Drugs and Le Tour de France
With another Tour de France underway and with spectators again encouraged to suspend their disbelief - all as Lance Armstrong is again embroiled in allegations of drugs use - Deakin University academic Associate Professor Catherine Palmer says most professional cyclists have developed a certain survival philosophy about the use of performance enhancement substances.
“It all depends on your definition of performance enhancing,” says Associate Professor Palmer from the Alfred Deakin Research Institute.
“All cyclists take vitamins for instance, as part of their preparations for their events.
“And of course training itself is performance enhancing.
“At the other end of the scale, you have those on the heavy stuff, steroids and so on, to meet the needs of the gruelling competitions in which they participate.
“The majority are probably somewhere in the middle, a mixture of the permitted things like vitamins, good nutrition and so on, and what sports science lets them get away with.
“Cycling does enforces some of the toughest measures and punishments for when a rider tests positive to a banned substance or fails to comply with out-of-competition testing requirements, yet doping still exists in the sport.
"What still haven't been adequately addressed are the reasons why some riders choose to illegally dope themselves, despite the punitive measures being in place and despite knowing the risks to their health, reputations and livelihoods.
"Many feel compelled to search beyond their natural physical capacities just to compete and without some form of artificial stimulant, legal or otherwise, it would not be possible to maintain the pace of professional cycling.
"In other sports in recent times, we have seen a lot of work going into to preparing athletes for when they retire.
“However, a lot of cyclists do not have trades or qualifications to fall back on after they retire, their careers are often over by their mid-30s and they often have young families to support, which all contributes to a rationalisation for why some riders choose to illegally dope themselves.
"While organisations such as the Union Cycliste Internationale, World Anti-Doping Agency, La Societe du Tour de France and cycling bodies throughout the world will, quite rightly, pursue a zero-tolerance approach to drugs in cycling, there is nonetheless a need to acknowledge the tension between athletic achievement and sporting purity that is that is increasingly difficult to reconcile now that the Tour de France is played out on a global, increasingly commercialised scale.”
Associate Professor Palmer says while cycling now is probably as clean as it has ever been, the masking of illicit performance enhancing substances remains an art-form of itself.
“We are well and truly past the days when cyclists would carry someone else’s urine sample under their armpit to provide to the testers,” Associate Professor Palmer said.
“Testing regimes are far more sophisticated than that but there are always people who will seek to find ways around them.”
Associate Professor Palmer said Lance Armstrong remains an enigma, and probably always will.
“He has been tested so many times in the past without any positive tests,” she said.
“There are so many things at play here than just the use of drugs.
“Armstrong has many enemies in the United States, where the latest charges are being brought.
“He is equally not liked in France because he won “their” event seven times in a row.”
As the popularity of the Tour de France has grown globally, something to which Armstrong made a great contribution in America, the French have found themselves in a dilemma.
The event which they hold so dearly is now dominated from riders from all over the world, most recently Australia’s Cadel Evans.
“This creates many commercial opportunities for France, but at the same time there is the issue of loss of national identity,” Dr Palmer said.
“It helps explains why French competitors who might win a stage, particularly on Bastille Day, are celebrated so joyously.”
In a national identity twist, for the first time there will be a team competing in the Tour de France which is unmistakably Australian.
Riders like Evans and Phil “Le Skippy” Anderson rode not for their nation, but for professional teams.
In 2012, Australia will have a record 12 starts in the Tour, including the nine in the new Orica-GreenEDGE team, the first all- Australian outfit to contest the event.