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.


Jim said...

>>Should we also accept the assessment that he has a drug problem that deserves treatment?

I've known a number of addicts. Boonen's comments about why he takes cocaine and all the rationalizations about how his real problem is occasionally drinking too much are straight out of Junkie 101, at least that part of it that I've seen. Some people are born to be addicts, I think - whatever they touch, they get hooked on. Some on PED's sound this way; they probably can't quit cycling either, or coffee; doesn't matter what gets them high, they can't quit it, whether it's good for them or bad. Other people work to make themselves addicts, then once they are, they have the disease just as bad as people who were born to be addicts. It's ultimately the individual's responsibility to avoid dangerous drugs and clean up their lives but make no mistake about it - the reason it is so damn difficult for people to do so is that it is a disease or a physiological condition of the brain. It isn't a question about casual behavior like jaywalking or speeding that you can simply walk away from; addicts *can* walk away from it but nothing is simple about it.

I'm not trying to moralize here - not that moralizing about really destructive behaviors is always necessarily bad. I'm just saying I recognize the behaviors of addiction when I see them. This isn't a Hollywood star whose partying and penchant for drama gets them in a bit of trouble (and usefully keeps them in the headlines), it's an athlete whose partying will end his career and maybe destroy his life if he keeps heading down this track.

Forrest said...

I have seen more lives wrecked due to alcohol than any other drug out there, but like you mentioned before we give the podium that drug without hesitation? Double standards all around. I will continue to be a fan of Boonen, if anything his personal problems make him more likeable and human in many fans eyes!

Padraig said...

All: thanks for your comments.

Jim: While I didn't feel it appropriate to deal with in depth in the post, my comment pointed toward a suspicion that Boonen's comments could have been coached, the proper thing to say at a time like that. Like you, I've seen my share of addicts, and am aware that any time someone is trundled off to rehab before they truly believe there is a problem and things need to change, the outcome rarely provides the hoped turnaround. I suspect it's premature to call him an addict; I don't think there's a lot of evidence here and that call really isn't ours to make. What's more, I don't think he has hit any sort of bottom yet. He hasn't lost anything significant, though that threat seems to be on the horizon.

Ski Bike Junkie said...

Thanks for telling it like it is. Regardless of our personal opinions, it's the sponsors' view that matters. And there are plenty of people out there like me who are completely done with Boonen. Cycling doesn't need more image problems.

The guy doin' the thing said...

nicely written.

IMHO, the perception people have is that Boonen has it pretty sweet..."wish i could get paid to just ride a bike.". that sentiment is put forth without the insider knowledge of just how hard his job is.

that said, what i believe pisses people off is that he's fucking it up by snorting coke (albeit recreationaly)....and should get a clue of how good he really does have it.

Doug said...

It's not just a question of behavioral ethics, it's a matter of human ethics. Use of cocaine in Europe is tacit approval of and conspiracy in the continued decline of Guinea-Bissau into a lawless, mafia-run narco-trafficking state. Guinea-Bissau (west Africa) is used as a safe harbor by Latin American narcotrafficos to smuggle cocaine and other drugs into Africa and Europe, the very same cocaine that funds rebel wars, civilian kidnapping, and institutionalized rape and torture in Colombia, Bolivia, Peru, etc.

I'm not an advocate of fighting an American style 'war on drugs', and I am by no means conservative when it comes to drug policy, but users should know that the blood of millions of indigenous people is on their hands. There is no such thing as 'clean' cocaine.

We could write off Boonen as just another jackass/cokehead/partyer/cyclist, but the reality of the situation is much more sinister. He and every other person that decides to purchase cocaine should know exactly where that money goes and how many lives are taken or ruined in the process.

Forrest said...

I think its funny that people have written him off for a non performance enhancing drug when I wonder how many people have tested positive for epo and other steriods this past month alone? Rebbellin comes to mind as of late. Double standards people, just like the Phelps case in my opinion. Does a bong hit make Phelps any less of a swimmer or winner? How many doping scandals have there been in the tour the past 5 years, I think one or more every tour. Instead of hanging him, how about encouraging him to get help? I think people live in a bubble when it comes to drugs and society. Lets get real here.

