After hours on court, sweating in the sun, playing matches day after day, tournament after tournament, on the 7th July 2013 and to Britain’s joy, Andy Murray won the Wimbledon Final. Physically, it must have been a tough few months for Andy. Across the ATP World Tour, from the French Open to Queens and Wimbledon, the fatigue must have built, a tiredness creeping though his limbs. How does his body cope and recover from the sport’s demands, allowing him to play consistently at the very top of his game? Does he have a training secret? Is he taking something? Was it a blood transfusion, or is it EPO. Perhaps some testosterone between tournaments or a medical certificate for a cortisone exemption. Does anyone really know?
It’s OK though, we know Andy is clean. Only last year he called for more drug tests in tennis, a sentiment echoed by Roger Federer. By urging their governing body to do more, perhaps they suspect not all of their rivals are as pure as the Wimbledon tennis whites. And of course, no doper would call for more testing would they? Think of the damage to their credibility, let alone the lost sponsorship deals, so they are the good clean guys. But, then I remember Pantani, Ullrich, Landis, Armstrong and many others, all giants in cycling and all having vehemently denied the doping accusations levelled against them, before their adoring fans. Of course we know differently now; all along their claims and their lawsuits were a sham.
I’ve read many books on doping in cycling. The most recent in that depressingly long reading list was Tyler Hamilton’s the Secret Race and I found it to be one of the most enlightening. The early chapters recounted his time with Armstrong and the US Postal Team. 100 pages in and I was surprised to find I had a new, if grudging, respect for the team. The squad focused with a single minded determination to win the yellow jersey, and they would do anything to get it, doping included. Doping was systematic, it was a normalised, integral part of their training designed to make them push and race harder, faster and longer. It was, quite frankly, a stunning experiment to stretch the limits of human ability on a bike, and they succeeded, 7 times. Their sense of mission was tremendous and with that success, I don’t think whether to dope or not was a moral issue for long. Doping was part of the scenery with its own shelf in the fridge.
However, for me, the most striking impression from Hamilton’s book is the ease with which dope tests could be evaded. Doping was a team activity and the teams were equipped with doctors that were to medicine what Google/Vodafone/Starbucks accountants are to tax avoidance. They were always several steps ahead of the testers. Ultimately the dope controls and occasional sanctions were little more than a convenient facade for the UCI’s PR agents to tell the world, “look we’re doing our best to keep the sport clean”.
So from cycling’s history, we know doping can be both easy to do and widespread within the sport. I do believe cycling is making determined efforts to clean up and that the professional peloton is much cleaner than it once was. However, while cycling struggles to move on from the lies of the past, I am left a with tragic legacy of distrust and scepticism. All athletes, not just cyclists, can gain from being able to recover more quickly and train harder. Drugs facilitate that. Even sports as physically undemanding as golf are not immune. So thanks to cycling I’m not a naive spectator, every sporting achievement is distorted through a sceptical, dope wary, lens. While other sports don’t get the same media scrutiny over doping as cycling, it does not mean it isn’t happening, so for every swimmer, rower, tennis player, footballer, rugby player, weight lifter and athlete, I’m prepared to accept that they are, well, very much prepared (look up Operacion Puerto – it exposed cycling, but other sports, though implicated, have not been investigated). I don’t believe Andy Murray is doping, but that does not mean I discount the possibility. In all sports there is room for doping, so if it ever transpired that he has, I would be disappointed, but surprised? No.
I hope though, that my incredulity doesn’t sublime into the ridiculousness of some trollish observers. Team Sky have their detractors and they will seize any opportunity to accuse them of doping, so when they dominated the first Pyrennean stage, forum folk were quick to jump on it. On the second day most of Sky cracked or just had a bad day leaving Froome isolated. Incredibly I read posts suggesting Riche Porte being dropped, and even Peter Kennaugh’s early crash, were deliberate acts to make the team appear more credible against doping accusations, although I haven’t seen an explanation for Vasil Kirienkya falling outside the time limit does seem a bit extreme, even for the conspiracy theorists, not to mention being an odd strategy for retaining yellow!
Do I believe Sky are doping though? Many have compared Sky’s dominance to that of the US Postal Team and it isn’t unwarranted. David Brailsford, I’m sure, has the same relentless determination to keep a Briton in the Maillot Jaune as Armstrong did to build his own jersey collection. Both are adherents of rigourous scientific training methods, but I do not think Sky’s extends into doping…but… Vitamin and nutrition supplements, diet and training are all part of an athlete’s performance enhancing spectrum. Blood doping and some drugs are part a of that spectrum too, but sit in a special sanctioned area which should not be crossed. But what goes in there and what stays out is a grey area (before 2004 caffiene was on WADA’s banned substance list). I don’t believe Sky have crossed into that area, I think they are sticking within the letter of the law, but are they within the spirit of the law? Probably not. The doctors may have changed, but I suspect they are still several steps ahead of the testers.