What with the big fall tournaments and a week's vacation between them, it’s taken me a while to get around to what may be the most important story of the season, the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency's Lance Armstrong report, and the new focus it has brought to doping in tennis.
Sara Errani, David Ferrer, and Dinara Safina have all been asked about their connections with Armstrong’s doctor, the now-banned Luis Garcia del Moral, in Valencia, Spain. USA Today
has run a story
by Doug Robson headlined, “Is Tennis Doing Enough on Doping?”; in it, Robson questioned the amount of funding that the sport commits to its program. Yannick Noah says he wants the players checked virtually around the clock. Most significant of all, Andy Murray said this week that he wants more blood testing; more testing in the off-season, when players are doing their training; and harsh sentences for those caught. That’s something of a turnaround for Murray, who has vented his annoyance in the past with testers waking him up before the crack of dawn, and who wasn't pleased with having to take a blood test immediately after losing in the semifinals of the Australian Open this year.
The Armstrong report has struck a nerve, and may serve as a wake-up call. It also makes for fascinating reading. Here are a few belated thoughts on what the report revealed, and how it might relate to tennis.
Were Lance and his crew really that "sophisticated" in their cheating?
That’s what Usada claimed up front: That this was the most elaborate drug scheme in sports history. And that’s the way we, or at least I, usually think of athletes who dope—they’re part of a brilliantly sinister medical system that’s 10 steps ahead of the authorities and makes doping a risk-free enterprise.
It’s true that Lance did have doctors working with him full-time to devise new, undetectable substances and ways of injecting them. But the riders’ system for out-witting the testers described by Usada didn’t sound like rocket science to me—it sounded pretty risky. Here’s the New York Times on how Lance’s Postal Service team avoided being caught:
“The techniques Usada says were used by Armstrong and his teammates to elude positive tests were used by many cyclists, and many believe those tactics are still in use today. They often exploited weaknesses in the anti-doping system, many of which still persist.”
Ah, OK, here we go, what exactly were these slick tactics?
“The most basic technique outlined in the report, based on affidavits from some of Armstrong’s former teammates, was simply running away or hiding....The simplest was pretending not to be at home when the testers arrived.”
That's it, you don't answer the door? There’s a seat-of-their pants quality to how they get away with it in general:
—One day, as Armstrong is preparing for a weigh-in before a race, a teammate points to his arm and shows him a needle mark. Lance looks at it and says, "That’s not good.” They cover it up.
—Before another race, a teammate texts Lance that there’s a tester at a race site. Armstrong, who has just taken something, drops out of the race. It worked that time, but that hardly sounds like a fool-proof system.
—The Times again: “When the testers could not be avoided, Armstrong and his teammates turned to drug masking. During the 1998 World Championships, testers were diverted to other riders on the U.S. team while one of Armstrong’s doctors smuggled a bag of saline under his raincoat, getting it past the tester and administering saline to Armstrong before he was required to provide a blood sample.”
That sounds like a risky method to try to repeat.
Also, it didn’t turn out to be true that Armstrong had never tested positive. He did, in 1999, for a corticosteroid. After a “great deal of swearing,” according to a teammate, a backdated prescription was created to resolve the problem.
Aside from that one failed test, it’s true that Lance and his team beat the system for more than a decade. Still, if I were an anti-doping authority in tennis or any other sport reading this report, I would come away thinking that they could have been caught.
There Really Wasn’t Enough Testing
Which brings me to the second interesting fact revealed in the report: There was much less testing than advertised.
Lance liked to say he had been tested between 500 and 600 times over 14 years. Muhammad Ali referred to himself as “The Greatest"; Lance’s self-proclaimed title seemed to be, “The Most Tested Athlete in Sports.”
Usada says that it only tested Armstrong 60 times, and, according to the Times, “it cited reports that the International Cycling Union had tested him about 200 times, although many of those tests were for a health program rather than for prohibited substances.” The total, in other words, was far less than Lance claimed.
Again, the undetectable substances and micro-doses the riders took would have made most tests ineffective. But looking at the way Lance and company avoided the authorities—running, hiding, dropping out of races, smuggling saline in at the last second, burying drugs in the woods—it seems that more testing would have an effect.
As has been noted many times, the role of the International Cycling Union in testing its own riders is a conflicted one. It polices the sport it promotes. The same is true for tennis. It’s better to have the ITF do it than the tours themselves, but the ITF’s mandate is to grow the game around the world, while at the same time exposing cheaters at the pro level. That's never going to be an ideal blend of missions.
That said, the ITF needs more money so it can do more tests. It currently polices a worldwide sport on just $1.6 million a year, which is provided by the tours and the Grand Slams. That’s a very small number, according to the experts. Andy Murray has been instrumental in getting the players more prize money from the majors. If he’s serious about wanting more testing, he should try to get them to send some cash toward the ITF’s doping program.
Of course, the Armstrong report also proves that testing alone will never work. Usada made its case against the Postal Service team despite having very few positive tests to point to as evidence. Along those same lines, the biggest drug bust in tennis wasn’t carried out by the ITF, but by legal authorities who caught Wayne Odesnik with HGH.
The Report Shows, Again, Why Doping Should Not Be Legalized
In 1999, Lance Armstrong had a new goal: He wanted to win the Tour de France. How did he go about it? He fired his old doctor, Pedro Celaya because, according to a teammate, Celaya “had not been aggressive enough for Armstrong in providing banned products.” Lance replaced him with Johan Bruyneel and Luis Garcia del Moral, who had been associated with another racing team that was known for “its organized team doping.” Armstrong would win the next seven Tour de Frances.
It wasn’t improved training or skill that won Armstrong those titles; it was improved drug taking. Some have argued that hiring a better doctor is not much different than hiring a better coach or trainer. But the job of a coach or trainer is to get the most out of your natural abilities. Doping changes your nature, what’s in your blood, artificially. You get more stamina simply by injecting it.
Consider my favorite part of the report, a song sung by rider David Zabriskie in the Postal Service van, to the tune of Jimi Hendrix’s “Purple Haze”:
EPO all in my veins
Lately things just don’t seem the same
Actin’ funny, but I don’t know why
'Scuse me while I pass this guy
There’s your rallying cry for the doping age.