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What is Seen and What is Unseen

by Michael Shermer, Sep 11 2012

The Hidden Price of Immoral Acts

I’ve been reading Tyler Hamilton’s new book, The Secret Race: Inside the Hidden World of the Tour de France: Doping, Cover-ups, and Winning at All Costs, co-authored by Daniel Coyle, a journalist and author with considerable literary talent. It’s a gripping story about how Tyler Hamilton, Lance Armstrong, and all the other top cyclists have been doping for decades, using such advanced scientific programs of performance enhancement that estimates show the benefit could be as much as 10%, in races won by fractions of 1%. After nearly two decades of racing with both dope and no dope, Hamilton concludes that although a clean rider might be able to win a one-day race, it is not possible to compete in, much less win, a 3-week event like the Tour de France.

The lengths these guys go to win are almost beyond comprehension. All you do is train, eat, and sleep. And dope. The drug of choice is (or was—now that the drug testers have caught up riders use other drugs that have similar effects) EPO, or erythropoietin, a genetically modified hormone invented by Amgen that stimulates the body to produce more red blood cells, a life-saver for anemic patients undergoing chemo or suffering from other long-term ailments. Also on the menu is testosterone, human growth hormone, steroids (for injuries, not bulk, since cyclists get as skinny as they can), and others. Tyler nicknamed his EPO Edgar, as in Allen Poe. The drugs worked, he says, but only if you do everything else necessary, including logging in 5–6 hour daily training rides, reduce your body fat down to 5% or less, and program your entire life to doing nothing but racing bikes. If you are not riding, rest. Don’t walk when you can sit. Don’t sit when you can lie down. And don’t ever climb stairs. You are either a bike rider or a couch potato. If you are genetically gifted, train your ass off, starve yourself down to a skeletal frame with bird-like arms and Schwarzenegger-size legs, can ride as fast as the wind, and get on a professional team invited to the Tour de France, then and only then will the drugs give you the edge to boost yourself from barely finishing stages to contending for a top finishing spot. From what Hamilton (and others) write on this topic, I estimate that doping is worth somewhere between 50 and 100 places in the Tour de France. Yes, you might survive the race on “pan y agua” (bred and water—the riders’ euphemism for non-doping diets), but if you want to feel better than death you have to take the drugs.

Okay, so everyone does it and the playing field is level, right? Wrong. First, there’s a serious science behind proper doping, and if you don’t have the dough to hire the best dope—and doping doctors—you’re left fumbling around with dosages and frequencies and wondering if the needle or bag of blood is contaminated, or if you screwed up and overdosed and thus are still “glowing” when the drug tester pops in for an out-of-competition surprise drug test. The top pros pass hundreds of drug tests because they have the top doping docs to show them how to do it properly. According to Hamilton, the top doping doctor in the world, Michele Ferrari, was at one point paid by Lance for exclusive services. Hamilton says he spent anywhere from $50,000 to $100,000 a year for doping products and services. Most riders in the peloton cannot afford anything like such a specialized and professional doping program. So, I estimate that at most 25% of the peloton are doping professionally. Another 50% or so are doping unprofessionally; that is, procuring their doping products catch as catch can, guessing at the proper dosages and frequencies, and hoping they got it right, which they often did not. The rest of the cyclists are riding pan y agua, and suffering beyond belief. Not a level playing field. The moral equivalency argument on Lance’s behalf that, “the best guy won anyway because they were all doping” (an argument I’ve made myself) is bullshit. We have no idea who the best riders were in those seven tours (or the equally doped up tours before and after). What is seen are the champion dopers. What is unseen and forever unknown is whoever the best athletes might have been.

This is the real harm to those athletes who did not want to dope, who were given the choice to dope and opted out, who pulled over to the curb on the boulevard of broken dreams, stripped off their race number, and packed it in to go home, in most cases back to menial jobs or to finish high school or start college. Who are these cyclists? Tyler names a few in his book, but in most cases we have no idea who they are because they are the unseen ones, those whose potential was never realized because they never had the chance to compete cleanly against their peers. We’ll never know how they might have done against the very best in the business because the best cheated to get there. Could Cyclist Joe from Hannibal, MO beat Lance Armstrong from Austin, TX? We’ll never know. Cyclist Joe is now Joe the Plumber, Mr. Everyman, while Lance is still glowing.

