The Problems With How We Treat Dopers

There was a small story the other day, not widely read, that I found fascinating and indicative of some of my concerns about how we deal with doping. Carolina Kostner, the Italian ice skater who took bronze at the 2014 Olympics, is probably going to get in trouble with Italian authorities for skipping a hearing where she was supposed to share information about her racewalker ex-boyfriend’s doping. Here’s what I find interesting about this:

Now this is taking place in Italy and, obviously, Italian law is different than US law, but I’m not sure under what authority she can be demanded to appear at a hearing about someone else — especially given that she retired from competition. This was, in part, the same problem I had with the federal criminal investigation into Lance Armstrong. Doping isn’t against the law, at least not here, at least not most of the drugs you can take. EPO, HGH, and testosterone are all legal drugs that can be acquired with prescriptions. Using them is not against the law, it is only against the rules of the sport, which — however much we think otherwise — do not govern the land.

(Clearly, yes, I understand the laws under which the federal fraud case against Armstrong can continue: because he accepted Postal Service money. But, that’s a whole other discussion about whether or not the Postal Service knew what they were buying. I’d argue when you pay for end results instead of what goes into them, then you get what you pay for.)

That also means that the system by which doping cases are decided is not within our legal system. It does not meet the standards we require in all court cases. It is not an innocent until proven guilty system. Sure, that’s what athletes agree to when they become athletes — though there isn’t another option — but it’s also something that the general public, up on a high horse and railing about how they were lied to, doesn’t seem to understand.

They don’t seem to understand that it’s a different system, which can be complicated, difficult, and expensive to prove your innocence, if you are actually innocent. And, even basic statistics would suggest that at least a few people who test positive have to be innocent. Not that you’d know that from how the system works.

Sure, most people who test positive probably doped. Sure, the testers are steps behind the dopers. Sure, you’re responsible for whatever you put in your body. But, if contaminated multivitamins never gave a false positive, then a banned swimmer wouldn’t have won a lawsuit against the multivitamin maker in an actual court of law.

Kostner likely has something to hide by not showing up at this Italian hearing, or else she’s just insanely stupid to disappear. But, for the Italian doping authorities to discuss stripping her retroactively of her medals and banning her from private commercial skating shows — for an allegation that is about her ex-boyfriend, not about her — seems beyond their scope of authority. How can they even control who does what in private commercial shows?

What Kostner, in this case, was supposed to testify to was that she had helped her ex-boyfriend avoid a doping test and also that she had seen him use an illegal altitude tent.

Altitude tents, which you sleep in to mimic the red blood cell boosting effects of living at altitude, aren’t illegal here. Living at altitude isn’t illegal in any country. Having a naturally higher level of red blood cells can’t possibly be illegal. On a theoretical level, it seems strange to me to draw a line and pretend that makes everything fair.

Caffeine isn’t banned. Cortisone isn’t banned, as long as you have a doctor’s note. Having the fastest equipment and the best trainers isn’t banned. Simply being bigger or taller or faster isn’t banned. There are clearly advantages people have — natural and not — that we allow. This raises a few intellectual problems for me. Banning some things creates a false sense of a level playing field, when that field hasn’t been level in a long time, if ever. It also seems hard to decide where you’re going to draw that line. If the legal hematocrit level is 50, then we’re saying there is no way anyone could naturally have a hematocrit over 50. They must be doping. And, yet, I have friends who have hematocrit levels in the mid-to-high 40s. One must assume that if I know people, who are fast but not that fast, in the mid-40s, then conceivably there is someone in the world who is naturally over 50.

Of course, I think doping is wrong and shouldn’t be allowed in sports. Of course, I recognize that doping distorts and corrupts who does well in what sport. (For example, cyclists who perform better at lower hematocrits have the most to gain from a doping regimen and then see the biggest jumps in performance.) But, I also recognize that a lot of our vilification of doping and dopers comes from our own need — “us” being the watching public — to believe that people can do these things and still be normal people, that they pay no consequences for their feats. We ask them to pretend and then we’re disgusted when they lie to us.

3 thoughts on “The Problems With How We Treat Dopers

  1. I have often had the same thoughts about the doping system as it currently stands. The limits for what is and what is not allowed seem arbitrary at best, and I do wonder about the natural and/or socially-accepted allowances and when outside intervention officially crosses into that grey area. It is also my understanding that they can retroactively test for substances in samples that were not banned at the time of collection but become banned in the future, something which absolutely baffles me. I appreciate the sentiments behind the system, but the system is far from perfect.

    1. They can definitely retroactively test, but not for things that become banned, but for things that they just haven’t developed a test for yet — which is a lot of things that are banned. Yeah, it still seems sort of double-jeopardy or something to me.

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