Tri Talk by Kelly OMara

Doping in Triathlon—Perception or Reality

Kelly O’Mara looks triathlon in the eye on the issue of doping and challenges it to come clean on reality versus perception

Last week, Deadspin published an article that set the triathlon internet aflutter, “Why Does Triathlon Have Such a Clean Image?”

Turns out the answer isn’t, “Because it is comparatively relatively clean.” Or at least that’s what you’d believe if you only read people’s comments and tweets. While the story itself went into great detail about who is and isn’t tested and why triathlon might be unique, many readers seemed to only absorb the idea that triathlon isn’t clean. This also came on the heels of news that an unknown British athlete failed a drug test for clenbuterol at the ITU Grand Final — news that had been buried by the governing bodies. And all of a sudden doping in triathlon was the topic du jour. It promptly became very popular in triathlete circles to speculate wildly online and make cynical comments assuming anyone fast must be on drugs. Otherwise you risked being labeled naive to the point of stupidity. ‘Hah, what? You think people just train and have natural talent!’

Triathlon certainly has doping problems

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It’s very easy to go down this hole. But I’d caution us not to mistake cynicism for wisdom.

Triathlon certainly has doping problems. I’m actually not convinced, though, that our’s are any worse than anyone else’s. Much of the Deadspin story focused on the fact that the heads of the industry have no incentive to root out doping, to spend the money necessary for in-depth testing, or to ask tough questions. It does not behoove them to shoot their golden goose(s). This is true. But this is true in every sport, arguably it’s true in almost every human endeavor. Do you really believe this isn’t the case in cycling or in the Olympics? Or that the NFL, where far more is at stake, really wants to find out what its biggest stars are doing or even stop them?

There are a few systemic reasons I’m actually moderately optimistic that triathlon may be at least slightly better off than plenty of comparable sports; cleaner if you will.

Triathlon has far less at stake (so far).

Mostly, we — and I’m using “we” in a generic sense — have less to gain by doping. Yes, sure, many of us think of Kona as a massive crown to win, a bacchanal. Relative to other sports, though, there’s simply not as much money in triathlon. That means there’s simply not as much at stake.

I know people don’t need much of a reason to dope. I know there are plenty of stories of age groupers doping just for the glamor of winning a local race. I know there are some countries where triathlon is a much, much bigger deal than it is in North America where triathletes can become minor celebrities. But still. It’s simple economics that people are more willing to dope when they believe they have more of a reason to do so.

It’s still a fairly young sport.

This all may change. Maybe it’s already changing. But, as pointed out in the Deadspin article, triathlon’s still a fairly young sport, and it’s a fairly young sport without as much of a cheating history as, for example, the Tour de France. Which is not to say it has none. But that makes it easier for us not to have yet been too corrupted. Clinging to our innocence is at least a possibility.

Everything that makes it a little harder to do the wrong thing makes it slightly easier to keep doing the right thing.

Think of it this way: If you wanted to start doping tomorrow, would you know how or where to start? What to take or who to call? Probably some of you are thinking, ‘Yeah, definitely,” — and you should maybe evaluate that. But plenty of us are thinking, ‘No.’ Plenty of us are thinking I’ve seen so many friends get faster, so many of them become pros and podium; all while clean. I wouldn’t even know where to start. That’s the difference between a systemic culture of doping and one that doesn’t have drugs built into its very seams. It’s not that it’s not possible to dope. It’s that it’s just a little bit harder.

The individuality of the sport makes systemic doping more difficult.

I’d argue that part of why it’s just a tiny, little bit harder for a triathlete to dope is because there isn’t a team system in triathlon. There isn’t an NFL doctor shooting you up without telling you what’s in the syringe — also really messed up for the football players who struggle to even have access or control over their medical records. There isn’t a cycling team manager telling you everyone else on the team is already doing it. In triathlon, for the most part, you have to actively make the decision, you have to justify it to yourself, then you have to seek out the specific drugs. Everything that makes it a little harder to do the wrong thing makes it slightly easier to keep doing the right thing.

…if I didn’t think I could one day win the right way, then I would have actually gotten a real job…

I’m not saying there’s not doping in triathlon. I’m sure there is. I’ve sat around with friends and speculated about it too. I also think there are specific holes in triathlon and specific areas of the sport that are more likely to be rife with cheating (as the Deadspin article also argues). But it doesn’t behoove us to think triathlon is any worse than anything else, or that doping is rampant.

Every doper who has ever come forward and talked about why they doped has said something to the effect of, “Everyone was else was doing it; I had to to be competitive.” And let’s be very clear: If we simply write all dopers off as universally bad people, we’ll never understand the motivations that could drive someone to that point, and if we never understand the motivations, then we can never make changes to adequately address those reasons. And one of those motivations is the belief, mistaken or not, that they’re just cheating the same as everyone else, that everyone else is already doping.

When we perpetuate that belief, we contribute to the problem. Cynicism begets cynicism.

If you made it to the bottom of the Deadspin story — instead of just tweeting out the headline — Joel Filliol says, “But I couldn’t do what I’m doing if I didn’t believe you can win clean.” I agree with him. I’m racing as a pro this upcoming year and if I didn’t think I could one day win the right way, then I would have actually gotten a real job instead and made my mom happy. Of course, I believe you can win clean. Otherwise, what’s the point?


Photo: Wikicommons
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  1. Pingback: Newsletter ep. 37: Is everybody else doping? – Live Feisty

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