It’s so easy to be the hero when you’re the champ. All the accolades flow to you, along with media coverage, paid endorsements and speaking engagements, private jets and celebrity dinners, and lots and lots of money. It is so easy to be generous to others when you’re on top, funding your own and others charities, becoming the good guy who is going to defeat cancer. It’s all so glamorous when you’re on top. This is what is seen. What is unseen are the non-dopers, the moral ones who were robbed of the possibility of being champ, of starting their own charities, of being generous and inspirational to others, of basking in the glory, of being the hero. They will never have the possibility of that experience because it was taken away from them by the cheaters.

This is the problem with cheating across the moral landscape: it’s robs others of their possibilities. The Wall Street inside trader who drives in limos and flies in private jets is what is seen. What is unseen are the little investors who play by the rules and as a consequence of the cheater drive crappy cars, fly commercial coach, and watch their 401K’s shrink. We can see the deceptive co-worker who pinches the company here and there; what we don’t see is how those limited resources might have been allocated toward the benefit of honest employees. The cheating spouse is seen, the possibly unfulfilled dreams of the children of broken homes is unseen. The corrupt politician who wrangles a deal to extract taxes from a general fund to build a bridge to nowhere in his district stands for photo ops and basks in the glory. He gets to be the hero. What is unseen is where our money might have been spent otherwise, as we see fit. And, finally, on the grandest scale of all, wars and terrorism steal the possibilities of what might have been for those who paid the ultimate sacrifice. What is seen are flag-draped coffins and flower-strewn graves. What is unseen are unfulfilled relationships and the unborn children of the soldiers and victims, those who, with a nod to Neil Young, “will never go to school, never get to fall in love, never get to be cool.”

What is seen are immoral acts. What is unseen is the hidden price of those acts. What is seen are the champions and the cheaters. What is unseen are the honest ones who had the courage and the character to walk away with their morality. This is the larger lesson of cheating. It robs everyone of what might have been. With cheating, what might have been is now what never was. It erases history. What is prologue is past.

47 Responses to “What is Seen and What is Unseen”

  1. Brent says:

    I’m about 2/3’s though the book, and it really is a great read, especially if you are a cycling fan who followed the Tour de France during the Lance Armstrong era.

    One thing I can’t help but think about in the whole Lance Armstrong doping saga is how many people still defend Armstrong in the face of mounds of evidence against him. Ii is a great example of people dismissing evidence they don’t like and accepting the spin that Armstrong and his personal team puts out there.

    It’s easy to see how a religion can get started when you observe how many people really want to believe the Armstrong myth because viewing him as a cancer fighting hero just feels good.

    • AndreSwiss-Tex says:

      Cyclists are the most tested athletes, and usually only the careless ones get caught. Doping in cycling has gone on ever since there were competitions. What is Hamilton’s motivation to now “expose” his former Boss and employer. Sour Grapes? An Ax to grind? The former Pro turned soigneur Willy Voet already wrote about the practices while Hamilton was still basking in the glory of his Olympic Gold medal. Were there similar stringent testing in the NFL or Baseball, Cyclists would be barely mentioned.
      Every year organizers of the big Tours want to show more spectacle by including ever tougher climbs (Vuelta a Espagna 2012!), thus leaving participants not many options in order to do their job. With top tier teams is big money involved, and a rider better perform or he’ll be forced to look for another occupation.
      Armstrong has done what no other rider has, nor ever will. I’m no big fan of his, but I give him credit for his amazing accomplishments not only in the Tour, but also his World Championships.

      • Craig says:

        Perhaps there was an element of bitterness, even after all this time. Only Hamilton can know whether that’s true. But one of his “motivations” must surely have been staying out of jail. After being contacted by Jeff Novitsky he was subpoenaed which left him with a choice between telling the truth or lying and risking a prison sentence for perjury.

      • Huxley says:

        I love how this reply exemplify the point made above.

  2. Max says:

    Where do you draw the line between doping and all the other crazy stuff athletes do: dietary supplements, hyperbaric chambers, Lasik surgery, expensive equipment, etc.? Is it just that doping is especially hazardous to health? What if it were completely safe, would it still be bad? I mean, athletes are injured all the time, it comes with the territory.

