Floyd, Doping, and the Disadvantaged Athlete

So a recent NY Times article has Floyd Landis’ life seems like it’s been pretty miserable for the past year, which is really not surprising when you consider that arguably the greatest achievement of his professional life has been ruthlessly skewered by the press. Floyd sounds tired in his own defense, and the scorching heat of public opinion has made his dry humor almost brittle.

The article also raises a lot of questions about doping. If, as Lance Armstrong has reportedly said “everyone is doing it” then does it make more sense to simply limit the extent or nature of artificial stimulants introduced into the body? Indeed, the Oregonian raised the issue when it ran an article yesterday entitled “The Runner’s Edge” which details the usage of high-altitude training methods by elite athletes in order to promote red blood cell growth. The article quoted coach Alberto Salazar as saying that athletes almost had to do high-altitude training in order to be competitive.

While I am all for pushing the limits of human capacity, whether physically or mentally, it’s unfortunate that competition at elite levels necessitates conditions and/or equipment that is not available to those with relatively less means. For example, two equally talented high school runners of different class backgrounds are not on an equal playing field in contention for athletic scholarships. If the higher-class student is able to purchase a machine that simulates high-altitude conditions in their bedroom, then they will have a higher blood cell count than their competitor, and, all other things being equal, have a better race time.

The whole point of the World Doping Agency’s supervision of sport is to ensure the removal of external variables from competition. You can’t yet level the economic playing field in sport, or anywhere else (campaign finance reform, anyone?). One might argue that high-caliber athletes who have sponsorships would have access to the necessary technologies, but the reality is that the economic advantage has already been incurred often far before that point. Training camps, private coaches, high-altitude bedrooms, and more are increasingly seen at the high school level, where finances come from family, rather than money earned through competition or sponsorship.

Then again, with a preponderance of elite distance athletes coming from countries like Kenya and Ethiopia, where high-altitude training is the norm, international competitiveness relies on access to technologies and practices that cut down those advantages. How would you tell Adam Goucher that he’s probably going to lose in Beijing because the Ethiopians have the benefit of training at consistently higher altitudes?

So on one hand, having technology that simulates high-altitude conditions skews its advantages towards more privileged athletes, while also fostering competitiveness at the international level. By allowing this, our policy as a country seems to be that we care more about international acclaim than we do about eliminating the subtle means of discrimination in elite youth sport. Admittedly, the issue is a non-starter for the vast majority of American athletes who have no professional aspirations, but it is an important point for those who dream of something more.

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