Doping for Girl Scout Cookies

Racers accelerate out of the turn.
Health & wellness
1

Every couple of years a Seattle-area bike racer gets busted for doping. Most of the races in the PNW are relatively low profile and don’t include testing because of the expense. But, at national caliber events testing is part of the program.

Last week, on March 20, USADA announced that 57-year-old Seattle masters bike racer Joe Baratto “accepted a one-year suspension for an anti-doping rule violation.” Joe tested positive for testosterone and/or testosterone metabolites at the Marymoor Grand Prix on July 21, 2018. He received a Recreational Competitor Therapeutic Use Exemption (aka “TUE”), and a one-year ineligibility period began on August 21, 2018.

In the days following the announcement a range of emotions flowed on social media–from empathy to outrage and schadenfreude.

I reached out to Joe about a having a conversation with me, and his response was: “While I appreciate the interest, I will not be doing any interviews. My focus is on supporting my team and encouraging their participation in the local cycling community.

For context, I have done a few post-bust interviews, but always come away from the conversations thinking there is no upside to publishing a doping story about a local athlete. It would just inflame emotions and not add anything positive to the community.

Instead: Here’s wishing Joe all the best in his (re?)commitment to local cycling.

I feel like I’ve had a relatively open-minded perspective about doping. My thinking has evolved from naïveté, to denial and disbelief, to #doperssuck, and now to a more nuanced “it depends.”

My understanding of the issues related to doping significantly changed after reading sports journalist Mark Johnson‘s Spitting in the Soup: Inside the Dirty Game of Doping in Sports. Spitting in the Soup traces the history of doping culture in professional sports, from the early days when pills meant progress, to the current day when athletes are vilified for the use of performance-enhancing drugs. “It’s complicated.”

If you are in the #doperssuck camp, I strongly recommend Mark’s book. I’m sure you will find it enlightening. You might still think #doperssuck after reading it, but you’ll have a more thorough understanding of the historical and medical contexts for doping.

After the book’s 2016 release, I was fortunate to have a 90+ minute conversation with Mark. We reviewed the history of doping in sport, amateur doping, and future doping trends. In addition to being a highly competent journalist, Mark also has personal experience and insights that come from being a category 1 cyclist who raced in Europe. He’s been in the thick of it where up and coming athletes are trying whatever they can to make it to the top levels of the sport.

Regardless of the domain, people will do what they are incented to do. For professional and elite athletes the incentive is obvious: the difference between first and second place can come down to 0.001 of a second. Given the fame and fortune that is at stake, it’s easy to understand why athletes competing at this level might feel compelled to try every performance enhancer at their disposal.

I think questions about doping are actually more interesting at the amateur level, since the stakes are so much lower. One question I had for Mark was what he thought about the incentives for recreational athletes to use performance enhancing substances: What is the smallest incentive folks need to feel compelled to dope? The basis for my question was how one of the weekly bike races in the Seattle area sometimes offers girl scout cookies as a prize. Will people dope to win girl scout cookies? Yes. Will people dope to “win” the group ride or run? Yes. Will people dope for bragging rights? Yes. And, based on evidence that Strava users dope, I’d bet Zwift users also dope. Which means people are doping for bragging rights in a virtual game they play in their basements.

Historically, doping was considered a *good* thing. Once upon a time, record-setting athletic performances powered by performance enhancing substances was a point of national pride. Since the main goals of sport were to entertain and make money, using medical technology was considered fair play. Attitudes about doping in sport flipped in the 1960s in tandem with the war on recreational drugs, which eventually came full force during the Reagan era. Up until the 1984 Olympics in Los Angeles, blood doping was considered “maintenance.” But, it was a scandal when seven members of the United States cycling team were discovered to be blood doping. In the history of athletics, the social requirement for chemical purity in sport was new, and as we have seen over the years, sport has been reluctant to conform to those expectations.

Meanwhile, the rest of us are encouraged to strive for “better living through science.” As I discuss in my critique, “The Unquantified Self,” the drive for optimal performance through biochemistry is alive and well in Silicon Valley, among entrepreneurs, and with many fitness gurus. While professional and elite athletes are expected to maintain purity, the rest of us are offered an endless pipeline of supplements that promise a better you just by swallowing a pill or a superfood powder. This misalignment puts athletes, pro or not, in a somewhat compromised position.

Try this thought experiment:

You are 40 or older. Despite having a healthy lifestyle–eating real foods and regularly exercising–you start to feel that you have less energy and vigor than you did five years ago. You talk with your doctor about it. After doing some tests she gives you a personalized prescription of gene editing, gut bacteria, hormones, and growth chemicals. After a few weeks you feel like you are 29 again. Although you haven’t run a race in a decade, you feel so much better you decide to sign up and see if you can rediscover some lost youth. You do the race and get a personal best time, and maybe even win your category.

As our understanding of human biochemistry gets better, an increasing number of older folks are going to be taking “supplements” to stem the aging process. The decision criteria for which chemicals should/shouldn’t be allowed in competition are going to get harder and harder. Mark told me he differentiates between substances that are restorative (think asthma medication) versus those that are additive (hormones that increase muscle mass or enable you to work out harder and recover faster). But, this distinction only goes so far. Mark acknowledged it’s not always black and white: a survivor of testicular cancer might need hormones to survive.

Anecdotally, several recreational masters cyclists I know, some of whom race, some who don’t, have told me they would use performance enhancers if only they knew how to get them, or could afford them. In amateur endurance sports it’s reasonable to assume that at least some people in any given event are doping, especially when the risk of getting caught is zero or near zero.

I loved Spitting In The Soup! It also changed my perspective on doping. And just so you know, my comments have nothing to do with Joe and are not an opinion about what he did or even an assumption that he did anything at all.

I’m gonna say that when amateurs or local cyclists dope, there is WAY more than some Girl Scout Cookies at stake. I constantly see athletes get in a massive funk when they can’t do the activity that they identify with. Like when a cyclist can’t ride or a runner can’t run because they are injured. They can still do tons of other things (swim, go to the gym, etc., etc.) but their identity has been challenged and that is a massive blow to one’s ego. And sense of self-worth.

It does not surprise me in the least that some local category 1/2 (or even 3 and especially any master) racer would use a banned substance. When you immerse yourself in a community and amass all the gear associated with your chosen activity and join a club/team and all your social media is about said activity, it can define your life. When that comes to a screeching halt, many people don’t know what to do. Ditto when you age past your prime or start your activity back up because of some mid-life crisis. Likewise, when you identify as a competitor, you want to compete with the best and you want to do well otherwise what’s the point?

I recently read a book by my favorite running coaches called The Happy Runner. David and Megan Roche are not just running coaches, they are life coaches. And they have the most healthy perspective not just on competing but also on eating, body image, team spirit, you name it. But this perspective is super rare and it takes time and practice to adopt. Most people don’t know how or are not willing to take the time.

To all the #doperssuck people I say check yourself. It’s never that easy to pass judgement.

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