    • BillG says:

      I would add that success compounds success. Armstrong was a gifted athelete when only a teen – winning triathlons and such, not just cycling and doubtful he was doping then.

      The door opens and you’re exposed and offered not only to what Max described but the best advice and time to dedicate 100%, to train in locals to maximize results and the bucks to globetrot in competitions. Doping aside, how much more resources (money), does one benefit from the poorer competitor? 5,10,20%?

      With a few exceptions, gone are the days when a currently employed UPS driver wins a gold medal. Speculating, does access to deep pockets trump dope as an advantage in most sports?

      • Gregg says:

        Interesting thought, Bill. It made me think of mixed martial arts, the one sport I follow aside from cycling. Every top level guy trains full-time. Even though they only fight a few times a year, there are no more “regularly-employed” top fighters (there may b one or two exceptions left). Nevertheless, in the Olympics and in other competition, the winner is the one who goes out and performs the best, not the one with the most potential. So, someone who trains full-time has an advantage, but not necessarily an unfair one.

    • Doug says:

      Are all those other things specifically forbidden by the rules? That’s where you draw the line.

  3. igloo says:

    I have long thought it would be interesting to hold an alternative ‘anything goes’ Olympic Games. Then we would really find out what the human body is capable of (with help), and we would also spot those events where the ‘anything goes’ performance is close to the regular Olympics performance.
    This is a morally repugnant idea of course….

    • Max says:

      The strongest liver wins.

    • jell says:

      I agree and don’t think a contest where athletes take risks to push their bodies past “natural” limits is morally repugnant.

    • Bad Boy Scientist says:

      Why is it morally repugnant? As long as participation is voluntary, it is no less moral than many sporting events. Professional sports can be tough on an athlete – look at Mohammed Ali or Junior Seau for an eye opener of what repeated head trauma can do.

      Dr Mike’s essays on the morality of doping have caused me to ponder the morality of spectator sports in general. Frankly, I see no clear demarcation of when risk to athletes becomes ‘unacceptable’. Likewise, I see no clear place to draw the line for acceptable performance enhancers (e.g. is a team that has access to some special high-tech equipment that is beyond the reach of the competition taking unfair advantage?)

      There is an enormous difference between immorality in sports and immorality on Wall Street – most of us can safely ignore what goes on in sports (unless we live in Southern States – then our lies depend on knowing football scores).

      • igloo says:

        It is morally repugnant to create incentives which result in people knowingly damaging their health, in pursuit of some arbitrary goal.
        It’s like breeding pedigree dogs. To get the ‘best in show’ award you may have to deliberately breed an unhealthy dog. Doesn’t sound right to me.

      • jopt says:

        It’s nothing like that. The ethical problem of breeding is that you’re doing it to someone else (the dog,) not to yourself.

      • Huxley says:

        That is a weird morality system. So no incentives that lead to adverse physical sacrifices? Do you not believe in any form of free will?

        Personally I believe that if two people wanted, and agreed, to fight each other to death gladiator style, that’s their business and I’d have no problem with that.

      • tmac57 says:

        We already have that,we call them street gangs.
        The advanced form we call armed forces.

  4. Benedikt says:

    “What is unseen are [...] the moral ones who were robbed of the possibility of being champ”
    That one kills me too, Michael. I am an non-competitive runner with one marathon under my belt. In that race, I missed getting an age-group medal by one position, because a drop-out crossed the finish line ahead of me. The data from his chip showed he had not run the whole race, and I eventually got my medal by mail. I hadn’t made anything like the sacrifices that pro athletes make. That medal wasn’t even among my goals. But it sure would’ve been nice to get the recognition with my friends there on race day. And there was no podium, no national anthem, no press photos, no life of sacrifices, just a couple of supportive friends and a few months of training. I get furious when I imagine the fair player Olympian getting his medal in the mail with a note, “It turns out the other guys were cheating and you won. Congratulations.” Or worse, all those who never even got that because the cheaters never got caught.

  5. Jeremiah says:

    “From what Hamilton (and others) write on this topic, I estimate that doping is worth somewhere between 50 and 100 places in the Tour de France.”

