August 5, 2017 § 46 Comments
Doping is twisted. And I’ve never understood why I’ve been so conflicted about it. On the one hand, I don’t care what you do, what you put in your body, or how you live your life. Drugs are great and pound through our veins from the minute we get up until the minute we sleep, and then after we sleep, too.
Everyone dopes, and they dope to gain an advantage, they dope to fix shit, they dope to get high, they dope to get through the mid-day lunchtime food coma. They coffee dope, alcohol dope, etc. etc. and etc.
Bike racer doping has been near and dear to my heart for decades. I’ve known so many dopers. Raced so many dopers. Been friends with so many dopers. Inspired by them, learned from them, respected them.
But at the same time, the notion of doping to beat someone in a bike race has always turned my stomach. Dopers are lame. Like I said, it’s a twisted topic.
There aren’t many things that can make me give up a fun day of bicycling, especially a Saturday like today, when the roads are littered with so many glistening baby seal pelts begging to be clubbed. Especially, I wouldn’t give up a ride for a book. I don’t think I’ve ever forgone a ride for a read, although I’ve dropped countless books onto the floor in order to hustle out the door and pedal. I love to read but I love to bike more.
I can’t remember the exact chronology of all this, so I’ll make it up. There I was, blogging about doping or something and some dude I’d never heard of named Mark Johnson asked me if I wanted a free copy of his book on doping. “Sure,” I emailed back, knowing that after a couple of pages, if that much, I’d toss it in the Shitty Book Pile and move on. How did I know I’d toss it in the Shitty Book Pile?
Because it was a book about cycling called “Spitting in the Soup,” and books about cycling are always terrible. Cyclist enthusiasts can’t write, and this blog is rededicated to that proposition on a daily basis. Cyclists can’t write for the simple reason that people in general can’t write. It is hard, takes talent, practice, and a brain. Once in a rare while someone will drop down from heaven and write well, but the rest of us basically suck.
When Mark’s book arrived I noted that it had a very nice inscription. Free book + nice inscription + cool postcard of Sean Kelly = I won’t trash your book immediately, maybe. I shoved it atop the Unread Pile and kept plowing through Yasunari Kawabata’s “Yuki Guni,” a very boring re-read about some old dude and a geisha somewhere up in the Tohoku. The great thing about reading Japanese Nobel laureates is that even though I had to look up every third word, I got huge mileage flashing it in airports as people nudged each other and muttered under their breath.
But back to Mark’s Unread-But-Destined-For-The-Shitty-Pile book. I picked it up and started reading. It was pretty disappointing. For starters, he had a degree in English literature. I hate English lit majors because they actually know about writing. The only thing worse than reading a shitty book about cycling (which is all of them) is reading a really good book about cycling, because it makes me feel even more inferior and inept than I already do.
A few pages in and I couldn’t believe my good fortune, or was it my bad fortune? Good fortune at a stunningly well written book, bad fortune at realizing how much better it was than my own daily fare of verbal gruel. Then it got even better or even worse. Mark’s a fine writer, so yeah, fuck that dude. But he’s also someone who has thought deeply about doping, then poured an incredible amount of time and effort into researching this complex and twisted subject.
Unlike the Paul Kimmage method of writing, where the author takes a gentle and refined tool such as a sledgehammer and pounds the shit out of everything nearby until the finished product is ground up into fine meal, Mark started with the intellectual concepts that underlay the Olympic movement, amateurism, and the concept that underlies sport, competitive performance.
With an astounding array masterful brushstrokes that tie in the Industrial Revolution, British public schools, the Franco-Prussian War, the rise of the proletariat, and the metamorphosis of sport from leisure activity of the rich to spectator event for the poor, Mark sets up the conflict inherent in doping that perfectly reflects the conflict, until now unidentified in me, between an activity — bike racing — that is based on the contradictory notions of fair play and on doing anything it takes to win.
