If you think the much publicized USADA prosecution of the doping conspiracy case against the US Postal cycling team is all about Lance Armstrong and the US Anti Doping Agency, you're wrong. It is much more than that. At it's core it is the attempt by USADA to tackle their greatest challenge, exposing and punishing what can generically be called "the sophisticated doper," athletes who not only use performance enhancing substances(PEDs), but also resort to extraordinary means to prevent people from exposing what they are doing.
For as long as I've written about this topic(since 1987) the frustration of those who operate the drug testing labs, and those charged with uncovering and prosecuting doping offenders has been that the vast majority of the people they caught breaking the rules were what you could call "low hanging fruit," the athletes who often accidentally ingested a contaminated supplement or "inadvertently" were caught with a banned substance in their urine. These were not hard core cheaters who bought into the win at all costs mentality, but rather careless individuals who made mistakes.
But the current prosecution takes direct aim at the US Postal Six, the alleged ringleaders of "the most sophisticated, professionalized and successful doping program that the sport has ever seen," according to USADA. The aim is to expose the lengths to which some will go to achieve success in sport. As I've often told those who ask why I'm still interested in this topic after a quarter of a century I say that it encapsulates the best--athletes striving to be the best they can be in their chosen hobby/profession--with the depths to which they will go to achieve those goals. It is a fascinating study of human nature.
It's a topic that involves psychology, physiology, pharmacology, ethics, morality, and a host of other fields. In literary terms it is Shakespeare in spikes, a fascinating journey through shades of gray, as well as black and white. The technological and social changes of the last 50 years has transformed society and this is reflected in our views on sports. They have been transformed from the games we played for fitness and recreation or watched to be amazed by the exhibition of physical talent, to entertainment and recreation businesses that generate billions of dollars in revenue.
This has an impact not only in economic terms, but in social ones as well. Sports "stars" become celebrities with influence rivaling, if not surpassing, those in other professions and an income to match that status. College scholarships are almost the equivalent of a four-year salaried career and as much a sought after goal as a short term professional sports contract for those not gifted enough to make the "big leagues." All this leads to a "trickle down" effect. The pressure to perform is not only on the small minority of the greatly athletically gifted, but also to the families of those who want their children to get a good college education, but can't afford it any other way.
Doping is not just for Olympians or professional athletes anymore. Masters cyclists are getting busted for using recombinant erythropoietin(EPO), the blood boosting drug that is one of the most potent performance enhancers used by athletes. This reality of modern sport is only getting more advanced as another coach told me recently that research into genes, receptor cells, and the mysteries of how the body does what it does is unlocking a whole new territory/definition of doping. Instead of injecting oneself with pharmaceuticals, the next generation of performance enhancers will be manipulating one's cellular functions and capabilities to do what PEDs do today without the potential negative side effects.
Why all this matters is that the "culture" of top level and elite level high school sport has changed. People have always cheated, but it was usually a singular, individual indiscretion. Now it's an industry. It's not merely one off doping, it's a sophisticated system of manufacture, delivery, and consumption of products and services provided to give an athlete "the edge" on the competition. To break that culture, the most potent battleground is on the level of the sophisticated cheaters. They are the "role models," the engine driving the doping train.
When the BALCO case broke, many of the athletes who were caught were not the big name stars, but those striving to reach that status. Many of them struggled with the decision to dope and, when caught, ultimately confessed to their "sins." But when asked to go the "extra mile," to give up their suppliers, to tell the full story of the network that was set up to service this industry, they balked. Marion Jones, who had not and ultimately was not convicted of a doping offense, was frequently cited by these individuals who said: "Why aren't you going after her? Why haven't you busted her?"
To kill the beast, you have to cut off its head. The head of the doping beast is the sophisticated doper and the enablers around him or her. That is why the US Postal case matters. To change the doping culture, you have to demonstrate that no matter who you are or when you did it, there is a price to pay. A price commensurate with the crime. For the US Postal Six this is not a "witch hunt" or an unfair targeting of individuals. It is an attempt to change the culture. To return sport to the best athletes. This case will not accomplish that in one fell swoop, but it is a step in the right direction.
For details of the USADA/US Postal case go HERE.