    “So, I estimate that at most 25% of the peloton are doping professionally. Another 50% or so are doping unprofessionally;”

    Where are those estimates coming from? Are those the numbers given in the book?

  6. michael s says:

    there was a great article I read on this recently, with the same logic but more broadly applied to life:

  7. James Carman says:

    Best I can tell Joe the Plumber was not from Hannibal, MO, nor was he a cyclist. His Wikipedia mentions neither cycling or Missouri. I did a follow up Google search and did not see any mention of it there either.

    • Jim V says:

      Yikes. What kind of inconsequential fact-checking is this? The author was using a figure of speech, Mr. Carman (and a pretty dandy one at that. He says “Joe the cyclist from Hannibal,” meaning an unknown or non-sponsored or non-celebrated guy from someplace outside of mainstream sports (no offense to Hannibal) who returns to his humble (again, no offense) homestead and becomes, instead of a glorious Wheaties box champion, a blue-collar worker (still again, no offense)…everyman, Joe the Plumber.

      Yet the author was able to encapsulate all that in a few phrases. No need for Wikipedia.

  8. TPaine says:

    Thank you for broaching the subject of the “unseen”. Rarely thought about but so much bigger than the seen.
    To shift gears a bit, how about a few words on Praxeology?

  9. Big Picture Guy says:

    “Rules are Rules” is supposed to be a satirical comment.

    If you step back and look at all sports, advantages not taken as against the rules at the time are considered “competitive advantages”. “Cheating” is that which is interpreted as violating the rules at the time. In NASCAR, the “amount of fuel” that can be carried by the car has been limited and interpreted (incorrectly) as meaning the size of the fuel tank. Many, if not most competitors have used over-sized fuel lines and convoluted routing to gain the advantage of a gallon or more. Now that this is understood, should be go back 10 or 20 years and pull the victories away from the winners that used this technique?

    The bottom line is that cycling has had clear rules and clear published enforcement techniques. From any practical measure, rules are interpreted by the sports enforcement techniques. If you pass the enforcement techniques, you meet the rules. If you work any other way, there is not a clearly defined set of rules and the “playing field” is not level. What you have is one set of competitors who meet the rules as enforced today and one set of competitors who are guessing how to meet the rules as they may be enforced in the future. In a large number of sports, you get a window of time in which to lodge a “protest” against a winner or another competitor and if the competitor is found in compliance with the rules, the victory stands forever no matter what people may say in the future. From a practical standpoint in an ever changing world, how can you really work any other way?

    In the true spirit of “fairness”, how can you expect to go back though the decades and convict ALL violators? Do you just want to pick on the most visible? After you pull Lance Armstrong’s victories, was Mr. Second place doping? (Probably). How about Mr. Third place? If I understand correctly here, the plan is to open Pandora’s Box but then to just deny that anything other than what we wanted got out.

    I am curious. If Lance Armstrong had died of Cancer a few years back, would they be pulling his victories now with no chance of defense? Keep in mind that this is exactly what is happening now. After decades of successfully defending himself, he is now convicted because he won’t continue the endless process anymore.

    Now picture yourself sitting across a table ready to inspire your child into sports and it comes to this point…..” and some people are very successful and many get to represent the United States to the world and bring a victory back to our country. No one can take that from you ….. unless a board convenes anytime in the future and decides that although you passed every test and inspection at the time, some other competitors and team members that you have repetitively defeated testify that you cheated somehow and this board decides to pull your victories even after your death.” What is the limit? I can rob a bank and there is a statue of limitations but apparently this does not apply to sports.

    The bottom line is that Lance Armstrong passed every test, met every requirement, and passed every investigation associated with each and every victory. The U.S. government investigated him to an extreme level and opted not to pursue it any further. Whether or not Lance Armstrong used illegal performance enhancing drugs is no longer the real issue. The real issue is if the playing field was level and the answer is yes. As discussed in the article, game theory shows that all competitors where driven to the limits of the rules and enforcement, good or bad, and that was the situation. As for if he deserved his victories, anyone who has ever rode with Lance through the Texas hill country knows he was the greatest cycling athlete of this generation. My only disappointment with him is that he has given up at this most critical stage.

