Sports fans, doping and fairness: an investigation through professional road cycling.

Reading the CIRC (Cycling Independent Reform Commission) report earlier in the week, I was a bit disappointing to discover that the opening chunks about definitions of doping and what not seemed to be exactly what I’d spent six months writing about for an MA dissertation, albeit much better written and probably deserving of  a much higher mark then the one I received. Still, I thought it might make interesting reading/waste an hour of some ones day to read my dissertation, so here it is in full, glorious (…) detail. I’ve added a few extra pictures in (it only had graphs before), although unfortunately I can’t change the dry academic style – a sense of fun is apparently banned in such papers. For anyone desperate to know, the journal conventions followed are the Chicago Manual of Style, 16th edition (author-date). I should also point out that this was submitted in September 2014, so is behind the times somewhat. Still, hope someone enjoys it!

Sport has long been a form of popular entertainment. Sports fans have thus become a topic for study in their own right, with papers on everything from their benefit to society as a whole to their ritualisation of television.(Garry J. Smith 1988; S Eastman and K.E. Riggs 1994) The concept of a “spectator sport” has evolved out of the relationship between a sport and its fans, and thus fans have a stake in the very definition of what “their” sport is.(OED 2014)

The sports fan engages in their chosen sport for a variety of reasons. Richard Spinrad’s influential piece cites escapism as the key rationale, but also cites the notion that the spectators gain from being involved in a “mock administration” of the sport.(Richard W. Spinrad 1981) In essence, sports fans enjoy sports because they can exercise a degree of control over the sport itself, and can administer regulations. Sport also allows fans to self-identify with an athlete, with athletes becoming symbolic of the nations and cultures of the fan.(J. Michael Schwartz 1973, 27) This leads to “hero-worship”, with the athletes idolised as “perfect” examples of humanity, with their mastery of their sport leading fans to dismiss the flaws of their hero.(J. Michael Schwartz 1973, 28)

This mixture of features means that sports fans require certain attributes within their sport. The notion of fairness is one that has long been central to the idea of sport, and it is with the idea of what fans construct “fairness” to be that this paper is concerned with.(Garry J. Smith 1988, 62)  “What is fair?” is, after all, a question that plagues sport, which has a paradoxical make up – the ultimate aim of a competitive sport is to prove yourself better than the opposition, but only to do so having proved yourself to have no “unfair” advantage over them. Of course, the catch-22 is that to better someone, by definition you need to have some kind of advantage, so the notion of what is a fair and unfair advantage is central to the very concept of sport.

Here’s some sports fans from good ol’ UNC.

Constructing what is fair is thus an integral part of sport. One fruitful area for investigation under this topic is that of doping. Doping has been defined by various international sporting bodies, such as the World Anti-Doping Association (WADA), in specific terminology that makes clear that it is “unfair.” However, the definitions and impositions of terminology by such governing bodies ignore the aforementioned major stakeholders in “spectator sports” who, by definition, are integral to the notion and appeal of the sport as a whole. The vital perspective of those people who support and watch it has thus essentially been ignored. Research on fan’s perspectives on doping have also been rather inadequate, focusing on rather limited subjects such as public awareness, how serious fans perceived doping problems to be and whether it damaged the image of sport, and doing so using standardised surveys that limit the expression of fans.(Hanspeter Stam et al. 2008)

This paper thus sets out to assess how fans have perceived and constructed doping in professional sport in relation to the concept of fairness. There are some key questions that must be asked in order to properly evaluate this. These are as follows: firstly, how do fans define doping? Answering this question will allow us to see just how fans have constructed what doping entails, and in doing so, speak to what their concepts of fairness in sport evoke.

Secondly, we need to ask what levels of evidence fans require for doping to have been achieved. For instance, do fans subscribe to the WADA assigned standard, where by only a positive test for a doping substance can be evidence of doping, or do they have wider distinctions and sources of evidence? This will help determine what standards fans require for doping to be declared, and in doing so, tell us about what they perceive to be a fair advantage in sport. A particular focus on the idea of performance and what this can tell us about doping will also help elucidate this further.

Thirdly, we can ask about fans perceptions of doping on athletes health. Evaluating fan perspectives on these issues will allow us to see whether enhancement is a key factor in the expression of something being unfair, or if the negative consequences of doping on health can also be construed as “unfair.”

It wouldn’t be an article about doping in cycling without a highly original picture of a bike wheel with syringes for spokes…

A great many sports could be included in such a survey, but I am going to examine one sport in particular, the sport of professional road cycling. Cycling lends itself well to such a study of doping, because, unfortunately for the sport, it has been subject to a number of high profile doping scandals that have brought the issue of doping to the fore. As a result, it can legitimately claim to be the vanguard for sports as regards doping – WADA’s official history even cites the sport’s doping problems as being the reason for its creation, with “the events that shook the world of cycling in the summer of 1998 [leading to a] World Conference on Doping” from which WADA was created.(“Who We Are | World Anti-Doping Agency” 2014) Similarly, anti-doping ideas such as the biological passport, which is now omnipresent in sports from athletics to football, where first introduced and conceived with cycling in mind.(“Information on the Biological Passport” 2007) What happens regarding doping in cycling thus informs not only other sports but global thinking on the concepts of doping in the first place, making it a pertinent example to choose.


My primary source for fan’s perspectives is Procycling magazine, a magazine dedicated solely to the sport of professional road cycling which began circulating in April 1999. The monthly magazine has a circulation of 54,000, and publishes thirteen issues a year in various English speaking countries from the UK to the USA, Australia and South Korea.(“Procycling – Wikipedia” 2014; “Sport « Future PLC” 2014) More importantly for this project, the magazine maintained, until the March of 2014, a letter page, which was focused on the professional sport.[1] As a result, I have collated 181 of the 187 issues that have a letters page in order to analyse the attitudes to doping from 1999 until 2014. These years have been chosen as they are the running date of the magazine – it is unfortunate that the publication had not begun two years earlier, as there was an exceptional drug scandal in cycling in 1998. The ability to investigate changes between 1997 and 1998 would have been advantageous, but Procycling is the only magazine that is dedicated to professional cycling running through that period, and so it makes sense to use the richest, rather than the widest source material, and indeed even its own readers admit that nobody wrote in about doping before 1998 anyway – “letters from the naive lambasting the pro peloton were rare events until last year” claims one reader in mid-1999, whilst another points out “I had no idea about drugs in cycling until the Tour de France of summer 1998.”(Gerry Ward 1999, 69; Dominic Goodacre 1999, 67) Thus, the use of Procycling is further justified in that it encapsulates the period in which many cycling fans became enlightened of the doping going on within cycling, and thus offers a dense and complete source base on the matter.

The methodology for this research is to perform a qualitative and quantitative analysis on the magazine’s published letters. A discourse analysis of the events that characterised this period in cycling’s history will also be carried out through the letters. This will help explicate the social trends behind the letters and thus emphasise how fans have constructed and perceived doping. I have also discussed the editorial policy of the magazine with its editors in order to ensure the correct context and perspective for the letters is found.

There are certain considerations to take into account before continuing with the analysis. The audience of Procycling are intended to be fans of the sport, which means there is an implicit understanding of some of the concepts of the sport that are unknown to the general public, such as knowledge of the “unspoken” rules of the sport. The readership is also heavily slanted – 90% are male, with the majority being in their early thirties.(“Procycling – Wikipedia” 2014) Indeed, my own analysis of the letters written to the magazine reveals that 92% of correspondents were male, 5% were women and the remainder were uncertain. The magazine does not list the age of its correspondents, and depending on the year does not necessarily list their location, but the general trend is that the majority of letters are from the magazine’s native United Kingdom or the United States, but with a great variety from as far afield as New Zealand, South Africa, Hong Kong and continental Europe.

From the 181 issues accessed, there have been a total of 1,258 letters published in the magazine, of which 413 are on the subject of doping. This equates to 34% of the total, which illustrates just how prevalent the issue is in the sport, with over a third of the total letters related to it. That said, 22% of the total issues published contain no letters about doping, which shows that the subject has not been consistent – it has experienced peaks and troughs.


The above graph demonstrates the number of letters published on the subject of doping across Procycling’s life. The peaks are easily explainable, as they equate with prominent doping scandals of the time. For instance the peaks from July 2006 through to the end of 2007 coincide with two editions of the Tour de France where the winner or winner-elect was disqualified or thrown off the race for doping infractions. The huge peaks in 2000 and 2002 similarly follows a scandal involving the haematocrit levels of popular Italian Marco Pantani and revelations by retired rider Jesus Manzano, whilst the peak in late 2012 follows the confession of Lance Armstrong to the use of performance enhancing drugs throughout his career. However, it is telling that the subject does not vanish between these peaks, showing that there is still a “background radiation” of the subject – it never disappears for any significant time and is thus always being perceived in some manner.

Perhaps a better way to illustrate this is with a graph of the percentage of letters per issue that were on the subject of doping.


This graph more accurately shows just how much of an issue doping is perceived to be in professional cycling, as it shows that letters on the subject are near constantly published so that they make up, on average, 30% of the letters published in an individual issue. The only period of relative inactivity in doping related letters is from late 2008 through 2009, which coincides neatly with the announcement of and the subsequent comeback to the sport of the previously retired Lance Armstrong, which naturally generated plenty of chatter.

Ultimately though, these statistics speak for the validity of using Procycling’s published letters as a source. They demonstrate that the letters allow us to see a consistent view of how the perception of doping has changed over a fifteen year time period, with little, if any gaps and a greater wealth of information at the key points in the history being investigated, given the number and percentage of doping related letters rise following a scandal or such like. There are however some minor considerations to take into account – this will predominately be a study of the British and American attitudes to doping, purely because these are the nationalities that were most frequently published, and of male attitudes, given the 92% response figure.


The first question to ask as regards the perception of doping is why fans are bothered about it in the first place. As stated above, sport is essentially about the expression of an advantage over ones competitors to better them. Such advantages could be down to superior strength, endurance, or tactics. In themselves, these could be enhanced by a range of options: in cycling, a lighter, more aerodynamic bike would confer an advantage, as would a rider losing weight through better nutrition. Riders could train at altitude to increase their ability to take up oxygen into the blood, or consume a protein based beverage to help their recovery.[2]

If we ignore the bicycle and other technologies, which are rigorously regulated, then the common factor connecting the methods of enhancement is that they are “natural” – they have a basis in the natural constitution of things rather than being artificial.(“Natural, Adj. and Adv. : Oxford English Dictionary” 2014) Of course, one could pick fault with that interpretation – consuming a processed protein shake is arguably not “natural.” The solution to this for WADA is to include a passage in their code on definitions of banned substances stating that they “violate the spirit of sport”, something it vaguely refers to as involving “ethics…fair play…respect for rules…health…[and] character.”(“WADA 2015 World Anti-Doping Code” 2014, 30, 15) The “natural” character of sport is certainly something fans seem to hold in high regard. There are many references to the importance of “natural ability” and “natural levels” in the letters that confirm that fans are more interested in this then watching “the man with the best chemist” triumph.(Janet Cox 2004, 31; Ben Tisdall 2000, 61; James Walters 2002, 19)

In essence, fans are interested in sport being a “natural” contest, with the connotations of “natural ability” and “natural levels” being that these demonstrate a fair, level playing field, an idea we will return to later. The letters concerning “natural levels” infer that doping is “unnatural” – one claims that “the long history of doping…suggests that many cyclists over the years have felt compelled to perform above the level of their natural ability.”(Janet Cox 2004, 31) This surmises that doping is an unnatural enhancement, and that as a result, it is unfair in an arena where the “natural” character of the competition is lauded. The idea of a chemical substance is also seemingly central to fans caring about doping, as the previously quoted statement on the lack of the desire to watch “the man with the best chemist” winning demonstrates. Similarly, the mention of the “chemical” is usually prefaced with “performance enhancing,” inferring that it is the enhancement part of doping that makes it unpalatable to fans. This may tap into wider concerns of “chemophobia” – an irrational fear of chemicals which has translated into the notion that anything which sounds “chemical”, such as EPO, hGH and the like, must be bad, especially given the concept is on the rise.(G. V. Erlikh 2013; Nathan Charlton 2012) However, the evidence is more suggestive that fans simply want to watch something that they perceive to be “natural”, and given that they see doping as unnatural, it is both unfair and unwanted within their sport.

Perhaps a better way of explicating why fans are concerned about doping is through elucidating what exactly the readers of Procycling define “doping” to be. A reference point is what the WADA proclaim “doping” to mean. In their official parlance, doping is “the presence of a prohibited substance in an athlete’s sample.”(“What Is Doping?” 2013) The WADA code also specifies another condition for “doping” to have occurred – the refusal to submit to a sample, or the failure to inform the relevant authorities where the athlete is so that a sample can be taken.(WADA 2014a) Central to both concepts is the notion of a chemical substance, and either the detection of it or the refusal and/or failure to allow the detection of it. The code also stipulates the basic nature of a “prohibited substance.” A prohibited substance is one that “has the potential to enhance performance in future competitions or their masking potential,” as well as posing an “actual or potential health risk” or simply contravening the “spirit of sport.”(WADA 2014a; “WADA 2015 World Anti-Doping Code” 2014, 23) This, alongside “prohibited methods” which share the same definition, are classified by WADA and by extension the six hundred organisations that have adopted its code, including the International Olympic Committee, as doping.

"Mechanical Doping" with a Gruber Assist
“Mechanical Doping” with a Gruber Assist

Fans, however, seem to have a broader concept of what doping can encompass. This is evident through some of the prefixes to the word that are used: we have “blood-doping”, “mechanical doping” and “Camelback doping.”(Les Woodland 2005; Richard Moore 2011; Christopher Murphy 2001, 26) The first of these three would obviously come under the auspices of the WADA definition of a banned substance or method (that being the manipulation of the blood), but the second and third concepts are altogether different propositions. Both refer to the, in the first case only alleged, use of technology to gain an advantage over the opposition. “Mechanical doping” was born out of Italian journalist Davide Cassani’s allegation that Swiss rider Fabian Cancellara may have been using a small motor within his bicycle to power him along (which would be against the rules), whilst “camelback doping” refers to Luxembourger Frank Schleck’s use of a branded hydration system under his clothing which contravened a rule that bans items “designed to influence the performances of a rider such as reducing air resistance.”(Davide Cassani 2014; Claudio Ghisalberti 2014; “UCI Regulations Part I: General Organisation of Cycling as a Sport” 2011)

"Camelbak doping" (other brands of hydration system are available for use as ambiguously legal aerodynamic fairings) as practiced by Frank Schleck. Well, according to "fans" anyway.
“Camelbak doping” (other brands of hydration system are available for use as ambiguously legal aerodynamic fairings) as practiced by Frank Schleck. Well, according to “fans” anyway.

This suggests that readers’ concept of “doping” is more akin to a general phrase used to described a perceived cheating of the regulations, rather than being connected to the official WADA definition. This is supported by further comments throughout the time span investigated. “Doping” and “cheating” are indeed synonymous for each other in a great number of the letters. In July 2000, a letter stated that “Prison is too good for cheats. However it does seem unfair to condemn an individual just because he was caught when all his competitors are also cheating”, in May 2001 another claims that “[Marco] Pantani and [Alex] Zulle have been mere shadows of what they were since they were caught cheating” and by 2008, a reader declared “it’s time we stop calling EPO use, pot belge bingeing, and just a little extra blood in the system “doping” and call them what they truly are – cheating.”(Colum Kenneally 2000, 60; Jim Lowton 2001,77; Eric Antanitus 2001, 12) However, there are some dissenters to this, as we shall see later, and the majority of the letters clearly reference doping with the intention of meaning chemical substances or banned methods. In fact, we can even demonstrate when a perception shift between which was being used by athletes – chemical substances or banned methods – occurs.


The above graph maps the specific usages of the words “drugs” and “doping” in the 1,258 letters analysed, and demonstrates that over time, the use of the “drugs” is steadily replaced by the “doping”, with the trend lines intersecting in 2004-2005 as a possible date for when “doping” began to supersede the use of “drugs.” This is probably a reasonable estimate. Rider testimony and the fact that a test for the infamous Erythropoietin (EPO) was introduced in 2000 suggest that riders themselves began making the switch from a prohibited substance in EPO to a prohibited method around 2000-2001.(“Anti Doping Research – EPO Test” 2014) Tyler Hamilton, a team mate of Lance Armstrong, tells us for instance that concerns over the new EPO test led his US Postal Service team to begin using blood transfusions in 2000.(Tyler Hamilton 2012, 133) This wasn’t a complete switch – Hamilton claims riders would simply “microdose” on EPO after 2000 – but it means methods rather than drugs were on the rise both in reality as well as in the minds of the fans of the sport.

For fans then, drugs are synonymous with doping, which is tantamount itself with cheating. As such, cycling fans see doping as cheating, and their differing support structures compared to other sports mean that cheating is disparaged more than in other team sports. This is due to cycling’s arguably unique structure where by it is simultaneously both a team and an individual sport, with teams only very tenuously connected to geographical areas. Whilst sports like football and American football have teams that retain a core set of traditions and players, cycling’s economic structures, where by teams survive only as long as their sponsors are willing to stoke up the cash to sustain then, mean that individual athletes shoulder the burden of fans expectations more than the team they represent.(Nicholas Dixon 2001, 150) To borrow from Nicholas Dixon’s excellent piece on fan motivations, they are thus more likely to be “purist” fans who support the rider they feel “exemplifies the highest virtues of the game” then a “partisan” fan who supports a team based on a familiarity of some kind that affords a personal connection.(Nicholas Dixon 2001, 149) Cycling fans are thus less likely to be parochial towards a certain team or athlete, and less likely to forgive the discretions of an athlete against the rules on the basis they are more attached to said rules then the athlete themselves. This results in professional cyclists essentially having to create personality cults around themselves in order to gain the trust of the fans that they are not doping – something we can sense when we search for letters that do not have the prefix “performance enhancing” before “drugs.”

As aforementioned, WADA classifies a prohibited substance as something that “has the potential to enhance performance in future competitions or their masking potential.”(WADA 2014a) The notion of a drug increasing performance is thus integral to its being classified as doping, at least in the scientific and legal world. Sports fans seem to agree with this in principle. A previous study of sports fans in Norway found that only 1.8% thought that an endurance boosting drug was acceptable for instance, and the letters in Procycling broadly reflect this opinion(Harry Arne Solberg, Dag Vidar Hanstad, and Thor Atle Thoring 2010, 191). However, that study did not ask questions of recreational drugs, perhaps presuming fans would not equate these with doping as they are not “performance enhancing” in the same respect.[3] The Procycling letters suggest the reality is more complex.

For instance, readers do not seem to see cocaine as performance enhancing – when Belgian Tom Boonen was revealed to have tested positive out of competition for the drug, a reader wrote in to claim that this was “in no way to his benefit”, yet another letter is less kind.(Eric Antanitus 2001, 12) Kansas City native Jonathan Laurans wrote that “Three cocaine positives tell me this guy has no ethics when it comes to using drugs. I wouldn’t trust a drug user’s self-serving declaration that he’d “never dope to enhance performance. If you’ll use cocaine, you’ll use anything.”(Jonathan Laurans 2009, 12) This infers odd dichotomies where recreational drugs and performance enhancing drugs are perceived as distinct from one another, but the use of the former is seen as being equivalent to using the latter.

Another willfully misinterpreted and overused Boonen cocaine reference.
Another willfully misinterpreted and overused Boonen cocaine reference.

Thus, it seems fundamental to the concept of a substance being “doping” that it is capable of enhancing performance – a recreational drug is not perceived as being able to do this, yet the use of substances like cocaine, heroin and the like is seen as being evidence of a tendency to be more likely to use performance enhancing drugs. Fans construction of doping thus seems to centre of three central pillars: fairness, enhancement and trust of an athlete. Fans want sport to be “natural”, and their synonymous use of “doping” and “cheating” infers that they see fairness as simply being the playing of the sport by athletes in a natural state. This feeds into the idea that anything that is not natural is somehow enhancing, and that using something that enhances performance – whether it be chemical, mechanical or technological (as seen with the “Camelback doping” idea) is seen as “doping” and thus unfair. Finally, cycling’s complex economic structures mean that athletes themselves shoulder some of the burden for how doping is constructed. With individuals more in focus than teams, any perceived dubious moral standards are pounced upon by fans who value rule-utilitarianism above all else, and used to infer that recreational drugs are tantamount to doping through association. Fans do not necessarily require all three of these ideas to be simultaneously present for “doping” to have occurred, as we shall now explore – the standards of evidence fans require for doping to have occurred are historically contingent.


As already stated, the legal, WADA definition of doping is “the presence of a prohibited substance in an athlete’s sample” where a prohibited substance “has the potential to enhance performance in future competitions or their masking potential.”(WADA 2014a) It is thus inherently physical in its definition – there must be detection of a physical substance within the body. The code does however stray away from this with its talk of “banned methods”, and with the condition that “the refusal to submit to a sample, or the failure to inform the relevant authorities where the athlete is so that a sample can be taken” also constitutes doping.

What sport fans see as evidence of doping is something that is intrinsically important to their perceptions of fairness, as we have already established that the majority see “doping” as cheating. Anything that that is constructed to be doping by fans is thus inherently unfair, and so the evidential standards they demand will inform us as to just what can be a fair advantage in sport.

The major question is whether sports fans and readers of Procycling follow the legal definitions of doping, or whether they have a separate, social definition. The answer is, predictably, more complex than a simple yes or no. Rather than a straight answer, we can find evidence that attitudes have instead evolved from the acceptance of the legal definition, to a slow erosion of its credibility through to an overdeveloped version of the Association fallacy.

Two riders who never tested positive. Well, depend show you define tested positive. But hey...
Two riders who never tested positive. Well, depend show you define tested positive. But hey…

A good way to visualise the change is to examine the use of one the more commonly cited phrases in cycling, the claim that one has “never tested positive.” It is integral that this statement can be read in more than one way. The first view is that never having tested positive is a strong, good claim, as it demonstrates your cleanliness by evidencing that you have been through the testing process and this has found you to be clean by not finding banned substances in your body. In this case, the phrase is a supporting statement that backs up a previous assertion of being clean – on its own, it becomes something altogether more cynical.

For example, when Dane Bjarne Riis was asked after he won the 1996 Tour de France if he “had ever doped”, he replied “I’ve never tested positive.”(Bjarne Riis 2012, 178) In this case, the insinuation, as Riis clearly admits, given he later admitted to having used EPO in that race, was that he had beaten the tests, and whilst not exactly lying (he had indeed not tested positive) he was being liberal with the truth. “I’ve never tested positive” can thus also be interpreted as an attempt to gain credibility whilst not perjuring oneself. It is with these two concepts in mind that we can track the change in evidential standards.

In 1999 and the early noughties, “never tested positive” is almost enshrined as the gold standard of proof of not having been doping, with a few dissenters bemoaning the use of the synonymic “‘I have never knowingly taken drugs” as an excuse to skirt around having to lie and say “I’m clean.”(Chris Taylor 2000, 62) The majority show faith in the testing process, proclaiming “Lance [Armstrong] has to justify his victory beyond the yellow jersey and the drugs tests already administered by officials? I don’t think so” and the new test for EPO introduced in 2000 as “an answer to… fans prayers.”(A Lopez 1999, 58; Julian Knowle 2000, 46) There is even condemnation of the magazine for implying guilt based on the controversial haematocrit tests introduced in 1997, which were designed to take riders out of competition if their haematocrit level exceeded 50% as a “health check”, and to act as a deterrent against using EPO, as there was at that point no test.(Kyle Burns 2000,61; David T. Martin et al.)

Evidence that the tests and the “never tested positive” line was taken at their word is best exemplified by one letter in particular by a Dane named Dan Cline, who following journalist David Walsh’s allegations of Lance Armstrong’s drug use in 2001, wrote in that:

“Real Madrid paid $60 million for Zinedine Zidane. Hey, Walsh, you better check that out man! It isn’t possible that one player is so much better than every other footballer alive…he’s been playing against guys who are known drug users, so he’s on drugs too. Now when I’m out riding and someone wooshes past me, you’ve helped me realise I’m not inadequate…they’re just on drugs.”(Dan Cline 2001, 66)

The obvious sarcasm helps elucidate that at this point, fan opinion was not interested in the association fallacy exercises that would be characteristic of their later letters, and were instead actively mocking the idea that casual relationships such as playing against someone who had themselves taken drugs made another athlete a doper. The irony here is that this is exactly the attitude that pervades the letters by the end of the decade: the question is, why? How do fans go from a world where they were actually complaining about the amount of testing, with concerns about false positives and the apparently unnecessary out of competition testing, to one where tests where irrelevant as evidence for doping and a causal relationship theory had replaced them?[4]

The answer seems to be oddly hypocritical: the more riders that returned positive test results or were caught doping, the more likely that readers were to treat “never tested positive” cynically.  For instance, after David Millar was found with EPO in his department in 2004, a reader claimed that “the traditional cyclists defence against doping allegations of having ‘never tested positive’ seems spurious. No matter how vociferously someone like Armstrong defends his reputation…cheating in this sport is greater than ever”(Alastair Cox 2004, 28) It thus seems that the act of the anti-doping system actually catching a rider acted as an odd confirmation bias for fans that riders were still trying to cheat the system. Cycling fans therefore seem more inclined to generalise one rider’s positive test to the rest of the sport, an attitude that seems relatively unique in sport, albeit explainable by the heavy hand of history on cycling’s shoulders. Fans are keen to point out that “it’s easy to find traces of doping in every category in any period of cycling history” and it is with this cultural baggage that they seem to approach the sport.(Karine Delage 2005, 35) Cycling is a very backward looking sport that bathes itself in its heritage, and fans appear keener to look back to this for answers rather than to present. Indeed, by looking for uses of the term “always” in the letters, it is notable that fans are keen to universalise the sport with sweeping statements that betray their inherent beliefs about the sport, such as “doping will always exist in cycling – and every other sport”, “the ‘cheats’ will always win, anyway” and “There will always be products and methods which are banned, but not detectable. Whatever we do can never be enough.”(Hein Verbruggen 1999, 43; Mark Wills 2001,82; Pete Best 2000, 64)

Jacques Anquetil - venerated despite his doping history
Jacques Anquetil – venerated despite his doping history

These letters infer a constant theme throughout the history of the sport that doping is, as another letter claims, a “culture” that has been present throughout and cannot be eradicated.(Hilary Basing 2004, 36) This presents a problem when we try to discuss what is fair, especially when we consider that fans acknowledge their own hypocrisy in venerating riders who had been shown to have doped many years ago whilst vilifying contemporary riders who do the same.(Rob Wright 2011, 26; Rich Grainger 2012, 29) Given these past athletes are celebrated for their achievements whilst using drugs, it would seem to be evident that different standards of what is fair can be applied by fans – it was fair for riders in the past to use drugs, but not so now. However, I would venture that it is actually a combination of sports nostalgia being augmented alongside the imposition of a teleological construction of history that is occurring, and as such, the standards of what is fair have not changed – the framework under which they are seen simply means they have been forgiven. Public sport nostalgia can serve to affirm the values of a culture, and previous work has established that a sport’s past is associated with the mythic, as well as the idea that the “original lessons of the sport” were learnt there.(Seungwoo Chun, James W. Gentry, and Lee P. McGinnis 2004, 506; Jay J. Coakley and Eric Dunning 2000, 484) In other words, fans are more likely to be selective in their memory of past events as well as perceive them in a more favourable light, whilst claiming that the moral and ethical foundations of the sport were being forged, rather than followed. Combine this with an attitude pervasive in the letters that the sport is progressive, and it is more likely that fans still believe in the same standards of what is fair across the decades, but expect more contemporary sportsmen to be grounded in the history of the sport and thus reject the infractions of the past.(Dave Meacham 2001, 80) The history of cycling thus informs fans’ construction of the concept of doping and feeds into their belief of an all pervading culture of doping within the sport. This has consequences for what is perceived as being fair as it means riders are judged on a double standard – they are expected to avoid the mistakes of the past whilst simultaneously being believed by default to be repeating them in the first place. The result is the construction of a very low threshold for evidence of doping by fans, so low that the “guilt by association” theory can begin to take hold.

For instance, the novel thing to note with the aforementioned letter on Millar is the casual connection to Lance Armstrong over something that had little to do with him – the closest connection Armstrong had to Millar was that they had briefly been employed by the same Cofidis team in 1997, although Armstrong never rode for the team due to his cancer diagnosis. Yet the connection was seemingly made, with the reader casting doubt on the previously iron-clad “never tested positive” statement in a case of the sharpshooters fallacy – fans are keen to stress similarities but ignore differences in the facts to prove their point. Not that the swing was instant – readers were keen to counter others “guilt by association” letters by pointing out “[Armstrong] has never tested positive [whilst close ex-teammate] Tyler Hamilton has…tested positive with three separate samples”, albeit claiming that the tests made them give Armstrong “the benefit of the doubt when it comes to doping”, inferring that there were other factors to consider in whether doping had occurred.(Sylvain Penser 2005, 32)

By 2006 though, opinion had begun to radically change. The year had seen arguably the biggest drug scandal the sport had ever seen, Operacion Puerto, a drug ring that encapsulated whole teams as well as the two top favourites for that year’s Tour de France. Whilst these riders were removed from the race, the eventual winner, American Floyd Landis, then tested positive for elevated levels of testosterone. It is notable however that, given the riders were still under investigation of doping, there was still balance in the opinions. For every person who mocked the testing with a sarcastic “Pantani never tested positive, he just had a high haematocrit after a mountain stage…” there was another who pressed for the need for “incontrovertible proof before condemning someone…to my knowledge none of the ‘banned’ cyclists have actually been caught doping.”(Rob Clarke 2006, 38; Stuart Mees 2006, 38) However, the calls for out of competition tests to be removed had made a U-turn, and the letter that best captures the mood states:

“[The UCI  (Union Cycliste Internationale – Cycling’s governing body] must do more than simply rely on event testing and occasional off-season tests to monitor riders. They must use longitudinal studies charting hormone levels and relevant blood parameters. Any significant unexplainable deviation from the rider’s personal history should be met with further testing and suspension.”(John Fostor 2006, 36)

This is the first instance where a method other than the standard drug test is suggested for identifying doping, and it is noticeable that the number of letters suggesting the use of measures outside the traditional test to identify doping dramatically increases after this point. Simultaneously, a poll by the magazine found that, despite the positive test for testosterone recorded by Landis, only 33% of respondents believed that he had definitely done so.(“Do You Think Floyd Landis Used Testosterone?” 2006, 22) This supports the idea that faith in tests as evidence for doping was falling, and was instead being replaced by alternative methods of “diagnosis” so to speak.

Only 33% of ProCycling readers thought Floyd Landis had taken testosterone. Technically, if we believe Floyd (now there's a can of worms...) they were wrong - because he'd only taken a blood transfusion. Geez, guys,  how could you be so wrong about someone!
Only 33% of ProCycling readers thought Floyd Landis had taken testosterone. Technically, if we believe Floyd (now there’s a can of worms…) they were wrong – because he’d only taken a blood transfusion. Geez, guys, how could you be so wrong about someone!

The neatest way of illustrating this is through the phrase “innocent until proven guilty.” From 1999 to 2005, the phrase was frequently cited to oppose any insinuations that readers perceived meaning that “innocence should not be immediately assured.”(Michael Tauben 2001, 99)  However, this again takes an abrupt turn in 2006, where despite letters on the Puerto case still claiming riders were “innocent until proven guilty”, they added the qualifier that “as more information has been published regarding Operacion Puerto, one has to wonder if [The Tour de France] has actually done cycling a service [by removing the implicated riders].”(Chuck Meyer 2006, 38) Concern about just what standards of evidence were good enough are more explicitly stated when a reader says “someone is innocent until proven guilty. I guess the devil is in the detail of that word “proven”, of course” before we finally get the turn to “I say guilty until proven innocent…If they say they are clean then let them prove it” in late 2006.(Joseph Holloren 2006, 39; Symon Vegro 2006, 40)

Evidently, the weight of the burden of proof had been shifted from the doping tests to the riders themselves as the idea that “innocent until proven guilty” gave way to “guilty until proven innocent.” It is notable that all the letters that use variations of the phrase after 2006 bar two build upon the idea that the onus is no longer on the testing, but on the riders themselves to prove they are clean. The Operacion Puerto investigation seemed to have turned public opinion from one of deference to the scientific and legal application of anti-doping tests to one where cynicism and suspicion ruled. Where only a few years before “never tested positive” was the gold standard of proof of cleanliness, it was now openly mocked and picked apart – “never getting caught for speeding does not mean that you have never broken the speed limit” claimed one reader on the phrase, whilst a particularly telling letter after the exposure of Lance Armstrong said “look what the fans are still saying: “he never failed a test.””(Alexandru Anca 2007, 14; John Ramsey 2012, 24) Armstrong indeed hadn’t (at least not publically), and so the inference is that fans should have picked up on other signs of possible doping. Of course, this is somewhat easier in hindsight, but it lays the foundations for the “guilt by association” theory of doping guilt that was seemingly born out of the Puerto investigation.

Puerto - a game changer in more ways then one.
Puerto – a game changer in more ways then one.

Why the Puerto scandal? Why not other scandals that hit throughout the nineties or noughties? The answer seems to be simply that Puerto was the first scandal that featured a different concept of doping – rather than banned substances, it was banned methods such as blood transfusions that were exposed for the first time to the wider public. Whilst there are still tests that can detect these, they are significantly more difficult, especially when a rider re-infuses their own blood.(Jacob Morkeberg 2013, 627) However it seems that the public perspective was that the tests were no longer strong enough evidence of doping, perhaps due to the perception that the dopers were one step ahead of the testers. This notion is certainly present in the letters from May 2004 through to 2012, with the phrase “one step ahead [of the testers]” cited various times.(John Whale 2004,40; David Shipman 2012, 26)

It then seems that doping became a more social phenomenon rather than scientific one – after the tumultuous 2006-2008 period for cycling, readers began to collate doping as less to do with positive tests and more to do with who riders knew and what their connections were. Thus a “dot joining” method of doping diagnosis was born.

An example of such a diagnosis is evident in a letter from Gregor Klockare, who wrote in the following letter in the February of 2012:

“It’s actually unbelievable that Frank Schleck actually is allowed to participate in professional races…his connection with [Eufemiano] Fuentes [The doctor behind the Puerto operation] is proven. Money transfers from Frank Schleck to Fuentes have been tracked down. He later had to admit to these payments. Thousands of euros for some good ‘”raining tips”? It’s a complete joke. Not a single person believes that. And don’t start with “he hasn’t tested positive.” Has anyone in the Operacion Puerto tested positive?”(Gregor Klockare 2012, 24)

This is an excellent example of the guilt by association theory in action. Luxembourger Frank Schleck had never failed a test but was revealed in September 2008 to have wired 7,000 Euros to Dr. Fuentes, the man who had masterminded the recently unmasked Operacion Puerto.(Laura Wesilo 2014) Schleck claimed this was for “training advice” and that he had had no direct contact with the doctor, and was subsequently cleared by the investigating committee that found that this was not only true, but that Schleck had not been involved in any doping.(Nigel Wynn 2014) Yet Klockare ignored this and instead has “connected the dots” – Fuentes was involved in doping. Schleck has a connection to Fuentes. Thus, Schleck must be involved with doping. This is clearly all he believes is required to establish guilt, given he laughs off  “and don’t start with “he hasn’t tested positive.””

Casual social relationships thus become the new de facto method of establishing doping guilt. Nationality (“[young German cyclists] have to undergo a lie detector test to prove [they] are clean”, past teammates (“[Armstrong’s] team-mates – have subsequently been convicted of doping offences…yet he claims to have ridden clean”, clothing (“the supposedly clean team becoming the “men in black” has to be worth something”), previous teams and the riders’ performances are all seen as fair game by readers as methods of connecting a rider to doping.(Gordon Baines 2013, 24; Stephen Johnson 2012, 30; “Drenkom” 2008, 12; Jeff Danielson 2011, 28) This is not entirely down to disenchantment and doping scandals however. There is a correlation between letters with a “guilt by association” approach and the UCI’s introduction of their own similar approach – the 2007 introduction of the biological passport. This was designed to “indirectly reveal the effects of doping rather than attempting to detect the doping substance or method itself”, and meant that the doping no longer required a positive test, so that inference and suspicion had a legitimate legal weighting in deciding whether someone had doped or not.(Pierre Carrey 2010; WADA 2014b) The UCI further helped entrench the notion that innuendo and suspicion were valid components in anti-doping when the French paper L’Equipe got hold of a “suspicion index” of doping the governing body had created for riders at the 2010 Tour de France, which ranked the riders from 0 to 10, mainly based on their medical records, but also partially on “suspicion of EPO use.”(“UCI’s Suspicious List Leaked from 2010 Tour de France” 2014)

There is still a crucial difference between the UCI and readers however. The biological passport was examining scientific medical data from riders that could be analysed for discrepancies – the dots being joined were physical, chemical tests, whilst fans simply correlated various social factors, some as arbitrary as the colour of clothing a team chose to wear (black is seemingly a colour to avoid if you don’t want to be accused of doping) or simply a perceived similarity between a rider and a historical doper. The readers would use such similarities to force the burden of proof onto the riders. For example, a reader questioned 2012 Tour de France winner Bradley Wiggins as such:
For seven years we saw a similar dominance by Armstrong and [his team] US Postal. [Riders] say, with [no real] proof, that the ‘new generation’ is clean. Prove it to me. Every team, every rider MUST prove to us that they are clean.”(Arthur Currence 2013, 26)

The burden of proof for readers is thus with the riders (albeit without any notion of quite how they can prove they are clean), whilst with the UCI, it is with their own testing. The evidential standards of both parties have changed over the last fifteen years, but with different rates. The UCI still requires physical evidence in its definitions of doping, even if the standards of that evidence have relaxed from the straight up negative or positive test to the slightly more temporally elongated biological passport. Fans of cycling do not – as we have seen, whilst their views do generally correlate with that of the governing body, their standards of evidence are much more liberal and laxer, which is somewhat against the conclusions of previous studies that found that the public perception was in line with that of the government. (Hanspeter Stam et al. 2008, 235) Whilst in the late nineties and early noughties the anti-doping tests were held in high esteem, doping scandals in 2006 and onward eroded confidence in the testing system, as did the realisation that methods rather than substances were now being used to dope. The perception that the tests were thus not catching cheats led readers to search for alternative ways of connecting riders to doping, until they became almost completely disconnected from the need for physical, chemical evidence and arrived at a theory of doping built upon interactions and social connections. One of these is the performances of the riders themselves, something that will be addressed in much more detail next.  Ultimately then, evidence of doping for sports fans can be drawn from a much wider range of sources then the official channels, relying upon the ability to connect disparate pieces of information with a common factor (a rider) into a story of doping.

As an aside, it must be pointed out that there is a difference between this pseudo-scientific diagnosis and the simple dislike of a rider. Procycling’s letters certainly give the impression that readers can be a very fickle bunch, a fact they are at least self-aware of – one fan berated “when fans favourite riders are caught, they moan that the punishment is too harsh” for instance.(Monir Taha 2005, 34) There is also a degree of attempting to claim that people who hold certain opinions are “proper” fans – witness the claim that “true cycling fans are less than enthusiastic about Lance’s return” – but the reality is that the vast majority of the letters published are clearly carefully considered and not, as another reader claims “fans [who] won’t be happy until the UCI catches the particular riders they dislike.”(Paul McGroary 2009, 14; George Cox 2010, 26) Indeed, in my conversations with the editor of Procycling, he confirmed that the magazine’s policy was to publish letters that reflected the most prevalent views of readers rather than simply the most divisive or extreme, so this is a fair conclusion. In essence, cycling fans standards of evidence do seem on the whole to derive from a genuine desire to catch doping riders, rather than a malicious intent to defame one they dislike. With this in mind, the conclusion that cycling fans have lower standards of evidence for doping purely because they want to get rid of sportsmen they dislike can be rebuffed. Instead, it seems clearer that the lowering of standards relates to fans being disillusioned with the testing processes and scandals that occurred, and thus seeking to find alternative ways to diagnose doping, such as athlete’s performances.

The question of what is fair for fans is made inherently problematic through this conclusion, as if fans are ignoring the rules of the sport in favour of drawing from a wider range of arguably irrelevant factors to attempt to claim that a rider is doping, then their concepts of what is fair are divergent from the traditional models of sporting ethics. There seem to be two separate conceptions of what is fair. On one side, the sporting authorities such as WADA, the UCI and the like exhibit rule formalism – where by the deduction that someone is doping is made only through the application of the laws that state whether they are or not, whilst on the other we have fans who prefer a much vaguer “ethos of sport.”(Li-Hong Hsu 2002, iv)

The issue here is that when fans draw from just about any sphere of influence that could possibly have any relation to the sport in order to diagnose doping, their concept of what becomes cheating and thus unfair becomes incredibly diverse. There is a great disparity between what the authorities would claim to a sporting ethos, such as the values of Olympism, and what fans seem to have determined as a sporting ethos, which rather than Olympism, which is defined in positive values such as friendship and solidarity, is characterised in negative terms.(“Olympism in Action – Olympic Values and Programmes |” 2014) Cycling fans sporting ethos seems to be based on a bastardisation of the concept of fair play where any notion of an advantage, however tentatively construed or constructed, is deemed unfair. However, this goes against the very notion of competitive sport in the first place – for it to be competitive, competitors have to have an advantage of some kind with which to succeed. Despite this, the history of cycling combined with increasingly laissez-faire attitudes to what can evidence doing seem to have created a cynical outlook where the only conclusion seems to be that fans have mistaken the inherent unfairness of competitive sport as an “unfair” in itself. Fans have confused “fair play” with “equality” to the point where they expect an athlete beating another is viewed as “unfair” as they are thus no longer operating on the same level, and so by the cynical logic of fans, any advantage must be unfair.


We can further examine this phenomenon through the investigation of how fans interpret the performance of athletes. As we have seen, fans seem determined to connect just about anything to the perusal of an unfair advantage, but this still begs the question of just what they quantify that advantage to be.

Performance in sport is not simply about the completion or accomplishment of an operation, but about the quality of that operation.(“Performance, N. : Oxford English Dictionary” 2014) We can all theoretically pedal a bicycle up a mountain, but an “athletic performance”, ie one by an elite athlete, would be expected to be significantly better – whilst we might take an hour to complete the climb, we might expect the athlete to complete it in thirty minutes. The level of the performance can be adjudicated on a variety of criteria however. It could purely be the time taken to complete the race, or it could be whether that performance is good enough to defeat the performance of rivals.

Doping is required by its definition to be “performance enhancing”, but by how much? We could look at scientific studies of the drugs themselves, such as a study on the effects of EPO on running times which concluded there was a 6% increase in performance, or extrapolate the figures given to us by athletes confessing to drug use and find a 5% increase in power and 11% gain in speed.(Jerome Durussel et al. 2013; Tyler Hamilton 2012, 106) However, these are mostly scholarly pursuits – not something the average sports fan is interested in.[5] Thus, it makes sense to analyse their ideas of what sort of performance enhancement doping could bring.

Tyler Hamilton reckons doping made himself 11% more powerful
Tyler Hamilton reckons doping made him 11% faster. 

Levels of performance are the medium through which fans best like to explain how they perceive doping. For example, a 2002 letter claims that “one cannot expect superhuman performances on nothing but ‘eau claire.’[mineral water]”, implying that doping elevates riders to the “superhuman.”(Neil Langham 2002, 19)  Given a proliferation of talk about “true levels” being established and that “the best man should win, not the man with the best chemist”, it seems clear that in the early noughties, the view was that doping was indeed a key factor in athletic performance.(Hal Coward 2002, 18; James Walters 2002, 19)  It is notable that the concept of a “level playing field” is also evoked various times, but that the rationale and meaning behind it evolves over time.

In 1999, a letter expressed the belief that “the UCI should publish an allowed list, rather than a banned list of drugs…this would hopefully create a more level playing field.”(Russell Thorpe 1999, 58) In early 2001, a similar letter claimed that “all performance enhancing drugs seem to do is level the playing field a little.”(Dave Stevens 2001, 79) Evidently, a “level playing field” is something that is desired in sport, although what it necessarily entails is something that is only elucidated by a further letter, which asks “[are people] going far enough when they want to see a level playing field?…We don’t want drugs to be the deciding factor, but what about other non-athletic factors? If we really want a level playing field, shouldn’t cyclists all ride the same make of frame and use the same wheels etc?”(James Simpson 2000, 46) The inference here is that there are various constants that all cyclists have to use to participate in the sport, such as the frame and the wheels of the bicycle. In simple terms, all cyclists must have a bicycle frame, all must have wheels, and the equality of these is what makes the sporting playing field level. This certainly ties in neatly with the ideas taken from the examination of fans standards of evidence for doping, given any advantage was seen as fundamentally unfair in itself. But these early noughties letters infer that drugs are somehow one of those constants. The final letter can be read in two ways – either that the writer doesn’t want drugs to be the deciding factor through their removal from the sport, or that they desire they do not become the deciding factor by following the advice of the first letter and creating an “allowed list” of drugs that can be taken. Either way, the writer is seemingly resigned to acknowledging the influence of drugs within the sport. This is perhaps why all three letters seem unable to agree on what a level playing field would actually entail, and whether drugs would be part of the solution or part of the problem.

This makes the reappearance of the phrase in 2006 and onwards all the more interesting, as suddenly, all the viewpoints align. “Zero tolerance [to drugs] and DNA testing may be required to keep the playing field level and open to all” says one letter in late 2006, whilst by 2008 it is certain that “Cheaters ruin the otherwise level playing field.”(Chuck Meyer 2006, 38; Eric Antanitus 2001, 12) There are no dissenters to the line that doping and drugs are now distorting the playing field, and indeed, only 17% of correspondents wanted an end to restrictions on doping products.(Daniel Friebe 2006, 58) This change in attitude was probably fuelled by the drug scandals of 2006-08, just as the changing evidential standards discussed earlier were.

Of course, the problem is that the evidential standards for cheating are so all encompassing that it is tricky to claim that fans could ever be content, because such standards near guarantee that a level playing field is possible at all. It seems that cycling fans are again exemplary models of Nicholas Dixon’s “purist” fans who exhibit the desire to take the moral high ground and be free of emotional attachments to specific teams.(Nicholas Dixon 2001, 151) Dixon describes “purists” as having the attitude of a neutral who wants to see the most skilful team triumph, but cycling fans arguably take this further – they take the moral high ground and the concept of fair play to such a level that it becomes the central, all-encompassing focus of their rationale for following the sport in the first place. This focus on what is fair detracts from the other aspects of the sport and leads the fan to become obsessed with trying to eradicate advantage from the sport altogether. As Dixon himself points out, this barely makes the fan a fan at all – they have no loyalty to competitors, only to an overly constructed and fortified notion of fair play, of which the aim is the total equality of the competitors. Fans blinkered obsession with this notion means they are increasingly drawn to including new and disparate aspects of the sport into the “fair play” equation to be equalised and treated to excise any advantage they may bring. In this context, the perceived advantage doping can bring is important to consider – we, and sports fans, should be focusing on the actual rules of the sport and what its rules are, rather than the vague and spiralling ethos of equality and fair play that has become central to fans interpretations of sport. Doing so will help quantify the actual differences between “fair play” and “unfair play” as defined in the rules of the sport.

Unfortunately, there are few letters that try to quantify the difference between a rider caught for doping before and after their cheating, instead preferring to compare riders to one another and across eras, as we shall see. The closest we get are references to riders where readers compare their performances between “clean” and “doped” in vague, descriptive terms. For example, one writes that “[Ivan Basso] was merely a good rider without the drugs, not a great one” whilst another observed “we’ll never know what type of campione Pantani would have been without the turbo powered, poisoned blood.”(Katherine Stevens 2010, 26; Daniel Friebe 2004, 45) These rather imprecise statements do not allow much room to investigate how fans perceive the performance enhancing effects of doping, save that it elevates them upwards. The gulf between the few letters on the subject that exist is vast: one claims that “We should not fuel the public misconception that if you give enough drugs to a carthorse it will become a thoroughbred” whilst another states “Pantani cannot be the best without drugs.”(Tim Jordan 2000, 64; Chris Ratcliffe 1999, 66) Clearly, more work needs to be done on just how the public perceive the actual effect of drugs, with targeted surveys being the best approach to answer this. For the moment, the evidence simply isn’t detailed enough to give a strong answer aside from that drugs give an improvement of some kind. Further study will have to investigate just what level of improvement this involves.

Watch TV - diagnose doping
Watch TV – diagnose doping

Earlier, I investigating the standards of evidence required by fans to claim that a rider is doping. At the beginning of the current decade, a significant part of this was the notion that a fan can identify doping purely by watching a performance. This is certainly something that fans believe they are able to identify. Letters on the subject of “suspicious performances” begin in 2000 and increase in their frequency through the years. For example, in an issue of Procycling published just after the 2001 Tour de France, two readers wrote in explaining that by making a historical comparison between two sets of performances, they believed they were viewing performances built upon drugs:

“Watch the way in which the likes of [Greg] Lemond, [Stephen] Roche and [Laurent] Fignon gasped for air, hauling themselves through the final climbs in the Tour years ago, compared to [Lance] Armstrong now, smooth, efficient, fast cadence and controlled suffering and steady breathing. Should there be more visible suffering now without doping?”(Mike Roche 2001, 64)

Lance Armstrong - not enough suffering damn it!
Lance Armstrong – not enough suffering damn it!

Similarly, a reader from Manchester was concerned that “drugs are still an integral part of the race…judging by the standards of some riders in the race.”(Chris Leigh 2001, 64) This attitude is arguably even more visible by 2010, where “the ability to ride away from other top cyclists as if you were a motorbike has been seen quite recently with [Ivan] Basso  and look how that turned out” (Basso was caught preparing blood transfusions).(Derek Newton 2010, 28) So, the difference between the two time periods is that whilst Armstrong’s performance was a supposed indicator of doping, by the time of Basso’s performance nine years later, the performance had become a confirmation of doping. Indeed by 2011, not only was performance a confirmation of one riders doping, but the performance of one rider was being used to accuse another who had kept up with him, and in 2013, rider’s ages were being invoked as reasons why their performances simply could not be believed.(Martin Connor 2011, 24; Steve Penny 2013, 24)

It is simple to see where the change in attitude has come from, thanks to the coinciding of the change with a transformation in the standards of evidence required to produce a positive test for doping by both fans and the UCI themselves, thanks to biological passports and the increased use of banned methods over more easily detectable substances. The liberalisation in attitudes of fans to what can be inferred from a performance follows this development in the broadening of the definitions of what could legally be determined to constitute doping.

Fans have however also been keen to solidify their suspicions into something concrete, and to prove their doubts with something scientific and factual. There has thus been an increase in the number of fans performing a type of performance analysis that turns the traditional model of doping on its head. It follows the work of Antoine Vayer, whom used to work for the notorious Festina cycling team, which was thrown out of the 1998 Tour de France after it was discovered that the team was running a doping ring, but now works as a journalist with a strong anti-doping stance.(Matthew Beaudin 2013) Vayer’s work claims that “the exact definition” of doping is “the use of substances or forbidden methods to improve physical or mental performance.”[6](Antoine Vayer, Stephane Huby, and Frederic Portoleau 2013) However, he puts emphasis on performance, claiming that anti-doping tests for chemical substances are too easily circumvented, and thus that “I never tested positive” should be replaced by “I was never clocked by a radar doing 430 watts standard in the final col of a long mountain stage”- watts being the standard unit of measurement used by cyclists to indicate the power they are producing.(Antoine Vayer, Stephane Huby, and Frederic Portoleau 2013)

Antoine Vayer's entertaining, if debatable, book
Antoine Vayer’s entertaining, if debatable, book

Fans have followed his approach, using mountain climbs with known distances and gradients, as well as riders’ weights, to calculate a figure for power and then use one of Vayer’s “radars” to clock the riders as “normal”, “suspicious”, “miraculous” or “mutant.”(Antoine Vayer, Stephane Huby, and Frederic Portoleau 2013) They then post their findings online, having now “proved” that a rider has doped.(“Ammattipyöräily, 2014) If we ignore the myriad of issues with the calculations, which are heavily decontextualized away from various important factors such as atmospheric conditions and racing conditions such as drafting or dehydration, as well as the fact that the riders weights used to make such calculations are frequently manipulated (Lance Armstrong is recorded as having claimed to weigh 71 kilos rather than his actual 74 kilos), then it is evident that cycling fans are enamoured with statistics and their ability to put be used to add perspective to the sport.(Daniel Coyle 2005, 67; Craig Bender 2007) The issue however is that statistics are a pseudo-scientific fallacy – whilst fans may believe that they can “find out everything [they] need to know about a game” through statistics, this is simply not the case.(“Q&A: Brailsford on Why Froome Won’t Release Power Data –” 2014) If it was, then we would not need competitive sport: which is actually what some fans are almost advocating, claiming that the VO2 max figure (the amount of oxygen a person can uptake) of an endurance athlete is all that determines their ability.(Neil Beasley 2009, 10) This is where the danger of performance analysis and the boiling down of athletes to mere medical statistics lies – in stripping away tactics, psychology, diet and other advantages, it deconstructs athletes to a set of figures that can be ranked. For instance, it is claimed that athlete A, with a VO2 of 90ml/kg-min, would always defeat B, who only has a VO2 of 80ml/kg-min.(Cycling Forums 2014) Whilst this is cargo cult science, is does inform us well as to how cycling fans would determine a truly fair contest – it would be between athletes with identical medical and physical characteristics. Of course, the irony of this is that it would no longer be a contest between biological beings, because the only advantages would, in cycling at least, come either from some technological or tactical advantage, both of which have already been sampled in the letters as being evidence of doping and thus unfair in themselves. Cycling fans have thus managed to denigrate their sport into a medical arena, where the result is preordained based on inert physical characteristics and any deviance from this is evidence of doping. In essence, if we were to ask the question of “what is fair” in cycling, the answer for fans would ultimately be nothing.

Of course, in the face of such an extreme conclusion it is worth pointing out that sports fans are not a universal constant of similar opinions and approaches. A la the Nicholas Dixon theory, there are “purist” and “partisan” fans as well as several shades of grey in-between. I have concentrated on the more “purist” fans interpretations purely because that is what is most evident in the letters on doping. Discussions with the editor of Procycling confirmed that their policy was to present the prevailing view of the letters they received rather than a spread for the sake of it, and so the focus on the more “purist” views is justified, as long as it is established that they simply make up the majority group of opinion, rather than the entirety of it.


Building on the idea of riders simply being medical specimens, further Procycling letters demonstrate that there is a belief in limits to human physiology based upon the performances they have witnessed. After the 2001 Tour de France, a reader asked “Is any cyclist ever going to be able to exceed the levels of athletic ability demonstrated by Lance Armstrong?…Without actually adapting (mutating) a riders body with new drugs, I wonder if we have seen the human body performing at its absolute limits?”(John Cowen 2001, 70) There are two points to take from this. Firstly, the aforementioned notion that there are “absolute limits” to “athletic ability”, but more interestingly, that doping could help exceed these. This first attitude is reiterated throughout the period under investigation, with a reader in 2006 bemoaning suspicion over performances whilst claiming that “there are finite, physiological limitations to a rider’s ability” whilst in 2010 fans are still concerned about riders being within “normal human capabilities.”(Bruce Wassung 2006, 36; Derek Newton 2010, 28)

The idea that there are limits on human physiology is something that is frequently used to attempt to demonstrate doping.  A paper on human athletic performance by Giuseppe Lippi that uses world record progression in athletics develops the concept of an asymptotic curve for describing how performances by humans should progress.(Giuseppe Lippi et al. 2008)

100m(Kevin Duffy 2014)

This graph for the men’s 100 metre record shows the expected progression of human potential, based upon the notion that “progression of world records (WRs) in athletics is a reliable means to assess the potentiality of the human body.”(Giuseppe Lippi et al. 2008, 7) The paper concludes that, whilst the rate of progression may have been underestimated, these curves are essentially good indicators of how humanity will progress and indicate that we will eventually reach a limit at some point in the future.(Giuseppe Lippi et al. 2008) It adds on however that any deference from this trend is most likely due to doping, probably genetic given their predictions.(Giuseppe Lippi et al. 2008)

We can apply the same logic to cycling and try and investigate the progression of performances in cycling by looking at average speeds in the Tour de France. Certainly, this is something readers of Procycling had been looking at. One of the concerns about possible doping in 2001 was that “[there should be]… slower average speed[s]” whilst in 2009, readers still exclaimed “Look at how the speeds have gone up!” in concern that the peloton was “doped to its collective eyeballs.”(Mike Roche 2001; Liz Cochrane 2009) Evidently, average speeds are something that fans see as key evidence for doping having occurred.



At first glance, this fan theory would seem to coincide with the ideas of the Lippi paper on the progression of 100m records. A trend line through the winner’s average speeds does roughly follow an asymptotic curve until around 1990: coincidentally, about the time it is generally believed that blood booster EPO began circulating in the sport. At this point, the graph begins to rise again – the same indication given by the Lippi paper of doping occurring, and what fans infer is evidence of the same. What this elucidates however is that fans are happy to engage in decontextualized dot-joining to support their opinion, and frequently fall victim to the pitfalls of bad statistics – namely confirmation bias and the availability heuristic. To example the latter, we can recall the letter that screamed “Look…how the speeds have gone up” as evidence that the peloton was “doped to its collective eyeballs.”(Liz Cochrane 2009, 14) The average speed graph is only representative of one rider though – the race winner. It is thus only representative of 0.5% of the average field, rather than the “collective eyeballs” of the peloton. In essence, fans believe that an average speed increase is tantamount to doping because they see the speed of one rider increase and attribute doping to all riders. It is the decontextualisation of the data that is most problematic though. I have included the race distance of the Tour as a comparison, as in endurance events it is common sense that the greater the distance, the slower the speed and vice versa – a trend the Tour follows. This is before we even get into the roles of enhanced technology, which fans themselves recognise has “advanced light years” or diets and the like.(Liz Cochrane 2009, 14; Michael Tauben 2001, 99) Fans therefore exhibit the intellectual attribution bias in that they want to believe their actions are rationally motivated, and so attribute their belief to a rational decision supposedly backed up by statistics.(Michael Shermer 2002) Because of such a desire, fans fall victim to a notion that statistics are irrefutable, and so we can find evidence throughout the period under investigation that they seek out the fashionable performance statistic of the time to help evidence their claims.

Indeed, looking at the timeline we can see that there are periods where a certain performance statistic becomes increasingly popular in the discussion. Average speeds were particularly popular the end of the Lance Armstrong era (2004-2005), although they are mentioned as an indicator of suspicion throughout his career from 1999. By 2007, a new statistic was more fashionable – the VAM (velocità ascensionale media – Vertical Ascent in Metres/hour) measure offered a new way of measuring perceived levels of doping.(Michele Ferrari 2003) Essentially the average speed of ascent, VAM seemed to offer fans the ability to self-diagnose which riders where doping on climbs. This peaked in late 2007, where two readers showed how the comparative use of the figure was being used by fans to suggest doping:

“Gilberto Simoni recorded a VAM of 1,850. In 2006, Simoni…highlighted the “extra-terrestrial” climbing ability of Ivan Basso when he recorded a VAM of 1,805 on the Passo Lanciano…the ability of individuals to develop such high-level VAMs on natural training methods [is disputed.]”(Dr James Hull MRCP 2007, 16)

“Simoni climbed…with a VAM of 1,850…Basso climbed…at 1,805…and Pantani at 1,791 [The inference here relies on the knowledge that both Basso and Pantani had admitted to using or tested positive for doping] . I believe a good way of judging whether someone is doping is by examining their…VAM.”(Karol Dillon 2007, 16)

Simoni on the Zoncalon
Simoni on the Zoncalon

These resulted in a rare response from the magazine editor, who explained that for the comparison to be valid, the riders would have had to have been on similar climbs, and that the VAM figure is misleading on very steep climbs as it produces unusually high figures. This continues a trend of readers views not matching the views of the scientific establishment – instead, they are far more likely to interpret data in a manner that makes it more likely for them to perceive doping. For example, a reader discussing haematocrit values claims “it’s well known that natural levels are often in the thirties”, yet this appears be at odds with the evidence – studies of the general population have yielded a mean of 42.2, whilst studies of elite athletes have shown a near identical mean of 42.3, with a range from 36.8 – 47.8%.(Nick Marshall 2014; JF Brun et al. 2000) In essence, sports fans are likely to adopt a headline reading approach to the scientific information behind performance data – they tend to take the headline figure and ignore the details behind them. As a result, their concepts of how to diagnose doping through performance are often scientifically unsound, relying on statistics with loaded meaning but often unrepresentative of the realities of what they are intended to describe.

It is however vital to recognise that there is a difference between a scientific analysis of performance using data and simply watching a performance and declaring it doping based on that viewing alone, which is what many readers seem to do. Many simply claim that a riders’ performance is “unbelievable”, “def[ied] all logic” or “near flawless” with the insinuation that this means that, without any figures available to them, they can perceive doping simply by watching them.

Ultimately, there are therefore two models of performance assessed doping as constructed by fans: the Suspicion model and the Statistical model. The former is the simple assertion that by watching a performance someone can identify it to be based on doping, although it is not actually that simple – it requires a historical knowledge and the ability to make comparisons to past performances. The Statistical model builds upon Suspicion by attempting to add perceived hard figures to these suspicions, although the calculations and rationale behind such attachments are often clouded by the purist sports fans blinkered focus on a “level playing field”, which they idolise to the extent that they ignore the sport they profess to enjoy and instead concentrate on attempting to impose impossible high moral standards upon.

Evidently, the concept of fairness is heavily affected by this. For some fans, cycling seems to no longer be a competitive sport, but a witch hunt for doping attempting to use whatever “science” is available to back it up. For instance, when it was announced that the 2014 Tour de France had returned no positive tests, the comments included “so the dopers have gotten better and smarter”, “I’m pretty sure whatever the [riders] are using…the UCI is not testing for” and “No positives – history shows that does not have a lot of meaning.(Cycling News 2014) The heavy weight of history appears to have convinced many fans that unfair play is entrenched within the sport, and their purist determination to see an ethically impeccable game has led to the very act of defeating another competitor, surely the whole point of competitive sport in the first place, being determined as unfair because it does not do justice to the underlying statistics that they believe determine the outcome.  Fans concept of justice is thus actually based on what they see as the merit that each athlete holds, as determined by what they perceive as their physical characteristics. A rider with lesser physical characteristics beating a statistically stronger athlete would be construed as unfair, as the underlying merits of the two riders suggest that the logical outcome is that the stronger athlete should win. Fairness for cycling fans is thus not linked to the equality of opportunity, but rather the notion that athletes are inherently unequal – and that if the balance of superiority is upset, something “unfair” has happened. The discovery of just what this “unfairness” is is behind fans preoccupation with statistical data and a “guilt by association” theory to attempt to connect their beliefs back to their notion of fairness relating back to the idea that it is impossible for a weaker rider to defeat a stronger one.


The fans perception that one cyclist can be inherently better than another leads to a certain medicalisation of the sport into an arena where fairness is determined by the result following the physical characteristics of the athletes involved. I want to briefly explore this “laboratisation” of cycling in order to ask questions of whether investigating doping as an aspect health makes it more or less fair to use.

Monsieur Garnier in his laboratoire
Monsieur Garnier in his laboratoire

By “laboratisation”, I mean the transformation of a sport, something defined as “an activity providing diversion, entertainment, or fun” into a scientific arena akin to a laboratory for the purposes of experimentation.(“Sport” 2014) This is an idea that a range of fans writing to Procycling advocate. For instance, in 2000 a reader asks “Why not allow the riders to be administered EPO in the name of the advancement of science, sport etc?” whilst another goes further:

“We should also be looking more closely at what is a huge human laboratory. I suspect pro-sport doctors have a huge knowledge of how to use drugs to heal more effectively, to combat illness, and the possible long term effects of certain substances on the body, which may be beneficial. At the minute we are driving this incredibly valuable resource underground.”(Brian Wiggins 2000, 59; Dan Stevens 2001, 79)

The idea that competitive sport should be a testing ground for drugs goes against the established concepts of the values of sport. A debate on what the values of sport should be would be pertinent here, but in the interests of space, we shall borrow from the concepts of the IOC’s “Olympism” and the True Sport organisation, which is supported by the US Anti-Doping Organisation. “Olympism” dictates that sport should set a “good example and respect for universal fundamental ethical principles”, whilst True Sport aims for “a role in teaching morality…sportsmanship…and clean competition.”(“Olympism in Action” 2014; “Ethics and Values Build True Sport” 2014) We have already seen that the majority of readers equate “doping” with “cheating”, so treating the sport as a kind of laboratory experiment on the body would surely go against the concepts of both organisations. The idea of what sport must be to readers that advocate “laboratisation” must thus be divergent to these principles, which raises various questions over what the values of victory would be if such an idea were to be implemented. After all, other readers claim “The best man should win, not the man with the best chemist” or “if [a rider] is using drugs to excel then to me he is no longer a man.”(James Walters 2002, 19; Ricardo Gonzalez 2002, 19)

That said, the idea has been historically contingent perseveres until 2004, whereupon the idea almost entirely vanishes. It is replaced by letters on the idea of the health of riders, in terms of not only the strains of the sport of professional cycling, but the health impacts of doping. The reason for this change appears to coincide with the death of Marco Pantani, who died of a cocaine overdose following a career blighted by doping accusations and now generally accepted to have involved the use of drugs.(Matt Rendell 2006, 280) Pantani had been a superstar of the sport, a true character who has been an inspiration to many fans. His death prompted a special issue with eighteen letters paying tribute to him, a rise from the average of seven. From this issue onwards, riders health was suddenly at the forefront of the discussion.


Pantani’s death at 34 proved a catalyst for a more questioning attitude to the effects of doping. One reader asked “I’ve counted eight deaths from heart attacks in pro cycling in the past year. Why the sudden flurry of deaths? Do you think the [professionals] are testing a new wonder drug with fatal side effects?” before another asks “What exactly are the long term effects of doping? Does anyone really know? Is the point of drug controls to protect the athlete? If so, what from?” (Paul Kirman 2004, 36; Amy Lindh 2004, 28)  This was followed by various descriptions of doped riders as “sick” in the medical meaning of the word.(E & R Storey 2004, 36) The death of Pantani thus shifted the public perception of doping from something that was a possible health benefit to something deeply negative.

This was novely seen in the case of the drug EPO. It had been developed as a treatment for anaemia, and thus the product was actually developed to treat the sick. (“Amgen Epogen Prescription Information” 2014; David R. Mottram 2011, 137) However, the perception of sports fans is that EPO, and by extension other blood-boosting techniques, was a highly dangerous substance. “I cannot believe that these guys would risk their health and lives using EPO” is an example of a common refrain on the subject.(Dave Meacham 2004, 34) This was coupled with the vanishing of what had been a fairly popular concept before the death of Pantani – the idea that the sport was somehow impossible without drugs in the first place. “Who are we kidding when we think they could do this without drugs?” or “Are all of you so ignorant to believe that the life of a professional cyclist is really possible without drugs?” were fairly common statements to be found in the letters before 2004, but they essentially disappear after that period, replaced with an attitude questioning whether sport is healthy in the first place.(Richard Carden 2002, 19; Jesse White 2000, 75)

Doping had always been constructed as unfair because it provided an advantage that upset the balance of fans expectations – it was cheating – and yet it has become increasingly common for doping to be described as a disadvantage due to its perceived negative health effects. We could argue that it is still unfair because it does still give a competitive advantage, but we have established that for many fans, competition is a moot point as the results have already been preordained by their concepts of riders being medically (and unchangingly)  definable as better than others. In the fans constructed laboratory setting, doping thus arguably becomes unfair in that it confers an advantage to the opposition rather than the user. This would dramatically alter the notion of the “level playing-field”, which has traditionally been built up in that things deemed unfair to the notion have raised the user above the level playing field. If doping was unfair because it lowered the user below the “level playing-field”, then the inference would be that those on the “level playing-field” would be at an unfair advantage.

However, fans construction of doping is clearly built around enhancement – the word is frequently cited in the letters, as do words like “better”, “stronger” and “faster” which appear far more often than their acronyms. Thus, it is only fair to construct their notion of what is unfair in these terms, so that it is only things that positively boost performance, rather than negatively affect them, that are unfair.


Doping is a subject that is near innately connected with the sport of cycling, and it’s the pairs long interconnection has made the attempt to perceive one separately from the other near impossible. This, it appears, is at least the fans perspective, and in the concepts of fairness in sport, fans appear to take a radically different approach than the sporting authorities.

Fans have a more laissez-faire attitude to the definition of doping the the authorities, in that they believe the word to be synonymic with cheating to the point where the traditional definition of doping is expunged in favour of an all-inclusive notion of cheating that does not require the chemical substances or methods mandated by the authorities as necessary to do so. Fans thus have three central pillars around which their concepts of fairness are constructed – that of enhancement, of a level playing-field, and of natural performance. Problems however arise in that these factors can be contradictory, and indeed, when we examine fans concepts of how riders should perform, we find that they believe in a concept of the body where athletes have fixed, predetermined values that determine the limits of their performance. Fans consolidate this problem by making it fair that a “natural performance” involves the athlete living up to these perceived capabilities, but not exceeding them, and making a level playing-field the realisation of this perception. On top of this, anything that unnaturally enhances the performance of the athlete is considered unfair and contradictory to the first two notions.

The problem is that this demonstrates that a large section of cycling fans no longer subscribe to the traditional notion of competitive sport, where an advantage over competitors is celebrated and indeed the point – sport is a combination of art and science rather than only the latter. Cycling fans exhibit tendencies of being highly principled purist fans who elevate the desire for fair play above all other components of the sport, and in doing so change both the concept of what sport is and subsequently the idea of how sport can be fair. Sport for them is a cold, clinical, scientifically ordained concept and it follows that their idea of fairness is equally scientifically calculated. Unfortunately, the misinterpretation of various scientific and statistical concepts means that cycling fans perhaps aren’t as clued into as they perceive, but their construction of fairness centres on this interpretation of sport as an effective scientific experiment, and so it follows for them that sport can only be fair if the expected observations of the experiment are realised.

What was the key catalyst behind this construction? Undoubtedly, the history of cycling was the key driving factor behind the move from the authorities concept of fairness, which is simply that anything contravening the rules is cheating, to the more liberal interpretation favoured by fans. Fans perceived the sport in two conflicting manners: firstly, as constant in that doping has always present and that it couldn’t be expunged, but also in a teleological manner where by the progress seen in technology and the like was meant to be seen in moral attitudes to doping. The historical precedents set in the sport focused fans minds onto the doping issue and ensured that all parts of the sport filtered into its interpretation, blinkering fans to anything outside the pursuit of perceived doping.

However, there is still room for improvement in this investigation. This study as essentially universalised all doping substances and methods under one banner, when in reality, it follows that different substances should have different effects. There was little evidence from fans on how they saw any perceived differences, and so it would be pertinent to follow this up with more targeted questioning. Similarly, the ideas on health and the body are underdeveloped, and offer interesting avenues for investigation in terms of concepts of body enhancement. Both of these ideas would help either confirm or deny the concepts of fairness seen above, as well as develop the theory further by helping to elucidate more subtle differences in the fan construction of fairness.

Ultimately though, the investigation of fans perceptions of doping in cycling reveals two key ideas – that fans conceive of sport in a manner defined in terms of a scientific laboratory in which the result is preordained by the inherent physical characteristics of the athletes, and that their notion of fairness is fed by the need to see this vision through to its realisation. This conception is driven by the perception that the sport has always been unfair and thus that “unfairness” is always to be found – fans just have to know where to look, and thus draw in increasingly divergent sources to connect their logic to the integral belief in sport they hold.


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[1] The letters page ended due to influx of the ‘Twitter Age’ it seems –

[2] The haematological effect of altitude training is however disputed – see (Michael Hutchinson 2014, 120)

[3] Recreational drugs are more likely to produce a positive mental effect rather than the physical one drugs like EPO, growth hormone and testosterone are known for. (David R. Mottram 2011, 18)

[4] “The world is full of substances that could produce a test like other substances in a test tube” (Pete Sisinni 2002, 18; “Why was Jan Ullrich tested when he wasn’t even training and nowhere near a competition?” Liz Cochrane 2002, 29)

[5] None are referenced in the letters, for example.

[6] Vayer does not cite this definition, but it seems to come from the work of Istanbul University scientist Mehmet Unal – (Ellis Cashmore 2008)

[7] Graph collated using data from (Francoise Laget et al. 2013)

3 thoughts on “Sports fans, doping and fairness: an investigation through professional road cycling.

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