University of Texas professor explores cultural phenomenon of doping

An expert on sports doping living in Austin wants to help guide cycling's future and it’s not the guy who raced a bike for a living

Photo: Watson

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University professor and author John Hoberman sees a need for culture-shift in cycling and is interested in bringing his unique perspective, decades in the making, to the table to help cycling move forward in the wake of the Armstrong Affair.

The chair of the Germanic Studies program at the University of Texas-Austin, Hoberman has dedicated nearly three decades of his life to studying doping in sport. Specifically, Hoberman has examined how performance- and image-enhancing drugs intersect with forces as large as international geopolitics and finance, and as mundane as our everyday human ambitions.

In his 1992 book “Mortal Engines: The Science of Performance and the Dehumanization of Sport,” Hoberman looked at how training and doping methods pushed athletes beyond their physiological limits. More recently, he penned 2005’s exhaustively researched “Testosterone Dreams: Rejuvenation, Aphrodesia, Doping,” which detailed how testosterone and hormone therapies grew to have uses beyond their initial clinical intent.

That book covers doping in cycling, including the 1998 Festina Affair, how the International Olympic Committee and UCI have treated doping as a public relations problem, and the public’s often conflicted response to drug-taking athletes. Hoberman teaches European cultural and political history, and has also written at length on the history of the Olympic Games and the creation of the World Anti Doping Agency from the wreckage of the 1998 Tour de France.

Hoberman, 68, told VeloNews that the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency’s report on Lance Armstrong and the sport’s pervasive doping culture in the 1990s and 2000s blasts out an opening for progress.

“It’s the greatest opportunity you can imagine,” he said. “It’s a stunning opportunity to deconstruct a rotten system and with the support of corporations that really mean reform, to put something back together that will be a great improvement from the original.”

Speaking from his home in Austin, where he has taught at the University of Texas since 1979, Hoberman says he is not optimistic about the current UCI leadership.

“The UCI under McQuaid is no longer tenable,” he said.

In “Testosterone Dreams,” Hoberman details how governing institutions like the UCI are hamstrung by their leaders’ self interest. “Too many of these federations become autocratic fiefdoms where the president’s word is law,” he writes, adding that self preservation and self aggrandizement make institutions like the UCI and IOC naturally resistant to internal reform. “Restoring hope to young athletes who are demoralized by competing against steroid-assisted records has been less important than preserving intact the egos and reputations of sports officials who were accountable to no one but themselves.”

Hoberman recently attended a presentation in Austin where two of Lance Armstrong’s attorneys were panelists. He recalled raising his hand with a question.

“I stood up and one of the things I said to [Armstrong attorney] Tim Herman was, ‘you know, as soon as you made it clear that you were requesting UCI jurisdiction, you lost all your credibility with people who know what the hell is going on.’”

In 2005, SCA Promotions hired Hoberman as a consultant for the insurance company’s lawsuit against Armstrong. SCA claimed his doping invalidated the $5 million Tour de France performance bonus SCA had secured.

“They sent me do do a comprehensive history of doping in the Tour,” Hoberman said.

His 28 page report examined the top three finishers from 1961 to 1998. Over that 37-year period, Hoberman’s research led him to conclude that “far more than half” the riders on the podiums during those years had “either been confirmed or implicated in doping.” Looking back from the more-informed vantage of 2012, Hoberman is confident his conclusions about the Tour de France for SCA were correct.

“It was obvious it was a corrupted event,” he said.

Hoberman also recalls discovering an intriguing French report while researching in Denmark.

“I found a document that was called ‘L’Annuaire du Dopage,’ The Doping Annual,” he said.

The dossier of some 400-plus people listed athletes’ names, date of alleged infraction, and the substance involved. While the dossier later disappeared from where Hoberman found it, he had made a copy of it, which he still holds. Because the French report was not sourced, Hoberman says he viewed it with some skepticism, but it nonetheless underscored the overwhelming history of doping he discovered in his research into the Tour. In early 2005, Hoberman said, “some privacy group in France lobbied the government and they stripped the names out of this thing.”

Hoberman says he closed his 2005 SCA report by concluding that Armstrong was a categorical, systematic liar. Paraphrasing his report, Hoberman recalls writing that “he is surviving only because he is a cancer survivor and an icon.”