    This is the most critical stage because now it will be president setting. From this point forward, no victory is final. A committee can decide you have cheated through testimony, and not physical evidence, for any reason or cause. This last attack on Lance Armstrong did not make the world a better place; it made it worse.

    • CGM says:

      Both Hamilton’s book and Jonathan Vaughters’ recent interview both put a stake in the heart of the notion of a level playing field. Armstrong’s body quite clearly responds well to drugs as evidenced by his near miraculous recovery from cancer. Why should we think they didn’t have an extremely beneficial impact on him as an athlete? According to for Postal members there was a hierarchy on the team and Lance had access to the best stuff and the best doctor(Ferrari).

      I find your comment of enforcement techniques quite odd. As if you could walk around with an IV and blood bag hooked up to your arm as long as you pass the tests. Basically what you’re saying is if an athlete is great at covering his cheating and the technology lags behind the cheaters, the cheaters should be rewarded instead of punished.

      Incidentally, all Armstrong had to do was have his fancy lawyers argue on his behalf for a couple weeks at a hearing. If he is innocent as he claims, they would’ve had the opportunity to publicly shame USADA and clear Armstrong’s name for good. This was the one chance an innocent Armstrong should’ve been looking for all along.

    • Max says:

      It would be funny if the guy in last place wins the medal in the end because he’s the only one who wasn’t doping.

  10. David Beadle says:

    Michael. A well written blog and review that I am sharing to my facebook friends. Thank you.

  11. Max says:

    My friend couldn’t get a visa to visit her dying father thanks to everyone who overstayed his visa.

  12. kraut says:

    I have read the hilariously righteous indignation of a libertarian like Shermer regarding morality in business – what for fucks sake has business to do with morality? The duty of any registered company is only to its shareholder.
    And professional entertainment (that is what professional “sports” is, nothing at all to do with sports)is business, and to request “morality” in its dealings is at the same level of idiocy as expecting Talisman not to exploit field in Africa, or to not sell weapons to the most regressive and oppressive Saudis, or not to sell the raw materials for nerve gas to Saddam Hussein.
    I have to wonder – where are Mr. Shermers libertarian principles? After all, according to Raynd – the stronger one wins, no matter the methods.

    I advocate the freeing of all performance enhancing drugs in all professional sports entertainment, the more the better, and as one said – may the strongest metabolism win.
    I also advocate to increase the entertainment value of hockey to include razor blade tipped sticks with barbed hooks and the same for skates – imagine the fun to see real blood on the ice.
    Unfortunately not my idea, but rather brilliantly portrait by Enki Bilal in his “The Immortals”.

  13. David Beadle says:

    You’re an arsehole, Kraut. Either that or a complete ignoramus. Off you go to the funny farm, there are drugs for you to take to quell your sociopathic mind. Happy dreaming.

    • kraut says:

      It takes one to know one.
      At least you show that you are weak on arguments and great on insults, nice job.

      As to the real problem of morality, but something a libertarian is obliged to support – might is after all right and the strongest wins in the libertarian universe and no holds barred:

      • kraut says:

        I can insult the president, call his wife names but when you question the idiocy of “pro” sports entertainment and the greater idiocy of sitting in front of the TV or spending hours that could be spent doing something useful watching this garbage the American citizen gets vicious. I understand, there, there..

      • TPaine says:

        Why the Libertarian attack? Because you think free trade is bad?
        Because some trade agreement you have not read might, in you eyes, limit free trade?
        If you believe that “might makes right”, and that Libertarians support this position, you are misinformed. Libertarians support cooperation, not coercion.
        The strongest win in all universes, since there is no libertarian universe.
        What is it about the idea of Liberty that so upsets you?

      • Beelzebud says:

        The most annoying strategy the right-wing libertarians have taken is trying to take ownership of the word “Liberty”. It’s not a new concept, and you guys did not invent it.

        De-regulating wall street (which Shermer and many libertarians have endorsed: isn’t the sort of “liberty” most people want.

      • TPaine says:

        So “right wing libertarian? !
        Is it less annoying coming from a left wing libertarian?
        You fail to understand the root cause if you believe that regulation will solve the financial problems of Wall Street.
        What kind of liberty do you want?

