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Nash Equilibrium, the Omerta Rule,
and Doping in Cycling

by Michael Shermer, Jul 13 2010

The Tour de France is underway and it is already shaping up to be one of the grandest and most epic races in the event’s century-long history. If you haven’t seen a stage yet be sure to tune into the Versus Network that covers it every day, with repeat airings all day and evening. Lance is still in contention even after several crashes. In fact, I’ve never seen so many crashes in a Tour before. This event is so hard it is not surprising that, as usual, allegations and suspicions of doping have surrounded the race even before it began. Unfortunately, it appears that doping has long been a part of this — and many other — sports. Here is my explanation for why athletes in general and cyclists (my sport) in particular dope, why race organizations have such a hard time enforcing the rules, and what can be done about it.

In criminal organizations such as the Cosa Nostra in 19th century Sicily and the Mafia in 20th century southern Italy, the “omerta rule” is the code of silence, a tacit agreement among cohort members that the collective violation of the law means if you get caught you keep your mouth shut and under no circumstances cooperate with the authorities. The penalty for an omerta betrayal is ultimate and final — death.

Something like the omerta rule operates in the dark and dirty underbelly of doping in sports, or the employment of performance enhancing drugs (PEDs) against the rules (and in some cases the law), in which a positive test leads to an obligatory statement of shock and denial by the guilty party, followed by a plausible explanation for how the drug mysteriously appeared in the blood or urine, ending in fines paid and/or time served and eventual return to the sport, no names named and no further questions asked.

After testing positive for steroids following his 2006 Tour de France victory, Floyd Landis obeyed the omerta rule, albeit in grander style than most, publishing a bestselling book, Positively False: The Real Story of How I Won the Tour de France, raising upwards of $600,000 for a legal defense fund, and taking his case to sports arbitration. The three-time Tour de France champion Greg LeMond told me in a phone conversation during the arbitration trial that Landis consulted him about what to do next, at which point LeMond encouraged him to come clean. “What would I gain doing that?,” LeMond recalled Landis saying. “You would clear your conscience and help save cycling,” LeMond replied.

Three years later Landis has apparently decided to take LeMond’s advice, confessing during the recent Tour of California that the “real story” of how he — and Lance Armstrong — won the Tour de France is drugs, lots and lots of PEDs: recombinant Erythropoietin (r-EPO) to artificially stimulate the production of oxygen carrying red blood cells, steroids and human growth hormone for recovery and the development of lean muscle mass, and blood boosting, or withdrawing your own blood early in the season and then re-injecting it during the Tour de France to boost red blood cell count with your own blood (thereby sidestepping the test for EPO while gaining a comparable advantage). In published emails Landis defiantly slapped the omerta rule across the face, naming names and providing details:

“I was instructed on how to use Testosterone patches by [Team Director] Johan Bruyneel”

“Mr Armstrong was not witness to the [blood] extraction but he and I had lengthy discussions about it on our training rides during which time he also explained to me the evolution of EPO testing and how transfusions were now necessary due to the inconvenience of the new test.”

Armstrong “tested positive for EPO at which point he and Mr Bruyneel flew to the UCI headquarters and made a financial agreement with Mr. Vrubrugen to keep the positive test hidden.”

“During that Tour de France I personally witnessed George Hincapie, Lance Armstrong, Chechu Rubiera, and myself receiving blood transfusions. Also during that Tour de France the team doctor would give my room mate, George Hincapie and I a small syringe of olive oil in which was disolved andriol, a form of ingestible testosterone on two out of three nights throughout the duration.”

It’s a good thing for Landis that the penalty for an omerta rule violation in sports is not what it is in the Mafia, or else he’d be the Luca Brasi of cycling and sleeping with the fishes. Why did Landis break the code of silence? The answer to this question, along with the larger question of why athletes dope, comes from game theory and something called Nash equilibrium, discovered by the Nobel Prize-winning mathematician John Nash (of Beautiful Mind fame), in which two or more players in a contest reach an equilibrium where neither one has anything to gain by unilaterally changing strategies. If each player has selected a tactic such that no player can benefit by changing tactics while the other players hold to their plans, then that particular arrangement of strategy choices is said to have reached a point of equilibrium.

Here’s how it works in sports. The point of an athletic contest is to win, and players will do whatever they can to achieve victory, which is why well-defined and strictly enforced rules are the sine qua non of all sports. The rules clearly prohibit the use of PEDs, but because the drugs are extremely effective and the payoffs for success are so high, and because most of the drugs are difficult if not impossible to detect, or the tests can be beat with countermeasures, or the governing body of the sport itself doesn’t fully support a comprehensive anti-doping testing program (as in the case of Major League Baseball and the National Football League), the incentive to dope is powerful. Once a few elite athletes in a sport defect to gain an advantage over their competitors, they too must defect (even if they only think others are doping), leading to a cascade of defection down through the ranks.