As the book progresses, Mark unleashes the full brunt of his amazingly catholic reading diet, cruising through Hitler’s impact on sports marketing to the pharmacology of amphetamines and steroids to the global politics of Cold War conflict to the Nixon-Ehrlichman War on Drugs to Reagan and the Contras to Peter Ueberroth and the Salt Lake City fraudsters to Orrin Hatch and the FDA to Amgen and EPO and the social context of drugs themselves, from Viagra in the bedroom to Adderall in the classroom to Mark McGwire to the arch-doping villain Lance himself.
If any book could make you pump both fists in the air and praise doping, this book would be it, although that’s hardly its premise or its moral. Rather, “Spitting in the Soup” is a trip down Introspection Lane. Why do we compete? Why do we have rules? How can we have spectacle in sport without extremity? How can we expect athletes to attack the system that creates, enriches, then sustains them?
And of all the introspective alleys that Mark takes you down, none is narrower or richer than reflecting on how we demonize the dopers even as we demand that they dope. Because this is what Lance and Jonathan and David and Floyd said all along–“We only gave you what you wanted.”
Whether that is what any one individual wanted is open to dispute. But “Spitting in the Soup” makes clear that from legislation to global politics to the nature of competition in general and cycling in particular, society as a whole really does want its athletes to dope. And as Mark makes brutally clear, doping is what we want for ourselves as well, higher, faster, stronger lives that let us set world records in our own heads and on Strava, and that let us perform better at work, in school, and between the sheets.
Thankfully, the book doesn’t end by giving up on the notion that life can be wonderful with fewer drugs rather than more. To the contrary, even if we can’t achieve moral purity, even if we have to doctor up our shit to get through the day, even if we can’t be like Mike or Usain or Greg or Chris without boatloads of drugs, that doesn’t mean that an endless injection of substances is a good substitute for effort, rules, and the journey involved in getting the best out of the meatbag we were born in.
Although I would have never thought that a book about doping could make a person as genuinely horrible as Lance Armstrong look sympathetic, “Spitting in the Soup” helps transform him from monster into an ordinary jerk who, in a world that demanded spectacle, gave it to us in spades. And it makes much more sympathetic people like Floyd Landis, Ben Johnson, Barry Bonds, and any number of other athletes hung out to dry as doping pariahs. Devoid of Lance’s shithead personality, they were nothing more or less than people who played by the rules, or rather by The Rule: Do what it takes to win, and don’t get caught.
Even as the fair play notion, the don’t cheat notion, the don’t use chemicals notion balances on a knife edge, Mark kicks it over the side by making the point that we have already entered a world where performance enhancement may one day be decided before you were born, when your parents and doctor carefully scripted your genes to ensure that you were better endowed than the fetus next door. Did you dope because you inherited a big VO2 max through a gene splice? Did you? Nor will these questions be subject to much ethical hemming and hawing by countries like China, which are on the cutting edge of gene doping research. Like their East German forebears, if the name of the game is winning, don’t talk to me about playing nice.
In a few short months Lance will get tried in federal court under the False Claims Act. A verdict for the government will ruin him financially, and if that happens many a doping crusader will rejoice. As “Spitting in the Soup” makes clear, the narrative of the superstar athlete is only complete when he falls from grace, because without fallen angels we’d have no need for saviors to take their place. Yet no matter how unappealing Lance is as a human being, and no matter how egregiously he flouted the rules and The Rule, this book makes an almost airtight case that the cheater, the faker, the liar, the hypocrite, and the doper … is you.
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A great last sentence. Thanks
Sent from my iPhone
I read some words once and wish I’d saved them to retrieve and quote exactly. The author was talking about musicians (Lester Young and Billie Holiday in particular, as I remember) and “dope”. He said we demand heroic performances from those we would admire as champions, and when we find out they used drugs to make those performances possible, we turn on them and destroy them.
Mark mentions drugs to enhance classical music performances as an example of a place where no listener cares. He shows that we approve performance enhancing drugs but disapprove, puritanically, drugs that make you high, “altered,” counter-culture, or that id you as part of a minority.
The difference is musicians dope for our listening pleasure in a victimless setting. A doped Lance racing a clean Bassons rightly pisses people off.
What if it’s Lance’s job to dope? What if we demand that he dopes? What if the government assisted, enabled, and condoned doping at the presidential level?
