Tour du dopage: How do doping cyclists legitimate their cheating?

With the Tour de France about to get under way, Charlotte Smith, Lecturer in Management at the School, considers the tension between sporting success and good sportsmanship

Whether your interests are in sport or in anything but sport, the Lance Armstrong case cannot have escaped your attention. Last year, when Oprah Winfrey interviewed him, he admitted to having taken illegal substances during all seven of his Tour de France (TDF) victories. Despite the ongoing demonization campaign which the confession gave succour to, the TDF continues to draw massive audiences. TDF 2015 will be no exception.

Views on doping in cycling are very often polarized. One-side views it with moral indignation, presenting it as unfair, unnatural, unhealthy and destructive of sport’s aspirational function. The other side views it as a necessary part of performance in top-level sport which, with increasing scientific and corporate attention, plays into our win at all costs spectator culture. As an avid cyclist, I find myself torn between these two sets of arguments, regularly catching myself wondering whether, if placed in the contemporary cyclist’s predicament, I might also be tempted to cheat.

These thoughts were very close to my mind when, recovering from a particularly gruelling cycle, I found a database which claimed to list every positive doping test in cycling over the past three decades. I proceeded to extradite 112 separate confessions of drug use for subsequent consideration and what eventually materialised has recently become published. The paper will be of interest to scholars of leisure and tourism as well as to anybody who has ever found themselves torn, as I have been, on the morality and practicality of the doping controversy.

The published paper is framed by the sociologist Howard Becker’s (1953) account of deviance. Following Becker’s methodology, I analysed ad verbatim confessions in the media for the sake of garnering how cyclists present their doping as part and parcel of their performance. Drug-taking is narrated as legitimate – by those cyclists who have confessed to it – at the level of the individual, the team and the sport. It is worth considering why. Listen, for example, to Thomas Vaughters’s justification of doping as a medically necessary pursuit:

I first used EPO on the Porcelena Santa Clara team. The team doctor provided it to me on the theory that it would simply bring me back to my natural hematocrit level and prevent me from being anemic.

This medicalised justification extends into the economic realm: cyclists often dope because their health determines their livelihood. Having been a professional cyclist – unlike, say, having been a professional footballer – carries little exchange value on retirement. For this reason, cyclists want to remain cyclists for as long as possible. They also wish to draw a cycling wage in order to postpone the inevitable predicament of, as Alex Zulle put it ‘parking their bike back in the garage and going back to being a painter’. Doping cannot be explained in terms of an obsession with winning and glory. We also need to understand it as an everyday matter of earning a living.

At a team level, doping was also a valuable tool through which cyclists could show to their colleagues that they were prepared to sacrifice themselves for the sake of the collective. As Floyd Landis put it:

Because of my career and the team I ended-up on, if I wasn’t willing to do that (dope), I wasn’t going to be there.

Such images of individual-sacrifice and collective-heroism recur throughout the accounts I engaged with. As the cliché goes, in order for there to be winners there must be losers. The exceptionality of the winner is a large part of the draw of the Tour, both for the participants but also for the spectators.  Just look at what Jorg Jacsche had to say:

In cycling, you get dropped in 99 out of 100 races, even when you give it everything. It hurts all the time; but you still are successful only a few times.

I draw out the instances and consequences of such observations more fully in the paper, concluding that professional cyclists dope for both private and public reasons. When doping becomes constituted as a ‘performance ego’, cyclists assert its legitimacy. Exceptional performances thereby become normalized and we spectators come to expect – even demand – them. We therefore become disappointed when the great heights are no longer reached, all the while realising that such achievements have traditionally relied upon prohibited performance enhancement drugs.

With doping becoming the ‘norm’ in an arena defined by exceptionality, its acceptance may, however paradoxically, go on produce a truer and fairer competitive environment whereby all competitors have a similar chance of success. The fact is that we cannot continue to demand greater and greater achievements of these exceptional athletes without simultaneously redefining our sense of what constitutes good sportsmanship. Vive la Tour!

Originally published at

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