If everyone is doping there is equilibrium if and only if everyone has something to lose by violating the tacit omerta agreement. Disequilibriums can arise when not everyone is doping, or when the drug testers begin to catch up with the drug takers, or when some cheaters have nothing to lose and possibly something to gain by turning state’s evidence.

Which brings us back to Floyd Landis and Lance Armstrong, who for a decade have been in a state of relative Nash equilibrium. But when Landis lost his savings, his home, his marriage, and his livelihood, he reached a state of disequilibrium, and when he was turned down from even riding in the Tour of California after, according to Armstrong, making threats to the race organizers to let him in “or else,” he apparently decided to make good on his threat.

There is nothing more important for a sporting organization to do than to enforce the rules. If you don’t, athletes will cheat. Anyone who believes otherwise does not understand sports or human nature. As Landis explained in his confessional: “I don’t feel guilty at all about having doped. I did what I did because that’s what we [cyclists] did and it was a choice I had to make after 10 years or 12 years of hard work to get there, and that was a decision I had to make to make the next step. My choices were, do it and see if I can win, or don’t do it and I tell people I just don’t want to do that, and I decided to do it.”


The only hope of salvaging professional sports is to change the game matrix. To that end I have five recommendations:

  1. Immunity for all athletes pre-2010. Since the entire system is corrupt and most competitors have been doping, it accomplishes nothing to strip the winner of his title after the fact when it is almost certain that the runners’ up were also doping. Immunity will enable retired athletes to work with governing bodies and anti-doping agencies for improving the anti-doping system.
  2. Increase the number of competitors tested, in competition, out-of-competition, and especially immediately before or after a race to prevent counter-measures from being employed. Sport sanctioning bodies should create a baseline biological profile on each athlete before the season begins to allow for proper comparison of unusual spikes in performance in competition.
  3. An X-Prize type reward to increase the incentive of anti-doping scientists to develop new tests for presently undetectable doping agents, in order to equalize the incentive for drug testers to that of drug takers.
  4. Increase substantially the penalty for getting caught. A 50-game ban on Manny Ramirez last year was a joke. No Major League player will take that seriously as a deterrent. Professional cycling has a two-year ban, which is a good start. But it’s not enough.
  5. A return of all salary paid and prize monies earned by the convicted athlete to the team and/or its sponsors and investors, and extensive team testing of their own athletes.

Cycling is ahead of all other sports in implementing these and other preventative measures, and still some doping goes on, so vigilance is the watchword for fairness along with freedom.

66 Responses to “Nash Equilibrium, the Omerta Rule,
and Doping in Cycling”

  1. Gib says:

    What about option 6:

    1. Forget about trying to catch doping. It’s a game the “good guys” can never win. Stop testing at all, and declare open season. Treat doping as just something else that the sportsmen can do to improve their performance, much the same as spending money on a good bike isn’t considered cheating.

    • bob clark says:

      I’ve been saying for years that drug testing should be dropped in all elite level sports for the very reason that missing a drug user punishes the non-drug user and false positives can ruin a career. I am convinced that there is no 100% effective way to avoid misses and false positives in big money sports.

      Let them do whatever they want. I don’t buy the hazard to your health argument either. No one is going to tell me that taking PEDs is more dangerous than riding a bike down a mountain road at 60 MPH.

      PED is just something else elite athletes need to do if they want to get paid to play a sport for a living.

      • mtbgirl says:

        sorry but that is just a pessimistic approach. its liek giving up and a lot of young athletes who are enthusiastic about their sports would disagree that if you stop fighting something its goin to continue but if you do something about it maybe it will be a clean sport eventually

  2. Bryce says:

    6. As in Blernsball, just make them mandatory.

  3. Cambias says:

    Yes, why not simply declare that it isn’t a problem? The athletes are adults; if they want to take the health risks it’s their choice.

    • mtbgirl says:

      yeh its their choice but there are rules and its like schoolkids wearing school uniform they dont want to in general but they have to. just because athletes want to do drugs doesnt mean they can. cyclists are part of the cycling body and in becoming a pro they arent supposed to dope.

  4. Ryan says:

    Curious on what motivates you to draw the line of acceptability after a vigorous diet and exercise regime, nutritional supplements, a pro trainer, and other measures specifically designed to manipulate the body for enhanced athletic performance, but before PEDs.

    Honest question, not being a dick. Everyone seems to assume that’s where the line should be, but I’ve never really heard a persuasive articulation of why.

    • JGB says:

      Thank you for saying this.

      I have for many years felt the same way… why do they make sucha big deal about PED’s? They cannot even trot out the tired argument “PED’s are bad for the health of athletes.” because the Tour de France is demonstrably bad for the health of athletes -as are many other professional sports.

