel twenty minutes before the start of a race to ensure I don’t bonk at the 40 minute mark.  I know I must carefully warm-up my adductors (inner thigh muscles) to prevent cramping.  I spend extra time training technical descents at speed because they are my weakness and visualize my success on these before I go to sleep.  I am not afraid to put in the time to train and try out new things to improve my athletic success, even if they are a bit strange.  This year I read an article about a molecule found in beets that would increase vasodialation (allowing more nutrients to reach muscles faster) if consumed pre-effort and actually tried it on a training ride just to see if it might give me more sprinting power.  If it worked, the effect was negated by having to slow down for vegetal burps.  I decided to stick with the pre-race gel.  However silly as my personal guinea-pig experiments may be, I wonder if this is a healthy scientific quandary into my athletic potential or if this is the first step into logic that can lead one to think using illegal substances for sport is ok?

This May at the Grand Fondo New York several amateur riders tested positive for EPO and HGH.  These were not twenty year old semi-pro riders on the cusp of being asked onto team Rabobank, these were fifty-something Cat. 2 or lower riders in recreational cycling clubs!  They may take their sport seriously, but they can not think they will “go pro” or get some serious monetary payout for their performances. These athletes simply got caught up in trying to be the best cyclist they could be.  By their accounts, dabbling with performance enhancing drugs started in an effort to keep up on the club rides as they aged.  But the gains in speed, endurance and recovery soon put them at the lead of the pack.  This new found role was exhilarating, enough not to want to let it go.  Soon they were adding more drugs into the mix, altering doses scientifically to match training and race day needs, even lying to doctors about medical conditions to get prescriptions for banned substances.  If you stopped, would your training partners become suspicious since your performance would drop? Who would ever think to drug test a recreational cyclist? But a podium finish in this case did warrant a sample collection and the gig was up.

In a candid account by one of the dopers, it becomes clear that the motivation to start performance enhancing drugs came from a desire to maintain a competitive level that was harder and harder to maintain with age, career and family obligations, not to cheat into victory.  But once you have success, how willing are you to do what it takes to have more?

It is obvious that using performance enhancing drugs is bad.  The side effects range from increased body hair growth and tender breasts to stroke and cardiac arrest.  Being caught will ostracize you from your sporting community and may hit your bank account. But is the seduction of glory so strong that these possibilities seem minor? As an amateur, bragging rights to my friends will not be enough to tempt me, plus I’m so terrified of unknown side effects of pharmaceuticals that I avoid OTC’s.  Still, I wonder if the possibility of success on the world stage along with pressure from a professional team would tip the scales?  For Lance it seems it was.  I take this as a cautionary tale, it is a slippery slope to become a dope!