Then doping is legal. Legal performance enhancement — caffeine, vitamins, silicone boobs — is perfectly acceptable to me.
It’s more than legal. It’s demanded. At the professional level it’s a job requirement. The rules need to be changed and the users need to stop being demonized for doing their job.
I disagree that it’s a job requirement and also retract the silicone boobs portion of the previous comment — not a fan.
Why don’t you think it’s a job requirement?
Because, however hypocritical this may be, doping remains banned and some number of racers race clean.
We could have clean and dirty divisions like they do/did in body building, which would be fine. Hell, not too long ago, the whatever world weightlifting governing body wiped out all world records and started over with a presumably clean sheet. While Mark’s book is topical, it may have come out a few years too late. I say all this, fully acknowledging that I haven’t read it.
There are two issues. One, is doping cheating? Yes. Two, is doping required if you are to win in professional sports? It is possible to cheat and also be required to do so.
The idea that some racers remain clean goes to the issue of cheating, but it’s already admitted that doping is cheating, so it proves nothing. If there are professional racers who are not doping, they are not winning, which goes to the second part, are they doing what their job requires of them? The sad answer is no. Their job requires them to exert themselves to the utmost to win.
This is why the conflict is so complex. How can you have the standard of fair competition enshrined in anti-doping and the standard of winning enshrined in doping wrapped up in one ideology?
Mark suggests you can’t. If you demand extremity you demand drugs. Governments and legislation and economics have all done so explicitly. Even the Olympics dispensed with the amateur ideals of fair play when they admitted professionals in 1988. And it is the most topical doping book I’ve ever read, bar none, hands down … plus it’s great wordsmithing. You can hate the entire book and you will love the writing.
For me the strongest argument isn’t these ones above, it is the argument that society demands drug use among everyone. Why do we demand that athletes be scapegoated and crucified for doing to make a living what we do to make a living? That is, take away caffeine and alcohol and prescription drugs and our economy would collapse.
Off down the rabbit hole, there was an amazing article on coffee in National Geographic many years ago that explained how this one drug underpins the entirety of the modern economy. I will look for it now …
I am not buying the societal demand of doping. You and I don’t have to drink coffee to do our jobs. I hadn’t drunk it for the first 25 years of my career and progressed to partnership without it. Caffeine is addictive and its social promotion is no different than promotion of other legal drugs in tobacco and alcohol. Tobacco was promoted as helping with focus, energy, relaxation. Employers don’t demand that employees indulge in any of those. There’s no social pressure to take any of those. If you feel pressured by your employer to take caffeine, well, Eanky needs to look at himself in the mirror just a bit harder.
You’ve reduced your own life to the model for everyone else’s. Our modern workforce exists thanks to constant consumption of drugs. You misunderstand me if you think I’m saying that employers require you to sign a “take drugs” contract.
But you are ignoring that the system functions, and can only function, with the constant, relentless consumption of the modern pharmacopeia. How is a professional violinist rewarded for taking amphetamines or sedatives (to key her up or calm her nerves, depending), but a cyclist is an evil, morally depraved person for taking EPO?
If you think there is no social pressure to take alcohol, caffeine, tobacco, Viagra, sleeping medication, etc., you should review any modern ad campaign on TV, as well as the 1995 law that made the US, alone in the world with New Zealand, as the only nation to allow drug companies to market directly to consumers.
Breaking the rules is bad and I’m against it. But along with the rule breaking goes demonization. How does that work in a drug dependent society, to say nothing of a society in which millions are so addicted to opioids that they cannot function?
You need to read this book if you’re interested in the topic. But it’s kind of a third rail effect for Puritans. No black and white, no easy answers … just a lot of really hard questions.
Superb, even more than usual.
Superb column and hey, don’t put yourself in the group that can’t write, as you can.
Trying! Thank you!
Mark is also a great cyclist and an outstanding photographer too!
That’s three strikes then.
I liked the Tim Krabbe book, The Rider, and Dog in a hat by Joe Parkin. You?
The Ride especially, it’s standalone great fiction. Dog in a Hat is a great read, but maybe not in the same category as The Rider.