      My suspicion is based on the view that Spectator Sports are just another form of entertainment like rock concerts and movies. To be entertaining they need to create certain images: the musical genius, the super athlete, the super-hero who can outrun fire-balls. Alas, Rock singers often strain voices and have to lip sync (especially after months of touring) and actors often have to have stunt doubles. If the audience becomes aware of the ‘scam’ (e.g Ashlee Simpson or Milli Vanilli) it destroys the illusion and ceases to be entertained. Careers are ruined over this type of disillusionment.

      Part of the illusion of sports is that these athletes are competing on a ‘field of honor’ based solely on their own personal ability. Obviously that has not been true for decades – athletes are dependent on special equipment, supplements, training and pain killers to continue to perform. And maybe we ought to be more tolerant of athletes’ illusion than singers’ and actors’ illusions: as much as he’d have liked to use a ‘stunt double,’ Joe Theismann himself *had* to take that hit. (Admittedly, there are cases like Vick Morrow and Brandon Lee, too – but that is different: no one was openly trying to hurt them).

      So, I think the solution to this dilemma is teaching fans to just ignore the PED usage (as they ignore the other forms of cheating as well as the poor sportsmanship) in professional sports.

    • mtbgirl says:

      i reckon the lines drawn where the rules are. the uci are there for a reason and when its not drugs people may complain but they do accept the rules such as when a sprint is taking place sprinters must stick to their line. i know the two rules have no relation whatsoever but they are the rules and theyre there to be followed.
      also Ryan originally said “manipulate the body”. when stuff is specifically designed to manipulate the body it makes me think of like brainwashing or sumthin like that that your body is not supposed to do naturally. if sumthin aint natural i think thats where the line should be drawn. people might say lance armstrong winning the tour 7 times isnt natural but (for arguments sake hes not doping) he trains his body naturally not with drugs to make his body able to cope with that.

  5. Where the line is drawn is a tough one, but lets not convince ourselves that this is a version of Loki’s Wager. There is a rather simple distinction to be drawn between doing the things a person is physically required to do to stay alive (such as move and eat) in the most efficient and beneficial way in order to be in top form, and PEDs. Even supplements are really just extremely targeted meals. That being said, there has to be a line drawn somewhere because that is what a game is. Any game is really just seeing who can do the best under a given set of circumstances or rules. In chess it’s the rules of how to move the pieces, in boxing it’s no hitting below the belt, and in cycling it’s no PEDs.

  6. Oh, and as for those who would like to simply allow PEDs, in everyday life I am entirely for the legalization of steroids. However, in a sporting situation, if half the riders are doping and half aren’t there is 0 chance that the non-doping half will be competitive. In other words, allowing steroids would be tantamount to requiring steroids. Maybe it is a prejudice of mine, but I am not ready to require a man to risk his health and safety, in such a direct manner, just to compete at a sport he loves. Maybe the answer is clean and PED leagues. . . a la the WNBA.

    • bob clark says:

      I agree with this and in powerlifting they do have leagues that test and those that don’t. Guess which events draw more people? People can compete in the sports they love. However, if you want to make a living doing that, then PED might just be another thing you have to do. These are adults who can make the free choice.

  7. Jeremy Anderson says:

    Good question, and one easily answered. The should be drawn at what is healthy. You can train, and eat well, you can even use creatine. This is stuff with no side-effects (within reason).

    If you take steroids, you can suffer all kinds of side-effects.
    If you take EPO, you can turn your blood into a sludge that your heart can’t pump around the body.

    Of course, there are other things that are banned not because of they cause harm themselves, but they can mask traces of supplements that ARE banned.

    • NightHiker says:

      The answer is not that easy. What if a form of doping appears that has no adverse affects, should it be allowed then, or not? It’s difficult to draw a line, because they all are somewhat arbitrary. Is it a matter of fairness? Is it a matter of health? Something else?

      What if about 50 years from now, there’s technology to engineer people’s DNA in order to be better athletes from birth? There are a lot of questions and I’m not sure any of them are easy to answer.

      • It actually doesn’t matter where the line is drawn, an excellent case can be made for drawing the line based on safety but other cases could be made for other demarcations. The important part is that wherever the line is in fact drawn, it is adhered to. Without adherence to the rules of a game (in and of themselves already somewhat arbitrary) there ceases to be a “game” to speak of. Not utilizing PEDs is the rule at this point in time, no more or less arbitrary than not using a gas powered engine. We wouldn’t use an asterisk to indicate that kind of cheating, why are PEDs different?

      • Jeremy Anderson says:

        PEDs are dangerous because it makes your blood so thick with red blood cells that your heart can’t push it round the body. This is why so many young cyclists were dying in their sleep in the nineties/early noughties.

        If there IS a form of doping that was completely safe, then yes, I believe it WOULD be allowed.

        WHY is it cheating? Because it is unsafe.
        WHEN is it cheating? As Rhacodactylus says, when the rules say so.

