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Who’s the Dope?

“There comes a point in every man’s life when he has to say, ‘Enough is enough.’ For me, that time is now.”  With those words, cyclist Lance Armstrong ended the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency’s investigation into his alleged use of illegal substances during his career.  Similar to a plea of nolo contendere in a court of law, Armstrong—by refusing arbitration—took an action that was administratively identical to an admission of guilt without actually admitting guilt.  The USADA recommended that he be banned for life from cycling and that his seven Tour de France victories, among other awards, be expunged from the record.

The heated debates about Armstrong’s culpability have not subsided, and the International Cycling Union has not yet decided whether it would accept the USADA’s recommendations.  However, my concern is not with “getting to the truth” of what Armstrong did or did not do.  The media’s intense focus on one person, as highly accomplished as he was, individualizes what is ultimately a broader issue.  The use of performance boosters is tied to a larger decision-making process about risk and reward that athletes at all levels, from high school to the pros, will encounter in their training.  Instead of responding to this phenomenon with alarm and increased policing, let’s understand its cultural logics.

The line between legal and illegal narcotics has historically been porous.  Many substances today that elicit impassioned surveillance in the ongoing “War on Drugs” had legitimate uses in the past.  For instance, heroin was developed in the nineteenth century as a surgical anesthetic.  Methamphetamines were given to pilots during World War I to increase alertness.

In organized athletics, there are performance-enhancing drugs that were sanctioned in the 1990’s but outlawed today.  There are supplements common now that may disappear from the shelves in another generation.  Some pills, like ephedra, are banned in the United States but not in Europe.  Then there are substances, such as testosterone and certain painkillers, which are legal with a prescription but illegal without.  Because there are variables at the interface of empirical measurements, physiological function, and cultural ideas about function, the threshold for a testosterone level considered “medically low” enough to garner a slip from a doctor is not set in stone.  Clearly, the definition of a “clean” athlete is contingent on place, time, and other contexts that are external to the act of putting something into a bloodstream.

In my late thirties, I began competing in powerlifting, a sport consisting of three lifts: squat, bench press, and deadlift.  There are more than a dozen federations in the United States, each with slight variations in rules and administrative practices.  Quite possibly, the most salient difference among all federations is whether they test their athletes for illegal substances.

I took up powerlifting as a type of consolation upon deciding, after many years on the fence, that I would not gender transition.  I wanted to do something I believed would otherwise be impossible if things had gone the other way in order to reaffirm my choice to be hormone free.  As I became more immersed in the sport, however, I realized that my assumptions about its requirements had been completely wrong.

I lift in a non-tested federation.  Although I was initially as bewildered about the use of performance-enhancing drugs as the typical newcomer, I began to see how the logic governing the openness to a range of regimens was the same one that welcomed me to my first meet when I had been training for only three months.

It doesn’t matter how much or how little you lift at a competition.  It doesn’t matter how.  It doesn’t matter if you lift with or without supportive equipment.  Most federations will accommodate these differences.  What matters is that all lifters perform to the best of their ability on that day.  At meets, I have seen weights that would be considered light by most standards cheered loudly when the lifter secures them after a struggle.  Then there are the groans and jeers from the spectators following a third and final attempt that was obviously too easy.

The non-tested federations frown upon the drug-free ones for violating the spirit of hormonal and, by extension, other types of physiological diversity—like sex, age, and disability— in the sport.  I can understand the desire to seek a level playing field on the part of those who choose not to use illegal substances.  Given the imprecision of defining “drug free,” however, these federations draw lines in little more than sand.  The procedures of drug testing in these federations are themselves imprecise.  Instead of testing all lifters after a meet (and accounting for the lab fees that would go into such a task), a small fraction is culled at random.  Some lifters do test positive in drug-free federations.

I considered disclosing my hormonal and pharmaceutical status for this piece, but doing so would not only be beside the point—it would be against the spirit of hormonal diversity that the sport of powerlifting represents.  Are there things I do in my training that improve my performance?  Yes, of course.  Are there further choices I could make that would extend these benefits?  Again, yes.

We are continually making decisions about what to include and exclude in our training.  The world of enhancement-saturated sports is not that different from the choices we encounter about supplementation in everyday life.  Will you take Sudafed, Claritin, or a corticosteroid for your allergies, or will you reach for your neti pot?  Do you opt for caffeine in the morning, the afternoon, throughout the day, or not at all?  What are you going to do about your headache?  Whoever you are and whatever you do, what are you going to do to perform to the best of “your” ability this day?


C. Wu: has a brand new key.

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  1. Sarah, as you might imagine, I’m experiencing major Armstrong burnout at this point. However, I will say a few things. First of all, professional cycling and competitive power-lifting (in its many iterations) seems worlds apart in their approach to banned and unbanned substances. Acting as if they are analogous (which I don’t think this author does) is unproductive. Second, there are many good reason to ban the sort of drugs that cyclists abuse. The include the obvious–serious health risks to the athlete (any one who says those risks are minimal is full of shit)–and the less obvious. These include the inevitable coercion to take drugs that younger pros will feel from their elders, the unbalance in performance outcomes between the teams that can afford the best doping programs and those that cannot (in the world of blood doping, it’s not as simple as taking a pill or an injection), and the very real desire for “clean sport” despite the range of technological and training advances that weren’t available to previous generations. Finally, there’s the important question of fraud. Cycling, and other pro sports, are contests that athletes enter into under a certain set of rules established to ensure some sort of measurable competition. Violating those rules, even when they seem arbitrary or temporary, is a fraudulent violation of the agreed upon terms of condition. It invalidates the legitimacy of competition for all those who adhered to the terms of the sport. If someone wants to start a non-testing cycling league (and there are many good reasons not to), go ahead. But to claim that breaking the agreed upon rules has no real significance seems like a massive rationalization for dishonest behavior to me.

  2. Makes me think of (the spirit of) stock car racing – let’s take the technical innovation/big money element out of it (in contrast to F1 racing) and concentrate on driver ability using factory-spec or “stock” cars. (pretensions of expertise end here, aka *You’re outta your element, Donny*)


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