      • kraut says:

        It is the ideas of libertarians where they clearly stated that self interest and self promotion is the only value that counts – my liberty as the strongest is more valuable than the liberty of the weak one, that what it comes down to, and damn the common good, which is NOT a concept of the libertarian.
        I really feel no desire to read libertarian ideas, when I read what Shermer at al presents as such – that is enough for me.
        And if a free trade agreement is used to defeat the will of elected representatives in favour of big industry – how much liberty do you think is lost in this process? Do you really defend that?
        If you do, then again you confirm what I think of libertarians – self indulgent navel gazers without a fucking clue how a civilized society runs efficiently and with as much freedom as possible to still keep the whole shebang on the road.- literally, because libertarian do not believe in government funded infrastructure or public transportation.
        That is not what I suck out of my arse, that is what I had to read from self proclaimed libertarians – and forget about the no True Scotsman fail.

      • TPaine says:

        You have an inaccurate idea of libertarianism and your choice of reading might be why.

        You say;
        And if a free trade agreement is used to defeat the will of elected representatives in favour of big industry…
        So the “regulators” were thwarted by…who?
        I don’t think you have a clue how the sausage is made.

      • Max says:

        Any time an idea, be it Liberty or God, is valued above all else, you’ll have to bite the bullet to defend it when it’s shown to ruin lives. Many ideologues can’t bite the bullet, so they deny the problems and say that CO2 emissions don’t cause Global Warming, secondhand smoke doesn’t cause lung cancer, and legitimate rape doesn’t cause pregnancy.

      • tmac57 says:

        You could palpably feel Alan Greenspan’s pain when he had to admit to congress that he had found “A flaw” in his ideological view of free markets:

  14. d brown says:

    As I remember the top teams of other countries were found with dope on and in them, often. They really went after Lance Armstrong at the time. They found nothing. No one has yet to find anything. Still saying “he must have” is still just talk.

    • CGM says:

      Many Postal riders have confessed to doping and some have testified under oath to the doping that went on within the team. Just because something isn’t “found” doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist. Telecom ran a doping operation in the ’90s and early 2000’s, yet we only know this because of the confessions of people like Erik Zabel, Rolf Aldag, Udo Bolts, Christian Henn and Bert Dietz. Do you really think more than a dozen people are all lying about an innocent American hero, and had or would do so under oath?

  15. Terry A Davis says:

    Noah’s Ark, Solomon’s Temple

  16. Chris R. says:

    Thanks Michael for a thoughtful perspective. Just to take an opposing position on the morality thesis: what if these drugs allow people with the drive and desire but NOT the NATURAL GIFTS to compete at a higher level. Is it not fair to use drugs the mitigate inequalities of the natural order?

  17. Kurt Erlenbach says:

    I started following Lance when I was diagnosed with colon cancer in 2003. He was, and is, a god to cancer victims like me. I started cycling as part of my recovery, and it might have saved my life when the cancer came back in my liver. I got some doses of EPO (Aranesp) while doing chemo, and this I can say – That stuff is magic juice. It turns a bad day into a good day, and now that I’ve developed into an experienced cyclist, I can say without reservation that bumping up the hematocrit by a few points would be a tremendous advantage for a pro cyclist.
    I finished Hamilton’s book a few days ago, and I recommend it without reservation. It has the ring of truth – everything I’ve read about Lance, his meticulous preparation, his personality, his command over others, fit in perfectly with Hamilton’s description of both his own and Lance’s doping. And the book answered for me the “level playing field” argument in a decisive and complete way.

  18. BD Knight says:

    Someone please copy edit this piece….and delete this comment.

  19. Nico says:

    You should really correct this sentence: “EPO, or erythropoietin, a genetically modified hormone invented by Amgen that stimulates the body to produce more red blood cells”.

    EPO is NOT a genetically modified hormone and it was not invented by anyone.

    Erythropoietin is an hormone present physiologically in the blood: everyone of us has it.

    The commercial version of EPO is *recombinant* (NOT genetically modified) human EPO. That is, the SAME EXACT molecule that we have in our body, but produced by inserting the human EPO gene in bacteria. This is the same way that insulin is produced nowadays, for instance.