      • DL says:

        It doesn’t matter where the line is drawn. All rules are arbitrary in nature. For example, there is a low weight limit for the bike – 1 gram below that weight is not inherently dangerous, but it is still outside the rules. Baseball players get 3 outs, not 4 – not because 4 outs would be dangerous, but because that is the rule. One can easily ask why ‘3’ and not ‘4’ in the same way one can ask why ‘altitude training’ and not ‘human growth hormone’. The answer is the same for both – it doesn’t matter why, that’s just the rule. Once the rule is set, it should be enforced. It doesn’t need to matter why the rule was put in place.

    • JGB says:

      Have you ever looked at the health of people who compete in the Tour de France? Have you ever noticed the life expectancy of ex-NFL players? What about the condition of a MLB pitcher’s throwing arm?
      What about Boxing?

      Professional sports abuse the human body – at least the most competitive ones do.

      If you want to draw the line at stuff which is unhealthy you’ll have to eliminate athletic competition.

  8. STrimmer says:

    As a skeptics and a cycling fan Landis’ allegations have been interesting to watch. On the face of it the most appropriate response would be where is the extraordinary evidence for these extraordinary claims? Not just Lance ( Who is the most tested person in any sport and has never tested positive) but George Hincapie, perhaps the most respected cyclist today by both fans and competitors. Landis is a man with zero credibility and nothing to lose. Thought experiments and brainstorming are fun, but until I see evidence I will continue voting for Lance and George while hoping that the sport and the officials clean up the field of those who are doping. I would be interested in your take on the biological passport, which is cycling newest approach to fight dopers in the sport.

    • Dennis says:

      STrimmer, the claim that Lance Armstrong takes, or took, PEDs does not qualify as an “extraordinary claim.” Please reserve that label for miracle cures and UFOs, a category with NO credible evidence. If other top-named cyclists are getting caught and disqualified, why is it that you can’t take Landis’ claim in the light in which Mr. Shermer places it? If you read his post–which I’m having a hard time accepting that you did–you would have understood the “nothing to lose” scenario placed Landis in a state of disequilibrium within the game, making the Omerta agreement much less worthwhile. This same effect was on full display a number of years ago in baseball when Jose Canseco wrote his tell-all book about juicing. But the same flimsy response accompanied his claims as well: zero credibility, nothing to lose, blah, blah, blah. We now know just how accurate his claims were. At a time in which all-time power number records were suddenly being broken every year, and then re-broken the following year, the media, athletes, and fans alike had the audacity to make the all-too-familiar claim that Canseco’s accusation was, you guessed it, an extraordinary claim.

      I implore you, as you say, “as a skeptic and cycling fan,” to reassess your definition of what makes an extraordinary claim. If you continue to use the label “extraordinary claim” on a whim, then you suck all efficacy from Carl Sagan’s Cosmos quotation: “Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence.”

      I also ask that you read Mr. Shermer’s post again (maybe for the first time). I think you will realize that your decision to use Landis’ nothing-to-lose scenario as an argument AGAINST his claims, immediately after a Shermer article going into detail about why the nothing-to-lose scenario is exactly when these claims would naturally spring forth, is laughable.

      Skeptic? More like “fan.”

      • jveeds says:

        Reading all the comments from the perspective of three years later is a bit like having a time travel machine. In the past 12 months, Lance Armstrong has publicly confessed — in the face of overwhelming evidence — and it is now clear that claims of Lance’s PED use were not an “extraordinary claim” (though it now appears that there was extraordinary evidence anyway.)

  9. NightHiker says:

    This is a very controversial issue and I believe many of our positions regarding it to be very arbitrary.

    Let’s say at the center of the issue regarding doping is the concept that competition should be fair among participants. But how do we define it? It’s clear that athletes with access to the best equipment and training facilities have an advantage, however slight, over others, less fortunate. That, however, is not considered “doping” (of course) – but could have an as big or bigger effect on the results. But is it a given that “external” help should be deemed different than “internal” help? Being financial considerations likely figure on both anyway?

    Also, since the idea that all men are born equal is obviously outdated, why the randomness of natural selection should be considered a fair component, if it makes people have different capacities and metabolisms from the start, meaning that two people with the equivalent skill sets and training would still fare differently because of it? Why is that considered “fair” in our views?

    And what about treatments that are not aimed at increasing an athlete’s performance per se, but diminishing the effects of their wear and tear? For example, I play basketball on a recreational level some 10 hours per week, but at my age, the wear and tear on my knees make it very painful. So, at appropriate intervals (once or twice a year) I inject a lubricant in my knees to reduce the friction between the patela and the femur, and it allows me to play on a higher level than I would be able otherwise (or even play at all) – but that is also not considered doping.

    Of course, I am not saying that means anything should be allowed as far as doping goes, just that some of our assumptions might be off base to begin with. And while this is less crucial now, in 20 or 30 years, with the further advancements in bioengineering and nanotechnology, along with medical science, it will make the distinctions between what is doping and what is not much blurrier. It’s a though subject.