Sportive nationalism

While Hoberman’s thesis that Armstrong was in fact cheating SCA out of its $5 million ultimately proved true, the subject of the professor’s studies are larger than Armstrong. America’s erstwhile greatest cyclist is merely symptomatic of larger cultural delusions and political machinations that inform our collective attitudes toward doping in pro sports and everyday life.

The theme of sportive nationalism — the use of athletes to project national pride, power, and vitality — runs through most of Hoberman’s writings. During the Cold War, doping was a way for nations on both sides of the East/West divide to prove themselves through medal hauls at Olympic and international competitions. This created a dynamic where nationalist goals conflicted with anti-doping morals. In “Testosterone Dreams,” Hoberman writes that “government sponsorship of elite athletes therefore requires a delicate balancing act: it must promote national competitiveness while supporting, or appearing to support, the campaign against performance enhancing drugs.” He asks, “are they nationalists bent on athletic glory or regulatory internationalists bent on effective regulation of doping in sport?”

Though the Cold War is over, Hoberman says sportive nationalism continues to make it difficult to execute international anti-doping rules,

“What I see is an unbroken tradition of sportive nationalism that continues to this day,” he said. “Just because you are not pursuing sportive nationalism in the context of the Cold War does not mean that politicians are not going to want to see those points on the board.”

The Festina Affair precipitated the creation of the World Anti-Doping Agency. As Hoberman writes, “The French government’s decision to unleash the power of state prosecutors — who brought criminal charges against athletes, managers, and physicians — produced an upheaval that forced the IOC into an anti-doping partnership with governmental agencies.”

WADA’s foundation in January 2000 has led to parallel contests where countries compete both for athletic excellence and anti-doping showmanship.

“There is a simultaneous competition to demonstrate, or at least give the impression, that one is a loyal member of WADA,” Hoberman told VeloNews. “The medals competition is now quite seriously being accompanied by a ‘who can produce the best ostensibly drug-free show.’”

As an example of the heights this theater can reach, Hoberman points out that Alexander Lukashenko, the nefarious Belarussian dictator that recently fired his country’s sports minister and deputy for only delivering 12 gold medals in London, “issued a ringing declaration that his athletes were going to be clean.” Belarussian shotputter Nadzeya Ostapchuk lost her London gold medal after testing positive for steroids.

“The scum of the earth can play that game,” said Hoberman. “I mean, he is a criminal. And when Lukashenko comes out beating his breast over what a great anti-doper he is, it’s obvious that this is a political game that is running parallel with and attached to the traditional sportive nationalism.”

Not criminal

While criminal proceedings in France helped spur the IOC into creating WADA, Hoberman feels criminalizing sports doping in the U.S. is not a way forward. Jailing athletes “is just a diversion” from addressing root causes, he says. Instead, he suggests understanding how the circumstances of being a pro cyclist representing both sponsor and country affects a rider’s mindset.

Comprehending the riders’ worldview is key, he says, “going into the ranks of the competitors and really trying to understand how they think and what their motivations are.”

Hoberman says both David Millar’s and Tyler Hamilton’s books offer lessons on how culture can chaperone an athlete into doping. Hoberman notes that “even Tyler Hamilton, who is less introspective than Millar,” has something to teach.

“You learn things about the emotional lives of these people and the stresses they are under,” said Hoberman. “It’s a subculture and it has to be restructured.”

According to Hoberman, the sport “has to be reincentivized. You can’t just replace Pat McQuaid with a more trustworthy person at the top of the UCI and proceed to business as usual.” He says that playing musical chairs at the UCI would not solve problems further down in the sport, like the motives of its medical professionals.

“It turns out there are a lot of dirty doctors,” said Hoberman, referring to Hamilton’s experiences. “There are these seduction scenes, and the doctor knows how to play the young man he is dealing with.”

Performance enhancement for the masses

When fused with public ambivalence about performance enhancing drugs, sportive nationalism creates a blind spot towards doping that makes it even more difficult to enforce anti-doping rules. Hoberman cites a study of American attitudes toward steroids in baseball showing that in 2003 two-thirds of baseball fans were either mildly concerned or completely indifferent to the fact that their baseball icons doped. This statistical evidence of our laissez-faire attitude is underscored by anecdotal evidence Hoberman witnesses with his students at the University of Texas.

