This past August, the saga of Lance Armstrong came to its inglorious end. The seven-time champion of the Tour de France and Olympic medalist ended his defense against charges that he had engaged in blood doping during his cycling career. In the judgment of the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency, the end of Armstrong’s challenge was effectively a concession of guilt. The body responded by stripping Armstrong of his titles and banning him from cycling competitions. Armstrong, however, has continued to maintain his innocence. It appears that many Americans agree with him. In various polls conducted after the USADA’s actions, large majorities of respondents stated their belief that Armstrong had not engaged in doping. But outside the US, opinion of the cyclist is somewhat different. As Peter Beaumont remarked in The Observer, the real question is not whether Armstrong engaged in doping, it’s why his fall from grace didn’t come sooner.
Lance Armstrong now joins a notorious collection of athletes who have been stained by allegations or proof of doping: baseball’s Barry Bonds and Mark McGwire, sprinter Marion Jones, swimmer Michelle Smith, cross-country skiers Olga Danilova and Larissa Lazutina, Chinese swimmers of the late 1990s. Chris Cooper begins his study of the science of doping with what was perhaps the most shocking episode of a champion athlete caught doping: Canadian sprinter Ben Johnson, who set the world record in the 100-meter dash at the 1988 Seoul Olympics only to be stripped of his record and gold medal days later. As Cooper points out, athletes had long been using anabolic steroids. And indeed, Johnson was not the only sprinter in that race to have been found using drugs. But the fall of the gold medalist in the Olympics’ marquee event brought the use of performance-enhancing drugs to broad public attention. Since 1988, great athletic accomplishments have been viewed with suspicion, while athletes have been obligated to pee in cups.
Athletes still take performance-enhancing drugs. Why? What benefits, if any, do they gain? Chris’ book, Run, Swim, Throw, Cheat: The Science Behind Drugs in Sport (Oxford University Press, 2012), addresses these questions. As a researcher in biochemistry, Chris explains what the drugs do, and whether they work. We learn from the interview that doping does provide a clear advantage, in some instances. But in other cases, the drug’s effects are slim—which raises the question: should they be banned?