  10. Beelzebud says:

    Not sure what this has to do with skepticism, but ok…

    • Rob says:

      Skeptic – The Name Thing Again
      by Steven Novella, Nov 17 2008

      A skeptic is one who prefers beliefs and conclusions that are reliable and valid to ones that are comforting or convenient, and therefore rigorously and openly applies the methods of science and reason to all empirical claims, especially their own. A skeptic provisionally proportions acceptance of any claim to valid logic and a fair and thorough assessment of available evidence, and studies the pitfalls of human reason and the mechanisms of deception so as to avoid being deceived by others or themselves. Skepticism values method over any particular conclusion.

  11. bonoboi says:

    the last line of the article says, “Cycling is ahead of all other sports in implementing these and other preventative measures, and still some doping goes on”, i was just researching online and on wikipedia about the doping culture in professional soccer and they were claiming that it really isn’t an issue in the sport. the head medical examiner even claims that out of 35,000 tests last year only 9 showed anabolic steroid use (

    so i am curious about soccer since you argue that any sport not setup to test its athletes well enough is going to have competitive doping- i wouldn’t doubt it would include soccer as well.

  12. Max says:

    You’d think that as a libertarian, Shermer would want to legalize performance-enhancing drugs, but evidently when it comes to cycling, he’s all for rules.

    • CW says:

      Heh, I was wondering the same thing.

    • steve says:

      Libertarians, and I think pretty much everybody, hold games to a different set of standards than governments.

      • Max says:

        There are those who want to legalize performance-enhancing drugs in sports, and those who want to increase penalties, so you’d think that a libertarian would prefer to legalize than penalize, that’s all.

      • Dennis says:

        Max thinks Libertarians are anarchists.

      • JGB says:

        Because watching games allows us to believe the fantasy of justice and merit-based rewards in an unjust world.

    • Chris says:

      PEDs are against the rules. If the “true libertarian” position is to allow PEDs then the “true libertarian” position is to abolish rules?

      Sounds great! Let’s have cyclists use motors in their bikes. Let’s have competitive swimmers use fins or motorized assistance. The NYC marathon can become a competition of who gets the craziest cab driver to drive them to the finish line. Or we can allow boxing and MMA to become deathmatches. After all, that’s just competitors finding an edge and exploiting it, so it’s “libertarian” to support it…

      Libertarians are not anarchists. Rules in sport are there because they are what defines the sport.

    • Thomas says:

      The bodies which govern the rules of a each sport is different from the government of the country. Laws are one thing. Rules within a sport are another.

      There is nothing wrong with rules within a sport and nowhere does Mr Shermer say the opposite.

  13. Ed Seedhouse says:

    > Jeremy Anderson says:
    > Good question, and one easily answered. The should be
    > drawn at what is healthy. You can train…

    Jeremy, in the case of bycicle racers, training is often not safe, let alone healthy. There have been a couple of them killed while training in my neck of the woods in the last few years. And running many miles a day may be good for your heart, but think about what it does to your joints. I wrecked my left foot by simply walking too much.

    Heavily competitive sports nearly always involve significant risks. A rock climber died due to a fall near Squamish just a week or so ago, and a skate boarder was killed the other day in North Vancouver.

    So, do we want to outlaw all risky activities? If not where is the rational place to draw a line between socially acceptible risk and unacceptable risk? I do not have an answer, but your answer is not well thought out in my opinion. Rather than being simple, your answer appears simplistic.

  14. Rich Wilson says:

    Um, as of July 11th Lance was very much NOT in contention.

  15. citybilly says:

    Floyd Landis has zero creditability. what this has to do with skepticism ? sounds like its more a opportunity to be a Contrarian during the tour.

  16. Fresna says:

    Unfortunately, I have to say that if you allow half the riders to dope, then you have given an unfair advantage and must give a “Dope” and “Dopeless” different brackets where you would still need to test for doping in one.

    From my standpoint, it seems much easier to simply disallow it.

    • Justin says:

      Very true. And this is why simply allowing PEDs in sport is not the answer. It may or may not be the answer to legalize drugs in the “real world”; but in sport, where the rules are what make the games just that, lines (no matter how arbitrary) must be drawn and enforced. In this case, mostly for the reason you’ve mentioned here, it is easier to draw a line that disallows PEDs.

  17. Tom says:

    The obvious choice would be to make all doping illegal. There are no if ands or buts.

    • Greg Amann says:

      Well I never like the idea of zero tolerance. There are always ifs, ands or buts in real life. Zero tolerance is usually there to market an idea rather than as an effective tactic to promote an idea.

      And I recently read an article where the retired Belgian doctor claimed that medically administered EPO in the correct dosage would actually help most riders in the peloton with their recovery and reduce health risks. Go figure…

  18. Rob says:

    With as much fame and money as there is in cycling today, you have to expect people will do everything they can to win. Some competitors will have better trainers and nutritionist. Some competitors will be young, older, shorter, taller, and so forth. The problem with drugs is the potential for a negative effect on the body. If I love cycling and have the ability to compete at a high level, why must I be forced into taking drugs that may cause a heart attack or cancer just to have the opportunity. To me that is the difference between the latest state of the art bike and drugs.

  19. leo says:

    For all those who believe doping should be ok, legal, may your children all reap the great benefit of your wisdom.
    Get those 4th graders started early on the road to sports stardom and an early grave.

  20. Doping (cheating) has been a part of cycling since the late 1800’s so that culture has endured a long time. The problem is that technology and money have fueled new doping techniques since the 1980’s. And unfortunately, many professional cyclists have died in the doping quest to win.

    Doping takes the spirit out of true competition of cycling. Granted most of us will never be able to compete at the levels of Lance, Landis, or Contador, but the shame of it is that we shouldn’t have to question a sport that we love so much.

  21. David says:

    Why not award a “co-trophy” to the best chemist, Dr., trainer, etc. that gets his guy into the winners circle? It would take on sort of a Emmy awards look-n-feel: “I just want to thank _____ for the chemical cocktail that made it possible to win”. Isn’t that what is really going on? Jeez, let’s just be honest about it.

  22. It’s really a marketing decision. Sports organizations want fans to love their sport and identify with the athletes who compete in it. That’s why NASCAR automobiles look like Chevies and Fords, even though they are pure race cars in disguise. Most professional sports are set up to look very much the same as what ordinary people do in that sport, and even if the equipment is extreme, the athletes themselves generally look fairly normal (taking into account the hard work and training they have put in). If athletes are allowed to dope, they will look and behave like freaks, not like normal people who are simply willing to work hard. If that happens, fans will stop identifying with the athletes, and that sports’ revenues will go away.

    • JGB says:

      News flash – professional athletes already look and act like freaks… and they’re increasingly acting like criminals.

      Community softball and basketball leagues are to professional sports what Karaoke is to the recording industry.

  23. PEDs alone cannot cause anyone to win any type of competition among great athletes. The athletes are there because they work hard enough and are good enough. The problem arises from the awareness of who is using PEDs through of these tests. If they stop harassing the athletes with tests for PEDs there will be nothing but suspicion among those of us who enjoy the race amongst the greatest athletes on earth, with or without the PEDs.

  24. Patrick says:

    Why not just allow doping? Why not let science and the market work to improve human potential?

  25. JGB says:

    I have a question:

    Why do we care about athletes using PED’s but accept
    actors, artists and musicians taking drugs for their work?

    Many entertainers use drugs to enhance their performance.
    Musicians and dancers often use drugs to soothe jitters
    and help them ‘feel’ the music (ie. performance enhancement).

    And Judy Garland got hooked on drugs – as a child – from the
    use of stimulants to keep her ‘up’ for long days of filming
    and sedatives to help her sleep. She died of an overdose.

    Why demand that Athletes get tested but not Rock Stars?

    • Omri says:

      Why do we care about athletes using PED’s but accept
      actors, artists and musicians taking drugs for their work?

      Athletes are particularly important influences on the young-and-stupid.
      An athlete who dopes will cause lead high schoolers to do the same.
      That’s one reason.

      Many entertainers use drugs to enhance their performance.
      Musicians and dancers often use drugs to soothe jitters
      and help them ‘feel’ the music (ie. performance enhancement).

      And Judy Garland got hooked on drugs – as a child – from the
      use of stimulants to keep her ‘up’ for long days of filming
      and sedatives to help her sleep. She died of an overdose.

      Which is why in the US and UK there is particularly stringent regulation on the employment of child actors. They put Garland on uppers to get the most screen hours out of her childhood years. Nowadays you can’t work a child that way without risking prison time, so there is no temptation to feed him uppers. (That is also why movies involving children tend to have more bloopers – only so many retakes before the kids run out of legal hours for the week.)

      Why demand that Athletes get tested but not Rock Stars?

    • Oskar says:

      First of all, musicians/dancers using drugs to “soothe the jitters” might just have the “jitters” as a result of drug use/addiction, not vice versa. Are you implying that most, or a considerable portion, of Americans knew about or suspected the drugs given to Judy Garland during the filming, and paid to see the film regardless? I think that argument is valid, only if this is the case, as one cannot decry what one does not know. I am interested to know if that was common knowledge at the time. Also interested to know if the Home Alone kid got hooked on any drugs during filming.

      I think a big part of the difference in this case is that notion of “celebrity”. E.g. an unknown blues guitarist gigging for his wage is a musician, but Amy Winehouse is something different. The blues guitarist shouldn’t do drugs, because it’s blowing his hard-earned cash, but we love the Schadenfreude in each photo of Ms. Winehouse passed out in yet another back-alley dumpster.

      I think the biggest point of difference is that Rock and Roll has never had rules, besides the musical aspects which would need be present to define it as Rock and Roll. The radio has rules, record labels have rules, theaters have rules, sure, but Rock and Roll does not. Hip Hop does not. Jazz most certainly does not. Societies/Markets… have rules, in that we will or will not continue to consume the product, based on the actions of the maker of the product. Also, is the competition to write better songs, or to sell more albums? I’m sure the owners of team franchises more than understand this concept. “Gee, my Dallas Cowboys didn’t make the Superbowl, but we sold the most tickets and jerseys. I think I won.”

