The Dope Show

With news of Tyler Hamilton ringing the doping bell for a second time all over the front pages today, it seemed like a good time to drag out the dope-related piece below. Why? Because just rehashing the Hamilton saga wouldn’t be any fun, and I’m confident that any number of sources will be able to fill that void in your informational needs. But doping is going to be the topic of the day whether I like it or not, and I'm not strong enough to swim directly against that rip current. So I'm swimming sideways, just like they tell you to. Onward...

Back in January of 2008, a fellow club member (and writer for a serious, newsy publication) was looking for sources that knew the ins-and-outs of the doping world, since she’d been assigned to cover the Major League Baseball hearings on Capitol Hill. So she put the question out to our listserv. Since we travel in some overlapping circles, and I’ve never been one to resist a snarky reply, I channeled my alter ego to warn her of the dangers of what she was asking – namely, asking cyclists for nearly any sort of input on doping matters, cycling or otherwise. If she had any doubts as to the wisdom of that course, I believe the response, pasted below, cleared it right up.

I should caution you that my alter ego is not a stickler for strict presentation of “the facts,” which should never be allowed to get in the way of making a point. Also, he’s usually a little drunk.


Dear Mme. [Name Withheld]-

Welcome to the dope show.

I suggest that you get in touch with your friend and mine, Mr. [Name Withheld] lately of Boulder, Colorado. He’s been sniffing around the back end of that dog since 1999, at least, and he hasn’t let it bite him yet. The astute minds of NPR call on him each July to speak on the issue, as he has a voice for radio, with a face to match, as he’d no doubt point out, ha ha, hee hee… The MLB crowd isn’t his game, but he’s likely kept up with the issues.

But before telephoning and getting down into the dirt of the assignment, I advise you to consume a minimum of one pint cheap whiskey, open all the windows and put a needle the live version of Lou Reed’s “Heroin,” preferably at maximum volume and distortion. I stress that it must be out loud and analog, at least at the output end – none of that digital file and earbud shit your generation has an affinity for.

“I’m going to try
For the kingdom, if I can
Because it makes me feel like I’m a man
When I put a spike into my vein
Aw, honey, things aren’t quite the same…”

Ah, things aren’t quite the same. Indeed. And that's the problem. Talking to lycra-clad freaks about doping in the American big leagues is a dangerous proposition. For starters, they’re so radicalized through years of cycling’s “unfair” media browbeating that their spittle-whet rants about American major league sports are nearly nonsensical. But more than that, their tirades are virtually irrelevant, as the sewer of dope regulations running beneath cycling's roads is much deeper and has far more tributaries than the shallow ditch that runs straight past the MLB, NFL, NBA, and NHL headquarters and out to their ample parking lots. For that crowd, being a federally regulated monopoly has its drags, like providing health insurance and wearing a tie for congressional hearings, but strict rules against the hot sauce ain’t among them.

But not so with cycling, my friend. We have plenty of those little sticky wicket dope rules, and we did it to ourselves. Rather, Hein Verbruggen did it to us back in 1992, when the UCI reunited its FIAC (amateur) and FICP (professional) arms and wrapped them lovingly around the busty chest of the IOC in a ploy to get at the roll of cash tucked neatly into her décolletage. That clumsy groping opened the door for professional cyclists in the Olympics, that quadrennial feel-good sham that for some reason continues to intoxicate the advertisers.

And what did we get for it? The goofiest son of a bitch to ever hold a Swiss passport, geezer Pascal Richard, wins the 1996 Atlanta road race and starts an unfortunate trend by putting his remedial art skills to work designing himself a commemorative jersey. Compare that to 1992 in Barcelona, when quiet, young, and beautiful Fabio Casartelli, clad in a sponsor-free Squadra Azurri jersey, single-handedly Hindenburged the USCF-funded Lance Armstrong publicity dirigible that was floating over the NBC coverage. Armstrong got other chances, of course, but Casartelli not so much. He died way too early and way too publicly on the Portet d’Aspet, and we’re left with a Telekom Cerberus negotiating the medals on the road in Sydney 2000, Paolo Bettini riding in gold shoes, and at least one other pro race every four years guaranteed to be as fucked up as the World Championships. But that’s not the worst of it.

In exchange for sipping complimentary Coca-Cola in some luxury trailer on a humid Atlanta streetcorner, then flying off to the next round of bid cities to check out their race courses, liquors, and prostitutes, collecting as much as he could in cash and prizes along the way, Verbruggen ceded dope regulation of professional cycling to the rules of the IOC, with all the integrity that implies, and subsequently to its WADA minions. That lot and their accredited labs have joined the national cycling federations, national Olympic committees, and some attention-starved police forces and magistrates to form some sort of babel-tongued Greek chorus, chanting for heads on plates wherever they can find them. When they can’t find the plates, they settle for the heads, and then fight amongst themselves over who gets the ear and who the tongue. The rest is all written down.

But that doesn’t have anything to do with baseball. Because the professional stick-and-ball crowd has the goddamned good sense to stick to the culture they know and the rules they make and enforce themselves, instead of handing the keys to the kingdom to some Swiss milkmaid in a labcoat just to gain entry to an event their audience doesn’t give a rat’s ass about. They’ve got a good thing going, and they’re not about to screw it up by hopping in the sack with a bunch of guys in Prada sunglasses sipping thimblefuls of coffee in Lausanne cafes.

Those guys may have a lot of Euros lining their pockets, but baseball is content with the pile of greenbacks it has, an extra large from Dunkin Donuts, and getting hauled in front of a congressional panel every now and then. Why? Because they’re smart enough to know that baseball is about the pennant, the World Series, and money, not the Olympics, just like cycling is about the Tour, the Classics, and money, not the Olympics. And that you’re far better off running your own show. The Olympics are a cold-war relic more suitable for Greco-Roman wrestlers, ice dancers, and eastern-bloc gymnasts than for sports with more than a couple of bucks in hand and other things to do with them, and you’re far better off without the IOC’s hand in your particular cookie jar. But cycling failed to recognize that. Fortunately for professional baseball, it did, and its dog-and-pony hearings will go as scheduled: superficially tough questions pitched to bit players, marble-mouthed non-answers from the low seats, the ceremonial ousting of several “bad seeds,” then business as usual. Cycling used to have that luxury, but we sold it for a soft-focus interview with Bob Costas.

So anyway, yeah, call [Name Withheld]. He’s probably wondering what you’re up to anyway.