Last week I read an article posted in the Guardian blog’s 100Tours100Tales section entitled “Cycling’s longstanding, predictable and troubling relationship with depression”. This article, by Suze Climetson, is about doping and depression in professional cyclists.
It focuses on former pro cyclist Bjarne Riis, who famously won the Tour de France in 1996, climbing the mountain on Stage 16 with shocking ease. In 2007 Riis admitted that his 1996 Tour win was aided by his doping with EPO; Riis has also openly discussed his use of other drugs, and his experience of major depression.
This article attracted my attention because I’ve been somewhat obsessed with the issue of doping in sport. What does widespread doping say about the ethics and motivations of professional athletes? Also, what risks are they taking with their mental and physical health? I’ve already written several blog articles that raise questions about the sacrifices elite athletes choose to make in their “quest to be the best”. Such sacrifices may include
- focusing on their sport to the exclusion of all other work and interests
- training to a level of exhaustion that sets them up for injuries or illness
- doping to gain what is perceived as a “mandatory” boost to be able to compete at a world level
I believe the ultimate sacrifice athletes make is, ironically, losing their enjoyment of the sport for which they once had the greatest passion.
Clemitson shows her sympathy and understanding of the pressures elite athletes face clearly in this paragraph:
It hardly seems surprising that professional cyclists, despite their wealth and fame, would be vulnerable to depression: the endless scrutiny, the life lived on a knife edge between optimum fitness and over-training, the constant flirtation with loss. Imagine having dedicated your life from an early age to the pursuit of excellence with all its attendant pressures while never developing the ordinary coping mechanisms that “real life” is so good at teaching the rest of us.
Though the article is long, I recommend reading it in its entirety. It is written from the perspective of a true insider in the cycling world; it’s gripping, shocking, and sad. It includes tragic stories of both long-ago and modern cycling champions, and memorable quotes from the cyclists themselves.
I knew that doping was rife in cycling but I had no idea of how many drugs were used. I wasn’t aware of how common it is for cyclists to use cortisone to reduce inflammation and speed recovery even though cortisone abuse has destroyed many cyclists’ knees permanently. Nor was I aware of how widespread depression is in the professional cycling world, and how many pro cyclists use Prozac as part of their drug regimen.
Graeme Obree, quoted by Clemitson, is one of the few professional cyclists who has been through depression and not been destroyed by it. He says:
It’s not that sport makes people depressed. A lot of people who suffer from depression have a tendency to have obsessive behaviour –that’s why more of them exist in the top end of sport. The sport is actually a self-medicating process of survival.
This is the same kind of obsession that I recognize in many runners and have written about in my Runners’ Obsessions posts.
Once someone has made that decision to go for the top, the road leading there is scarcely ambiguous; Clemitson writes that a 2007 study published in the Journal of Applied Psychology demonstrated that “EPO use by a group of fit amateur cyclists improved time-to-exhaustion by a massive 54% after four weeks.”
She further shows her understanding of why pro cyclists dope in her mention of Georges Canguilhem’s book The Normal and the Pathological. There is an implied admiration of Canguilhem’s words: the “physiological bravado” of athletes who strive for “life to go beyond the codified biological constants”. Clemitson asks:
Just how much suffering can one man take on a bike when weather and terrain and the limits of his endurance are against him? And should we begrudge those riders, who are, after all, doing this for our entertainment, the right to alleviate their suffering with a little white pill?
I have to wonder whether the professionalism, the big money and hero-worship in sports, has tainted them irrevocably–virtually forcing top athletes to pay a terrible physical and emotional price if they want to win.
I encourage you to read the article and the insightful comments following it. Perhaps you will want to join the conversation.
For my blog posts related to this article, please see: