David Johnstone

On O’Grady and cycling’s dark history

July 27, 2013

It is now widely recognised that performance enhancing drugs were widely used by professional cyclists in the 90s and early 2000s. It seems reasonable to believe that the vast majority of riders of note from this time used EPO or other methods of illegally enhancing their performance. Therefore, nobody should be surprised when it is revealed that a rider who was active in this period used PEDs.

Stuart O’Grady — who has won Tour stages and Paris–Roubaix, worn the yellow jersey and won Olympic gold — is the latest in a long line of “revelations” over the past few years. I am surprised that the reaction against him has been as negative as it is, although based on the comments on Cycling Tips, this negativity has more to do with the timing (just after he retired a year earlier than expected, and at the same time the French Senate report is released that reveals that he provided a “suspicious” sample in 1998), the convenience of his admission (having nobody else involved and only doing it once is the smallest admission possible, and many don’t believe it) and hypocrisy (he has previously criticised Lance Armstrong), rather than the bare fact that he used EPO.

However, I think it is quite unfair to O’Grady and the rest to demonise them for what they have done. I find it very hard to believe that the people involved in cycling back then were any more “evil” than any group of people you’ll find today. The problem was that doping was collectively seen as acceptable (and even necessary), and this made it very hard to resist. Most people today, if they happened to be professional cyclists in 1998, would have doped, because back then, most of them did. If cycling really has turned over a new leaf and today’s peloton is largely clean (and I hope it is), it’s not because today’s cyclists are better people, but that the culture of cycling has changed to make doping far less acceptable.

For this reason, those who resisted drugs back then should be most applauded — I don’t know how many there are, but surely there are some who gave up promising cycling careers for this reason, and others who still competed, but never at the same level. The corollary of this is that I’m very hesitant to harshly criticise those who did take drugs. As Wade Wallace titled his piece, “ride a kilometre in O’Grady’s shoes before judging” — the chances are that most of us would have done exactly the same.

Furthermore, what was O’Grady supposed to do with his confession? As much as some want transparency and openness regarding the past, there are very few incentives for cyclists to confess to past offences, especially when they are still riding today. It doesn’t help anyone, and they get condemned as cheats, suspended, stripped of titles, and suffer whatever other punishments various organisations can think of. In O’Grady’s case, his membership with the Australian Olympic Committee Athletes’ Commission has been terminated, and there are calls for him to be stripped of his Olympic medals and his Order of Australia Medal.

I might as well add a paragraph about the man who will surely go down in history as the arch-doper, Lance Armstrong. He doped better than anybody else, but his problem was that this resulted in more scrutiny than anybody else. So, he did what many others have done and denied the allegations and fought back. And fight back viciously he did. But what options did he have? Most of this happened when only a few nay-sayers thought that cycling had a doping problem, so it was a “safe” thing to do — he was winning the PR battle for a long time. In this year’s Tour de France, Armstrong was notable in his absence from the group of greats from the past, including others who are known to have doped. The difference between them and Armstrong is that Armstrong is a “disgraced athlete” because his downfall was so public. Other cyclists should count themselves lucky that they never had to undergo the scrutiny that Armstrong got.

None of this excuses the past behaviour, especially when it comes to attacking others and ruining their careers, but there’s a lot more to it than thinking that there was a bunch of cheats riding fifteen years ago. If those riders were starting their careers today, most of them would ride clean, because that’s the done thing now (hopefully). There will always be some who break the rules, and there will always be some who won’t, but it seems that most people are somewhere in between.

Finally, it would be a shame if all cyclists who have doped were effectively banned from participating in cycling and sport in general. Given how prolific doping has been, most of a generation of cyclists could be forgotten. Yet, many involved aren’t impenitent cheats, and it would be a waste to throw away all that experience. In fact, if they are able to be open about their past experiences, they could be valuable in the quest for a cleaner sport.

To summarise, don’t be too quick to castigate cyclists like O’Grady, because, the chances are that if you were in his position you would have done the same. We know this because it appears that this is what most people who have been in this situation do. Let’s just hope that the clean image that is now promoted is more than just a veneer, and that cyclists today are exposed to a uniformly negative attitude towards doping because that’s what the vast majority of people involved in cycling really believe.

P.S. If all this talk about doping hasn’t put you off your own cycling, I’m making a website for serious cyclists, Cycling Analytics.

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