“It’s a pleasure to be in there with them, but you learn something about young peoples’ attitude toward performance enhancement,” he said. “I have sensed very little deep concern about performance enhancers. The exception is that there are students who will be offended by the fact that some other students are using Adderall as a study drug. It’s cultural change, and the big question for me is whether the broader push for enhancements in society at-large is somehow just going to overwhelm the anti-doping campaign. The fact is that the anti-doping campaign is competing with an enhancement wave that has been accelerating since the 1990s.”

When combined with pharmaceutical companies’ abilites to drive demand, changing attitudes about doping in sport becomes an issue vaster and more complex than getting 22-year-old cyclists not to succumb, whether before a pro-am kermesse in the back room of a Belgian bar or with a doctor in a grand tour hotel room. Pharmaceutical companies “are operations that will stop at almost nothing to move product,” Hoberman points out. And their ability to spend vast amounts marketing directly to consumers has reframed social attitudes toward how we use drugs to improve our performance in life.

Referring to pro athlete endorsements of performance enhancing drugs like Viagra, and the public’s eager adoption of these chemicals into their lifestyles, Hoberman writes in “Testosterone Dreams” that “stars and fans alike thus share in a ritual of performance enhancement and medical redemption in which anyone can participate… such advertising weaves the ethos of performance enhancement into the fabric of everyday life and points to the social respectability of performance enhancing techniques.”

The pro sports world prohibits and rails against PEDs at the same time it endorses and promotes them. This contradiction, along with the public prohibition and demonization of certain drugs that, like marijuana, are still used voraciously in private, make public attitudes toward athletes who use drugs both conflicted and self-contradictory.

Reshaping the sport’s culture

This matrix of social attitudes, national interests, and corporate dollars creates a stew that is the subject of Hoberman’s scholarly interest, and he can come across as jaded. But he is not hopeless about the possibility of creating a clean playing field for pro cycling. That change, according to Hoberman, starts with a complete reshaping of the sport’s governing federations and it’s a process he is personally keen to contribute to as a source of historical and cultural expertise about doping.

“The failure of national and international sports federations to control doping is primarily a political phenomenon, though it is conventionally misrepresented as being caused by the moral degeneracy of individual athletes,” Hoberman writes in “Testosterone Dreams.” Long before USADA’s Travis Tygart clashed with the UCI, U.S. congressmen, and Armstrong himself in the course of doing his job, Hoberman wrote that “the historical record shows that the minority of sports officials who have been openly dedicated to the eradication of doping have been unable to prevail against less-dedicated colleagues bent on tolerating or covering up the doping practices of their athletes, coaches and doctors.”

Speaking of the history of international and national Olympic and cycling federation leadership, Hoberman is leery of payoff scandals surrounding people like Pat McQuaid and Australian Olympic Committee Chairman John Coates, who the UCI recently picked to recommend members for a commission looking into its own handling of the Armstrong Affair.

“The more you learn about these characters, the better you understand why we are reading the kind of stuff we are reading today. The percentage of really sketchy people who are in these powerful and influential positions, and who are relevant to administrating an anti-doping program, is very high,” he said.

Sketchy knows sketchy, and to end this vicious cycle of self-protection, Hoberman says cycling needs a meltdown.

“You need a zero-hour where the power elite has basically imploded and there is significant demand for an informed operation that is not corrupt,” he said.

Hoberman sees commercial interests as able to fill this vacuum. It is perhaps telling that IMG Media, one of the world’s largest sports management agencies, is moving aggressively into the sport by striking deals with Giro d’Italia owner RCS Sport and spring classics organizer Flanders Classics in Belgium at the very moment the sport seems to be crashing down to a leadership nadir.

“There is a root-and-branch dimension to this,” said Hoberman. “I’ve spent the last 25 years thinking about how the doping systems works; that produces an historical perspective that can be useful when formulating policy.”

If he were asked for advice on how to help move pro cycling forward, Hoberman says he would focus on culture, not enforcement.

“I would propose de-emphasizing the policing operation while concentrating on rebuilding what the sport is inside elite cycling culture,” he said. “You have to pay a lot more attention to the riders. You have to look very hard at the team as a community that shares the right values.”

Today, Hoberman says, both at the level of the teams and cycling’s governing institutions, “there is an ambiance, there is an ethos, there is a code; and it is very hard to produce integrity.”

Given the opportunity, Hoberman would welcome the opportunity to step in and contribute to sea change in the sport.

“There are rational, informed ways that one can introduce reform,” he said. “And if anybody asked me to do it, that’s the kind of thing I would do.”

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