      Even still, I think the major reason why the creative minds aren’t held to the same standard as athletes, is because, while there is potential for benefit, there is also far greater potential for loss. Off the top of your head, how many rock-stars can you name who have overdosed while still in the peak of their careers? Now try to name the athletes that did… How many stars didn’t die from chemical abuse, but definitely lost their careers over it? The public will tolerate and even expect some debauchery, but if you can’t perform a show without getting into a drunken fist-fight with your guitarist/brother while on-stage, we probably wont buy many copies of your next album. I’ve been awake too long today to write this eloquently. Anyone wanna refine the crude oil of my thoughts into cerebral gasoline?

  26. csagara says:

    Michael Shermer makes this statement: “athletes will cheat. Anyone who believes otherwise does not understand sports or human nature.”

    What I believe he means by “cheating” is that participants will choose to violate the rules of a game/sport if the violation will help them win the game. But what does it mean to “violate a rule”?

    Was the foreward pass in American football, or the slam dunk in basketball, cheating the first time it happened, or were they activities not specifically covered by the rules? In a sense, then, the “best” kind of doping is something not covered by the rules. In this sense, an unspecifified part of the anti-doping rule is that if an activity cannot be detected or is not covered by the rule, then it cannot be considered as doping.

    The other thing is, if “winning is the only thing”, then this sets up a dilemma, as Shermer acknowledges above, in which the athlete competes not only against others, but also against him/herself, since by not doing one’s utmost — even to the extent of cheating — one places oneself at a disadvantage against one’s competitors.

    Consider the alternative of the athlete whose only goal — or standard for winning — is to beat his or her own best time. For such an athlete, the question of “cheating” is much easier since all “competitors” (each successive self) are the same person. The person, then, can hold oneself to one standard — “how diligently I exercise” for example — or like an addict, continually change the rules to accomodate using more and more drugs. It seems that this is what is happening to all “professionalized” sports.

    For the solitary athlete, the person whose goal is self improvement or the cultivation of the soul, the object of “winning” is more a spiritual one than an objective one. If the object of “winning” is to continually beat one’s best time, for example, then there should come a point when the athlete should stop participating since as they age, there will come a time when their body will no longer perform at their peak level.

    At this point should the athlete simply stop participating? Or, they could change the rules, but in what sense? Should they try to develop a formula like “Goal = Time/Age” or some such? Or should they consider that participation in a sport is more than just some number?

    Finally, consider the consequences of winning: the pleasant feeling of trimuph, certainly, but also more tangible things like the adoration of your fellow beings, and even more tangibly, extra-sport opportunities such as endoresments, investment opportunities, “contacts”, and simply, money and power.

    Since there is so much material incentive to cheat, given the large reward for winning in “professionalized” sport, trying to eliminate cheating from these sports is futile. It seems, the more prominent a sport becomes, the greater the rewards. In a sense, cheating is part of the game in that one unwritten rule is the understanding that “if you can get away with it, then you will not be penalized.”

    Perhaps there should be two types of awards for winning — though only one absolute winner at a time. One type of winner would be awarded a “Pure Prize” on the basis that they have willingly subjected themself to any and every test and every testing regime for a year prior to the event, and the other winner would be awarded just a “Prize” if they have not subjected themself to the Pure Prize conditions (regardless of whether they were actually pure or not), but won nevertheless. How would we feel about the sport if no Pure Prize was ever awarded?

    Either that, or just give the winner a crown of laurel and let it go at that.

  27. Brad Hoehne says:

    While Floyd’s state of disequilibrium would have given him a motivation to violate a secret pact, I see it as equally probable that it would have given him a motivation to engage in damage control. It is plausible that he made the calculation that by falsely bringing down his teammate Lance- and, by extension, the entire sport- he would regain relative standing. In other words, if the whole field were doping, his performance would have to be reassessed relative to that. If people could be made to believe that he, a doper, beat a doped field, history would look more kindly on him. Game theory-wise, it doesn’t matter to Floyd whether or not his allegations are true, just whether or not they have a chance of restoring some of his status.

  28. failix says:

    bigger, stronger, faster! (movie) explains motifs for hipocrisy/ compromise (success vs moral vs idol for children!)

    ben johnson: baaad anabolic steroids (stanozolol afaik)
    carl lewis: 3 different phenethylamines detected, but he needed it for his cough (professional athletes know how not to be tested positive, so it was indeed some physician’s fault)
    lionel messi: HGH (he was just too small)
    Landis: ouch my hip! need cortisole (btw a steroid)
    lance armstrong needs testo-injections due to his cancer-related hypogonadotrope hypogonadism (could be wrong i’m not a MD)

    at least landis had the cojones left to admit, and also made money with his book. i wont read it, but his decisions are reasonable

  29. Aarmin Banaji says:

    A solution which might appeal to us Libertarians?

