this article originally appeared on The Roar
Either that or, we should all just stop being so British (and Scandinavian).
For, according to Mike Costello, sports writer, it seems that it is the UK, Finland, Denmark and Sweden that almost uniformly castigate drug cheats, whilst “in other parts of the world [the reaction] is nothing like as venomous.”
In fact, says Costello on a recent BBC Radio 5 program, “Some people chuckle at how venomous we can be, and also countries like Sweden and Denmark and Finland, countries that have a real passion about coming to grips with drug cheats.”
The statements from Costello are anecdotal of course, though a trawl of different national media might offer more of a substantive glimpse into a very interesting area, one that very much informs the polarized views on this issue.
For it is true that some people just do not care whilst others do, and very much so.
Could it be that there is a more ingrained sense of fair play amongst athletes and indeed fans of sports from the UK and Scandinavia? This is potentially murky ground and a debate about it may not be something that would necessarily advance the cause of anti-doping.
But it is intriguing.
In any case, the BBC Radio 5 program was concerned about new research that suggests that athletes that dope even for a short period could benefit for “up to ten years,” whereas for more ‘committed’ cheats, the benefits “could be lifelong.”
Kristen Gunderson, Professor of Physiology at the University of Oslo that ran the new research into steroid use, told BBC Sport: “I think it is likely that effects could be lifelong or at least lasting decades in humans.
“Our data indicates the exclusion time of two years is far too short. Even four years is too short.”
Gunderson’s team drew its data from tests on mice (who, if karma is real, must have been terrible souls in their previous incarnations for they forever being pumped full of crap), but they are convinced, due to the stark findings they collected, that these drugs have the same effect on humans.
“I was excited by the clarity of the findings. It’s very rare, at least in my experience, that the data are so clear cut; there is usually some disturbing factor. But in this case it was extremely clear. If you exercise, or take anabolic steroids, you get more nuclei and you get bigger muscles. If you take away the steroids, you lose the muscle mass, but the nuclei remain inside the muscle fibres.
“They are like temporarily closed factories, ready to start producing protein again when you start exercising again.”
People who have exercised to a significant level, stopped, then resumed training months or even years later are often surprised by how quickly everything comes back – the ‘feel’, the movement, but also the muscle mass and the definition, and the ability to perform near or at the same level they had before.
Scientists put this down to something called ‘muscle memory’.
“Muscle memory,” says Wikipedia, “has been used to describe the observation that various muscle-related tasks seem to be easier to perform after previous practice, even if the task has not been performed for a while. It is as if the muscles “remember”. The term could relate to tasks as disparate as playing the clarinet and weight-lifting, i.e., the observation that strength trained athletes experience a rapid return of muscle mass and strength even after long periods of inactivity. Until recently such effects were attributed solely to motor learning occurring in the central nervous system. Long term effects of previous training on the muscle fibers themselves, however, have recently also been observed related to strength training.”
It therefore follows, logically, that if an athlete takes drugs to enhance his system, the benefits accrued from this (which, in the case of steroids allows for increased muscle mass, amongst other benefits) will also remain with him or her years later.
One athlete discussed in the Radio 5 program is Justin Gaitlin, who has twice been banned for doping and who has spent 5 of the past 13 years suspended. Gaitlin, 32, has come back from his 4-year ban that spanned the years 2006-2010. Gaitlin had originally accepted an 8-year ban and co-operated with the anti-doping authorities, to avoid a lifetime ban.
Maybe if he’d been really nasty, like Lance Armstrong say, he’d have been banned for life…
“This is a man,” says BBC sports correspondent Tom Fordhouse of the sprinter, “who has twice been banned for doping and who has come back to do extraordinary things. He’s unbeaten over 100 and 200m this year, he’s run 6 of the seven fastest times over 100m, and he is running times never run by a man of his age before. If this evidence [collected in the study] is right, then it raises question about how athletes like Gaitlin are managing to record such extraordinary performances.”
Incredibly, Gaitlin has been selected by the world athletics governing body to be included in the poll for World Athlete of the Year. “In a situation like this where it is a simple poll and the nominations are out forward by the governing body,” says Costello, “it is just beyond belief that they would choose someone like Gaitlin.”
And so we come to cycling. Let’s consider the statements of confessed dopers such as George Hincapie and Levi Leipheimer, and indeed that of Stuart O’Grady. Each admitted to having doped in the past, yet each also claimed that there was a specific time at which the abuse ceased, after which they rode clean and still recorded significant results.
Many scoffed at these claims, as these riders continued to ride at or near their previous (doped) levels, yet this new research strongly suggests that they may have been clean but that they were in fact still cheating anyway.
One of the driving factors behind the existent 2-year ban for taking banned substances is the notion of redemption. We expect, in an ideal world (and is this not what the world of sports is traditionally supposed to aspire to be?), that the athlete found to be cheating will be adequately punished, see the folly of their ways and then return to compete once again, sufficiently chastised by the experience so as to never cheat again.
This is why rides like Valverde, Alexandre Vinokourov and especially Riccardo Ricco so anger people, because there is no doffing of the cap, no contriteness. But what difference is a tearful apology to an adamant refusal to apologise, when the effects of the original action is everlasting?
This research shows that that notion of redemption is fundamentally and absolutely redundant. It does not matter if a caught athlete is truly sorry for having cheated nor if they vow both publicly and to themselves never to cheat again, because the effect of their cheating physically is – if this research is proven to be true in humans – never-ending.
Perhaps the next step will be to test this research carried out by Oslo University in humans. Amongst the body-building fraternity, where steroid use is widely accepted, researchers could surely find enough willing subjects to pump full of the juice. Then similar research should be conducted on blood doping and EPO and the other doping practices and products used by endurance athletes.
Or they could just go speak to former professional riders from the late 80s and 90s. There is enough anecdotal evidence that a large number of them are still feeling effects brought on from massive exposure to banned substances, most being negative in the extreme.
Over the years I’ve gone from believing that a 4-year ban for first-time doping was needed, to an 8-year ban and now to a lifetime ban. One strike and you are out. The individual athlete has to be responsible for everything that enters their system, and though, yes, there may be some innocent people that get busted – possibly from being spiked – that price is one I now believe is worth paying.
Listen to the original BBC Radio 5 program here: