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ORIGINAL FRENCH ARTICLE: « Le dopage, un moyen d’exercer son métier »

by Lionel Venturini

"In sports, doping is a tool of the trade"

Translated Saturday 7 July 2007, by Patrick Bolland

Cycling: Five days before the prologue of the Tour de France, sociologist Christophe Brissonneau enlightens us about why some of the cyclists to "take their dose".

Six days before the start of the Tour de France, the 2006 edition still does not have a winner, because of Floyd Landis’s declassification for presumed doping. Impregnated with the culture of chemistry, is cycling really serious about getting rid of its bad habits, or has the gangrene really set in?

- A bit of both, according to sociologist Christophe Brissonneau (1), himself an ex-high-performance athlete. He has persuaded racing cyclists, under the assurance of anonymity, to talk about their practices, and especially their reasons for drugging themselves, reasons that are rarely understood. His conclusion is that doping is an answer to exploiting the body to its limits. The high-performance sportsman is a worker, with all the suffering that this entails.

HUMA: In conducting all these interviews with sportsmen who drug themselves, you have turned from sports sociology to the sociology of work. ...

CHRISTOPHE BRISSONNEAU: High-performance sport is an occupational activity, it has nothing to do with leisure. This is particularly true of cycling. The apprenticeship starts at a very young age, at the age of about 12. Cyclists don’t decide from one day to the next to dope themselves, it’s a process that is spread out over 10 or 15 years. Two years after the Festina affair (2), most of the cyclists in this team were still wondering where they went wrong. I came to realise that in cycling there were two careers: a pharmaceutical career that was superimposed over professional careers. During this career, different groups surface: the young cyclist finds himself among doctors, GPs; then the racer in the juniors is sent to see the clinician; finally, the professional deals with researchers. In the end, doping is a collective process. It is the fruit of the process of sports socialization: managers, fellow team-members, doctors.

HUMA: Are the different levels of control also responsible for this state of affairs?

CHRISTOPHE BRISSONNEAU: In the 80s, Jacques Godet and Félix Lévitan realised that they were having trouble getting the Tour de France accepted a marketable product in Europe, so they decided to make it international. They targeted the US, Japanese, Chinese and South-American markets. They brought in Greg Lemond, in the process also importing the US model: more highly-educated racers who were at the time superior to the French, who had scientific knowledge and knew how to use this. Who knew also how to market themselves and demanded high salaries. The arrival of North-American and East-European cyclists was to introduce a different vision of training, of physiological effort. And of pharmacology. When he became head of the International Cycling Union in 1991, Hein Verbruggen (president from 1991 to 1996) shared this managerial vision of cycling. It corresponded also to the major expansion of French television networks, Canal Plus, La Cinq and so on, who were on the lookout for sports spectacles.

HUMA: The first to understand this was Bernard Tapie ...

CHRISTOPHE BRISSONNEAU: When Tapie bought Vie Claire in the 1980s, he brought the world of business into cycling by recruiting specialist in all the relevant fields: science, training and communications. This was all put in place to exploit the strength of the cyclists, and it required results. This rationalization was possible, of course, only with the input of science. Researcher-doctors became trainers. The sports-director himself gradually became the team manager. Finally, Lance Armstrong is the best model for this model of rationalization. For me, he is the company boss of his body.

HUMA: And the cyclists have integrated this over-medicalization into their activities?

CHRISTOPHE BRISSONNEAU: One cyclist confided in me his training plan - the plan he gave me was in writing - that had been elaborated by a doctor, involving a schedule of races, that would normally have been done by the trainer and, at the same time, a pharmaceutical plan (including growth hormones – editor’s comment), and all this has has become the rôle of medical doctors. This document proves the close cooperation between these two fields. After this, you can understand why it’s impossible to go back. If you take out the pharmaceuticals, then you have to reduce the workload. But if this is reduced, then the athletes don’t perform as well. Meanwile, the average speeds in the Tour de France continue to get faster.

HUMA: How do yu judge the anti-doping campaign?

CHRISTOPHE BRISSONNEAU: It’s very much a policing activity. With a lot of money going into research and testing at the high-performance level, and very little into prevention at the ground level, with amateur cyclists – where the future professionals are recruited. Targeting the top level means focusing on the question of ethics, falsification and doping. Yet, take the example of prevention in smoking and alcohol: enormous progress has been made when health (rather than illness) is the focus of intervention, bringing in various health-related fields, such as the social and behavioural sciences. But when it comes to doping, you only hear about the doctors.

Moreover, prevention is considered top-down, not on what the drugged cyclists actually say. But before even talking about winning races and earning more money, the drugged cyclists told me that high-performance sport involves a lot of suffering, a lot of pain. And that doping is a way of relieving the pain. This is why those competing can get hold of drugs and exchange products between themselves. It isn’t seen as an unfair advantage for competitors, just as a tool of the trade.

HUMA: Based on your interviews, you make the distinction between products to helps the cyclist recuperate and EPO (3) ...

CHRISTOPHE BRISSONNEAU: If you’re talking about work, then you’re also talking about fatigue. So the use of cortisone or steroids is seen as normal. These products enable you to achieve your potential, based on your training. In general, a good cyclist remains a good cyclist, an average cyclist remains average. On the other hand, EPO and growth hormones are different and are seen as a way in which an weaker cyclist can become a good one, at the extreme, without putting in as much work, at least in the eyes of the others. And this really changes the scale of sports values, as cyclists represent these, since in cycling how well you do in competition is not a matter of a gift that you cultivate, but the work you have put into it.

HUMA: So what is the alternative to doping?

CHRISTOPHE BRISSONNEAU: Some of the team managers have adopted interesting things, like taking on groups of youths and giving them training. I’ve met some of these young people. who told me that they don’t want to do like the previous generation. France still has the reputation of being sensitive to the whole question of doping, but, as I’ve pointed out, there is still in the training process the element of doping yourself as cyclist have up to now, without the trainees necessarily following this path. But it’s hard to break out of this culture of doping. Moreover, it’s still pretty widespread. But I’m worried about the tendency to underestimate this is in what’s being said. Cyclists are being asked «to see a doctor – but a good doctor» with a wink and a nod.

(1 ) Author’s note: Christophe Brissonneau is a researcher in the "Sport and Culture" research group at the Université de Paris-10 (Nanterre). His most recent publication is in the journal Deviance et société (Volume 31, 2007, # 2: "Le dopage dans le cyclisme professionnel au milieu des années 1990 : une reconstruction des valeurs sportives" (http://www.cairn.be/revue.php?ID_REVUE=DS)

(2) Translator’s note: The 1998 Tour de France, dubbed the "Tour of Shame", was the most scandal-ridden modern Tour. On July 8, 1998, a major scandal erupted after French Customs arrested Willy Voet, one of the doctors with the Festina cycling team, for the possession of illegal prescription drugs, including narcotics, erythropoietin (EPO), growth hormones, testosterone, and amphetamines. In a 2000 criminal trial, it became clear that the management and health officials of the Festina team had deliberately organized doping within the team. Richard Virenque, a top Festina rider, finally confessed at the trial after being ridiculed for maintaining that if he was doping he was somehow not consciously aware of it. (source: en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Category:Doping_cases_in_cycling)

(3) Translator’s note: EPO (Erythropoietin) is a peptide hormone taken by injection. EPO stimulates the production of more red blood cells, which increases an athlete’s aerobic capacity and muscle endurance. The sports most affected are cycling, cross-country ski-ing and marathons.

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