    In all sports have both a doping and a non-doping league. Preserves freedom of choice, though would not prevent a doper from entering the latter league but once exposed should lose all credibility.

  30. Ann H. says:

    Perhaps I am naive, but I’d like to think that one of the glories of sport is that it is an example of the heights to which a human can aspire. I’m not a fan of cycling, but couldn’t help but be aware of Lance Armstrong’s achievement. How amazing that a human could reach such heights!

    If he did it with drugs, it ruins the dream.

  31. Steve Cook says:

    I suggest legalizing all drugs in the Pro peloton. The amateurs have to remain absolutely clean. It would be vey much like auto racing (NHRA). Different categories for different results. The public wants to see the absolute fastest, let ‘em see it……nitro!

  32. Julian van der Nat says:

    I would like to see some statistics on “why athletes dope”. The answer is not as simple as saying; “to win, or to perform better, etc”. It could be in most cases simply “because everybody else is doing it”. In other words, just to be able to stay in the tour, complete a marathon, or play pro football, you must dope. This means that the dopers set the norm, and then everybody does it, but the few gifted individuals still exceed to win (as they were always better). That is why I support Shermer’s first suggestion (actually all), where amnesty is given and then all start afresh. If a gifted athlete is guaranteed that nobody else is doping or cheating, then it will take the pressure of him/her doing it as well. Sportsman will start to recognize each other for their talent, ability and strategy, rather than suspecting you lost to drugs when another won. Clear case in point is the allegation against Cancellara in the Roubaix (apparently his bike had an engine…LOL), and other teams always accusing the referee when they lose. Sportsman and fans will always find another scapegoat, so let’s get rid of drugs at least. At the moment the competition is between the chemists (who can make and “hide” the best drugs) and not the athletes.

    • mtbgirl says:

      i like this idea it might give athlete the chance to start over. if a cyclist has been using drugs for ages it would be hard to stop especially because of the media’s reaction to drugs at thsi time. if a cyclist suddenly stops performing well and goes to being dropped people are going to get suspicious and someone WILL say that they are doping if it goes on. if ammnesty was given it could give them peace of mind to stop. train. then race clean. altho tbh the media have a lot to do with it building up the pressure, accusing people falsley nd all that.

  33. Sarp Kaya says:

    Allowing doping with current methods today will lead to bizarre developments in the future. Just imagine where technology can take that in 20-50 years time. Take it far enough and you can picture a sci fi race of athletes with grossly exaggerated bodies and features that live and die apart from the rest of us. Expendable mutants created for our pleasure. Orwellian I admit but certainly possible.
    Back to the point : Ban not only the athlete but his team for 10 years and fine them in the millions. Put the responsibility of the individual on the shoulders of the team.

  34. Marc Blackburn says:

    I like many here question the very logic of outlawing PEDs. I do not think Shermer’s solutions are viable. More testing? Stiffer penalties? Why not have everyone confess under torture?

    I find Solution number 5 particularly naive: give the money back to the people that paid for the doping (but only after hanging their guinea pig out to dry, eh).

    Bottom line prohibition doesn’t work. It will never work. Discourage drugs that are undeniably harmful and easily detectible, but allow athletes the right to decide what to do with their own bodies.

  35. Mario says:

    This is the tendency of us human to demand from others to be a better person, to look up for role models for our children when we should be those models; the vast majority speaks about PED’s like magic shots that over the night produce amazing improvements, reality its quite different, athletes still have to work really hard to achieve their goals; but we like to rationalize our lies or cheats over the ones used by the others i.e. My use of alcohol, caffeine or cheating on my taxes its not as bad as when athletes, singers or presidents cheat, when in fact they are the same…a lie.

    For me its just another example of the double moral that permeates human nature. Athletes are adults and should be let to decide whether they use them or not; I recommend the documentary Bigger Stronger Faster.

  36. Corie Kellie says:

    I admit it is strange that I found a post that I can’t find a few things wrong with it. This might actually be an exception. I don’t see any huge grammatical mistakes, nothing extremely naive talked about, and a theme that doesn’t look like a cat walked across your keyboard during creation. Am I impressed? Kind of; but definitely better than many.

  37. Ora Leon says:

    Why should they feel guilty about doping? It is THEIR OWN LIVES they are putting at stake…

    Since doping was first invented by cyclists and first prohibited because a cyclist died, I suggest: ban these huge cycling competitions like tour de France.

    Or just make doping free for all and whoever wants to kill himself can kill himself.

    • Doping makes it impossible for people who want to compete but do not want to risk their lives with dangerous doping. Non-dopers cannot compete with dopers, so this creates a huge incentive to dope.

      Competitions can set their own internal rules, and it is reasonable for those rules to include safeguards for athletes.