It’s Complicated

Last weekend, the New York Times published an article by Jonathan Vaughters (JV) sharing his thoughts, and experience, with doping in professional cycling. If you’re interested in a deeper review of cycling then get a copy of Willy Voet’s book, Breaking The Chain.

JV talks about his choice to get the last 2% performance gain through doping. That had me thinking about my record in Ironman (2nd, 2nd, 3rd, 4th, 7th, 10th). I think a more accurate description is JV received a 100% performance gain from doping. Cheat and he receives a pro contract, victories, trips to Europe and the exposure that, ultimately, brought him to his current position, working at the top of the sport.

JV is a stranger to me. However, something makes me like him (must be his fashion sense). My positive feelings towards JV, and others that have doped, are widely shared. Recently, I witnessed an exuberant standing ovation for an athlete with a similar background. Many cheaters are, and will remain, extremely popular figures in our society.

What to do? 

First up, I don’t waste energy trying to fix the situation. I have been gradually withdrawing from professional sports – I watch very little on TV, don’t follow the pros and spend my time with a small group of amateur peers. This frees up my mind for what’s important to me (wife, family, serenity, writing).

Second, I teach my kids that athletics is a journey of personal excellence and self-discovery. Professional sport is focused on winning. JV’s mission is winning clean but it is still winning. While that might generate value for sponsors, winning is what drives young people to cut corners. I wonder if my participation, at any competitive level, is part of the solution.

Once your goal is personal excellence the desire to cheat (on your spouse, on your taxes, for an insurance settlement, for another title) is greatly reduced. It is a wonderful filter to apply.

Two arguments that I hear a lot: we need highly-effective testing; and we should welcome the dopers because they enable us to make more money.

We want to be very careful about creating a police state in any segment of our lives. Once we accept total disclosure of an athlete’s life/location/biology, what’s to stop that spreading into areas of our society that actually matter! The world rolls along just fine with professional wrestlers and bodybuilders. 

The second argument, that charismatic dopers are good for the sport, rings hollow. Folks with charisma should not be rewarded for making poor choices. Good looking, charismatic athletes do not need our help. A quick review of human psychology will show that life is heavily stacked in their favor.

I ask myself where it would be appropriate to draw the line. It is important for each of us to think this through. Ethics in sport, finance, politics, business and matrimony are identical. In my own life, I remember the advice of Charlie Munger to stay a mile away from the line!

Now that I have kids, I understand the parable of the Prodigal Son and have become much better at forgiveness. It’s too hard to hate and the inspiration the dopers gave me was, and remains, real. Solo stage wins at the Tour continue to fire me up when I’m riding long in the Rockies.

Against that, I contemplate future races alongside ‘retired’ athletes with elite careers that used the best medical technology available. If I can perform close to their level then it might help my motivation. I’m not sure. It certainly is complicated. 

When I’m exhausted, and my daughter is melting down, I remind myself that character is defined by what we do when it is inconvenient. I love my kids and will focus them on personal excellence.

It is never too late to choose a life with honor.

Chapeau to JV.