Wednesday, April 25, 2007

On cycling, doping, and The Rebel Sell

Professional cycling is in shambles. Too many cyclists cheat. They use dope, or they use their own blood as dope. Then they deny it. It’s a vicious cycle.

On Monday, French newspaper L’Equipe reported that “followup tests on samples given by 2006 Tour De France champion Floyd Landis have found traces of synthetic testosterone.” Landis is contesting these results.

Yesterday, Ivan Basso, winner of the 2006 Giro D’Italia, was suspended by his team after the Italian Olympic Committee reopened an investigation into the rider's involvement with the Operation Puerto blood doping ring.

Basso was part of a group of cyclists that included former Tour winner Jan Ullrich and contender Francisco Mancebo who were barred from riding last year’s Tour de France for suspected blood doping.

Some commentators have blamed the doping on the difficulty of the twenty-stage Tour de France, which sees riders climb the Pyrenees and the Alps and race up to eight hours a day for three weeks.

Others say the desire to win trumps all other concerns for the professional athlete. The athlete is willing to risk everything, including his physical health and the chance of being caught and disgraced, to taste the glory of victory.

These are interesting arguments. But they do not get to the core of the problem. Doping in cycling is a collective-action problem.

No professional cyclist wants to cheat. The ideal situation for everyone involved in the sport would be a dope-free environment, where talent, skill, fitness, and form determine who wins and who loses. But as Joseph Heath and Andrew Potter write in The Rebel Sell, we shouldn’t “assume that because a particular group of people have a collective interest in securing a certain outcome, each individual in that group will have an individual interest in doing what is necessary to achieve that outcome.”

Consider the rush hour drive home on the highway. The group’s collective interest is to get home as quickly as possible. But the individual who sees the opportunity to move past other cars by using the merging lane opts for personal gain at the expense of the group’s interest. This slows down the entire process, as other cars must slow and stop to allow the selfish individual to re-enter.

When other drivers see this and begin to emulate each other in the destructive pattern, we have what’s called a “race to the bottom.” The desired result – a quicker drive for everyone – is in direct opposition to the actions of individuals, who feel they are acting in their own best interest. The classic example of a race to the bottom is the arms race between the Soviet Union and United States during the Cold War, where neither side desired an escalation in nuclear weaponry, yet felt compelled to build up their arsenal due to the worry that the other guy was doing the same thing.

This is what’s happened to cycling. Your opponents don’t necessarily have to be using dope – all that’s needed is the fear that they are to compel you to use it yourself.

This problem isn’t going to be solved by any “shift in the culture” of cycling. The onus is not on the athletes to be good little boys and play fair. It’s not in their interest. Like any collective-action problem, this situation can only be resolved through strict enforcement of rules. Rigorous testing and unflinching punishments are the only solution.

Tomorrow: The history of the WWO.


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