Tuesday, May 12, 2009
Recreational drug use is one of those subjects (and activities) that evokes reactions as diverse as politics does. It’s easy to find folks who see recreational drug use as an utterly harmless way to blow off steam. Others see it as a forgivable indiscretion of youth. And we’re well aware that millions see it as a crime that can only be corrected with incarceration.
I offer that as a backdrop to Tom Boonen’s current trouble. Many cycling fans are ready to forgive him for doing something stupid so that he can get back to racing in time for the Tour de France. Plenty others see nothing that requires forgiveness. There are likely many others who want his license pulled, possibly even for good.
So cocaine isn’t illegal outside of competition. It’s a drug that carries a double-standard, and that is where the problem lies. If it’s use outside of competition isn’t illegal, then why do out-of-competition tests screen for it? They don’t test of aspirin and alcohol. The bigger question is why a rider can test positive for a substance that authorities shouldn’t be screening.
The answer is easy.
As individuals we’re all entitled to our views about how Boonen should be addressed. But our personal views are irrelevant, unfortunately. Here’s why: Our sport exists at the PRO level because of sponsors. Sponsor dollars are the gas the peloton runs on. They make the races possible, the teams possible and TV coverage possible. Without them, many of these guys would be working the fields.
Consider some of the organizations that no longer exist because of sponsor departures: the Motorola team, the Midi Libre race, Team ONCE, the San Francisco Grand Prix, Festina, the Tour DuPont, ad nauseum.
There is perhaps too little forgiveness in most of our lives and that at least some cycling fans are ready to say, “He deserves time off to enjoy himself; he’s not a monk,” is a kind and laudable response. Forgiveness from cyclists who see a difference between recreational drug use and doping may be nice, but it does nothing to assuage the concerns of those who see all drug use as criminal behavior. And those are the people whose opinions sponsors are concerned about.
It’s clear that the UCI and WADA have a zero-tolerance policy regarding all drugs that anyone might deem unacceptable. And while WADA’s handling of Boonen’s case raises ethical questions—why are they announcing a positive test for a substance that isn’t illegal out of competition—they do have a clear understanding of the morality of the average cycling fan.
As long as the casual follower of cycling believes all drug use to be roughly equal, or as long as the average sponsor believes casual followers believe this, then two actions are likely: Sponsors will be reluctant to sign cyclists with any sort of doping taint, or worse, they will leave the sport entirely.
It may be that serious cyclists don’t see cocaine as a gateway drug to PEDs. But the average viewer out in TV land doesn’t agree and this is, like most things, a battle of numbers. Whatever more people believe wins; just consider elections.
Just as Boonen’s drug use may be held to a double-standard, he himself is held to a different standard than other riders. If a nobody with no results is caught doping, then he’s just an idiot, but with Boonen, because he’s a champion, he’s a cheater and a bad example. Is it fair? Not much. Is it typical? Ever watched TMZ?
The average follower of cycling seems to accept that Boonen did actually test positive. Should we also accept the assessment that he has a drug problem that deserves treatment? That seems a bit much. The latest Hollywood real-life script is that after getting caught using drugs the best response is to cry mea culpa and to enter treatment. It makes for great public relations, but how appropriate a response would treatment be? How many people really think that Boonen, with two known positive tests for cocaine, is an addict? Probably mostly folks who think cocaine is a gateway drug to PEDs.
From 1999 to 2005 Lance Armstrong lived an ascetic life that revolved around his training. Even so he faces accusations of doping, correct or not. His asceticism is an example that ought to serve as a blueprint for PROs. Boonen seems to be getting the job done, just as Jacques Anquetil got the job done. But times have changed and the average viewer isn’t willing to turn a blind eye to drug use of any variety.
Fair or not, Boonen faces a choice: He can party like a "Lost" star, or he can be a god of Flanders. Turns out, even his sponsor thinks he can’t be both. But that won't matter if he winds up incarcerated; in prison he can't do either.
Image courtesy John Pierce, Photosport International.