Off on my jollies, down loaded to kindle, to read by the pool.
You’re going to love it and be amazed by it.
Helpful review, thanks. I’ve glanced at this book in shops before but have by-passed it due to anti-doper fatigue caused by too much Kimmage & Walsh….I think I’ll give it a try now. My thoughts on the topic are pretty close to your last sentence too. We are all prostitutes, its just the price that varies.
(Not for me to judge but you do write well too Seth)
This book is at a whole different level from Kimmage and Walsh. Johnson is a writer, a fantastic writer, and the subject matter is almost incidental.
Like Lolita. And your blog.
BTW, see also Brian Co’s Socalcyclist podcast interview of Mark Johnson:
Actually, it’s you, Wanky.
I take full responsibility.
I plead guilty as charged.
About time someone willingly took responsibility for this scourge. Additional strava kudos for you.
I will need a new account, having maxed out on kudos and etc.
A brilliant writer on the topic, though, rather old titles now, John Hoberman.
Mortal engines and Testosterone dreams are both brilliant.
Hoberman is cited aplenty in Mark’s book.
Mark is a guy that is simply too intelligent for this planet. I worked in the same small group with him at Intuit in San Diego. He’s a good guy.
BTW, As hard as I fought (back in the day) to see that journalists dig deeper in to the doping (and they eventually did), I don’t think that the government has much of a case against Armstrong (in this situation). Armstrong never sullied the reputation of the US Mail (they do a fine job of that themselves). And even if he sullied his own reputation (and that of his former team, USPS), one would have a hard time showing how his behavior actually “damaged” them long or short term.
The USPS was happy as a clam to ride the Armstrong bandwagon into that yellow field of sunflowers. And they never cared to look for themselves what was getting them there. They rode the wave (and enjoyed it the whole rotten way).
That entire case will boil down to whose analysis the jury buys with regard to the value of his publicity versus the detriment of the bad publicity.
The best a cycling sponsor can hope for from a sponsorship is awareness of their existence in a market. USPS achieved that. I’m still not sure what their goal really was. I can’t see how Armstrong’s troubles did anything but draw public ire on a government funded “non-profit” entity sponsoring a private “for-profit” enterprise. If it damaged the USPS in that regard, then everyone won in the end.
If it got my mail delivered quicker, then … awesome!
Ok, so why do you rant about age-group dopers? Or has your view of them changed since you’ve read the book?
My view of career athletes has definitely changed. My view of masters dopers has changed a little, in this way. Pros are doing it for a living. And they’re breaking rules that were put in place to stop them from doing what legislation and national policy encouraged them to do, and abetted them in doing. I don’t like the rule breaking part and think the rules need to be changed. Until they are changed, dopers who are caught will be punished. But I don’t see them as bad people anymore except for ones who actually are bad people … you know who … in ways unrelated to their drug use. Some people just aren’t very nice.
With masters racers the issue that predominates is the cheating part, not the doping part. It’s like cheating your friends in a poker game. The stakes are low, there aren’t any national/global pressures for you to beat your buddies and take home the $30 pot, and everyone got together to have fun anyway, so to cheat under those circumstances seems pretty lame. But I have to say that the more I think about drug use for performance enhancement, the harder it is to get really angry about, and that’s because of reading this book. I may choose not to do it, but in the rest of my life I don’t care if people dope from dawn to dusk for whatever purpose. It’s this part of the book that is most powerful, actually, connecting society’s drug use with athletic drug use.
And then I reflect on my own problems with alcohol …
In any event, it is a very thought-provoking, well researched, and well written book about a subject I’m most interested in. And it was free. What’s that called? A fourfecta?
Yet in masters racing they’re cheating YOU. It seems that for selfish reasons that should matter most.
Yes, in masters racing that’s what bothers me, cheating among friends and casual acquaintances. But on the other hand, the whole idea of profamateur racing is bizarre, to put it gently. Should one who aspires to stardom in a clown show get that bent out of shape when the freak cage gets all the attention?
Ordered his book. Make sure you get your commission.
I think the commissions come in unmarked packages from China.