Unknown said...

It's simple: WADA should focus on accurately testing and reporting on those substances that are banned by the sport's respective governing authority. If cocaine is not banned out of competition, don't report it.

If the sponsors are concerned about concaine use (or pot or glue sniffing) they could very easily write this type of testing into their contract.

Their are certain advantages to WADA being an independent body...but the ways in which they choose to conduct business are, at times, so JV.

Sean said...

What's the deal with the Belgian legal system? Specifically, how can a drug test constitute evidence to raid a man's home?

Yes he admitted taking cocaine, but that does not mean the authorities can steamroll over his rights.

Forrest said...

Also isnt cocaine legal in some areas of Europe? For instance Amsterdam? What if he took the drug there? I agree, its either a violation or not. If you want it banned, put it on the list!

Jim said...

Recreational drug use should not be considered a crime. Although not promoting drug use, I don't see any reason but profit to keep drugs illegal. When the illegality goes away, so does (most of) the crime. Look at Prohibition. Once it was over, the mob lost control and the production and distribution, and the crime associated with it had no basis any more. It's profit driven.

jza said...

How 'bout some bike racing talk?


Pettachi? Bum!

DiLuca 'roid rage his way to the top of San Martino di Castrozza today.

What else?
Slipstream? Eh? 6 seconds off the pace. Not bad. VdV down for the count.
I'd love to see Wiggo pull something out.

Pick for tomorrow? Cunego, Cunego, CUNEGO!

Please. Anything but Boonen.

mathias_d said...

I agree with brian; if the substance is not outlawed for the type of test what the hell is the uci doing testing for it?

This points to the same problem that is going to kill all major media'ed sports; look at what happened in nascar this past week.

I understand some of the rationale, but it seems to be abused by those at the administrative level and serves nobody but them.

Zhivago said...

Speaking of cocaine, where is Radio Freddy?????????

Anonymous said...

I get the point of the post -- the interests of the sponsor's is important. I don't disagree. But I have two questions:

1. If out-of-competition cocaine use by a rider tarnishes a sponsors, which I think it does if the general public know about it, then why test for it and INCREASE the likelihood of negative publicity?

Indeed, but for the UCI, would anyone know or care that Boonen uses cocaine recreationally?

Wouldn't the sponsors' be better off dealing with questions of brand tarnishing if and only if they become public apart from UCI prying into the cyclists private lives?

Thus, it seems to me that is the rationale for out-of-competition testing for recreational drug use is protection of the image of the sponsors, then the sponsors have just shot themselves in the foot.

Finally, I would note that the actual, relevant sponsor action in this case cuts against the post's argument. Indeed, though Quick Step is condemning Boonen's cocaine use -- which is its undoubted prerogative -- it hasn't sacked him. And, I suspect that, contrary to the post's presumed sponsor support for out-of-comp coke tests, QS is not profusely thanking the UCI for "protecting its interests" by sticking its nose into the private life of its marquee rider.

Padraig said...

Death Bredon: I really don't have any agenda with the post. The problems with the situation are numerous. As for the UCI/WADA announcing the cocaine positive, I suspect their perspective isn't too different from American law enforcement and that they will try to prosecute anything they don't agree with in any court they can. If statements by USADA's attorney, Travis Tygart, can be considered to illustrate the attitudes of his colleagues, then it's safe to say there's a zero-tolerance attitude with a win-at-all-costs perspective on the high-stakes craps. Their actions don't serve sponsors; they only serve their own efforts to bolster their own impression of their reputation for being tough on drugs.

Mark Studnicki said...

As a great cyclist and as a person in general, he needs help. He's obviously hanging around the wrong people. I don't condone anybody using cocaine. I'm sure that recreational drugs have always been part of cycling and just about every other sport. Sports are different now than in the past. Corporate sponsors do not want any bad publicity so they have a zero tolerance to it. Boonen is definately gifted and has a great life. Unfortunately that tends to attract all sorts of people that want to be your "friend".