1. Anyone is capable of doping.
Given the larger-than-life persona Armstrong inhabited for 15 years, his downfall should be a lesson in how we mythologize athletes.
In Armstrong’s heyday, he was hailed as 1) a champion, 2) an inspirational cancer survivor and 3) a family man. Too often, these three attributes deflected attention from the real allegations made against him. Any accusation could be swatted away with the do-gooder image Armstrong had cultivated over the years. That was a clear logical fallacy.
For perspective, read ESPN writer Rick Reilly’s letter about Armstrong’s Oprah interview. Reilly, who’d been a Lance defender over the years, blames himself for subconsciously overlooking the signs. He writes, “It’s partially my fault. I let myself admire [Armstrong].”
This is why I bristle when I hear media and fans proclaim, “Tennis is a clean sport because its players are good people,” or “Tennis players would never dope, because they are different from cyclists.” While the cycling culture is different from other sports, there’s no inherent reason why tennis players are any less capable of doping. The temptation is there, given the prize money available at tennis tournaments.
Good-faith comments about the moral makeup of tennis players (the common argument fans will fall back on) only go so far. In fact, I’m inclined to dismiss those character assertions as white noise when it comes to this issue.
After Armstrong’s downfall, we should accept that a Grand Slam champion is capable of doping; so is the affable lower-ranked player we’ve spent many hours following since his/her junior years. Our emotional investment in tennis players actually has no bearing on whether or not they will cross the line.
I’m certainly not suggesting that we cynically suspect every tennis player of doping. Still, we should not be so averse to acknowledging the possibility of it.
2. Tennis Needs to Step Up its Doping Program to Protect its Integrity.
As Armstrong told Oprah, cycling’s out-of-competition (OOC) testing “theoretically existed” in the 1990s and early 2000s. Since Armstrong reliably knew the chances of him being tested were so slim, he could exploit the loopholes.
Doping tests at tennis tournaments are poorly funded and the OOC statistics for tennis do not inspire confidence. Top tennis players Djokovic and Federer have gone on record saying they are not adequately tested for blood. That alone should put to rest the argument that “Tennis is clean because hardly anyone fails the tests.” Current OOC testing in tennis seems to exist in the similar “theoretical” realm that Armstrong says it did for cycling in the 1990s-early 2000s era.
This hurts the image of clean competition that tennis wants to project, because lax doping standards are like academic grade inflation: If the whole student body aces their tests, that ideally serves as proof of the student body’s intelligence. However, the trend of high grades may also point to the school’s lack of academic rigor. Ultimately, doubts about academic rigor will damage a school’s reputation and unfairly diminish the students who would still ace a more rigorous class.** If a 4.0 GPA is readily handed out to those who are unqualified or undeserving, the accomplishment rapidly loses its value. Case in point: Wayne Odesnik, who in 2010 was suspended for importing HGH (and has recently been named in an investigation reported by the Miami New Times) was caught by airport security in Australia, not by an officially administered doping test.
This is why tennis needs to ramp up its doping controls. There’s no better way to refute doubts/doping allegations than to pass a tough, well-respected doping program on a frequent basis, year-to-year. Rest assured, clean athletes will pass the tests.
Until tennis enforces more blood tests and out-of-competition testing, no one is really entitled to make high-handed comparisons between doping in tennis and cycling. In fact, if anyone is entitled to climb the moral pedestal right now, it should be current cycling fans: in the post-Lance era, cycling has adopted some of the most rigid doping controls in all of sport (the bio passport, frequent blood/urine tests, internal doping patrols, etc.)
The proof is in the pudding. It’s time for tennis to step up.
** One notable difference between academic grade inflation and doping controls is that a forced bell curve could never be applied to doping, as it is in academics. There should be no “annual quota” for reported doping violations, as there are for “C-” grades.
3. It’s not just about steroids.
Given the physicality and stamina involved in competitive tennis, we should realize that steroids aren’t the only performance-enhancing drugs (PEDs) available. PEDs are used for purposes beyond muscle growth. Tennis is a sport in which speed and footwork demand a high level of fitness. The margins of victory are so small that enhanced oxygen delivery to muscles (which EPO provides) could be the decisive factor in a match.
EPO for stamina, clenbuterol for weight loss, HGH and illegal blood transfusions are but a few examples of doping methods available to the tennis player who wants to gain the extra edge in competition.
While Armstrong’s interview may have forced some of the current discussion on anti-doping in tennis, this has been an ongoing subject for many years. The issue of anti-doping is not simply going to fade away once people forget about Armstrong (who himself confessed to using EPO, testosterone, cortisone and HGH).
4. False accusations and slander are wrong, but a frank discussion on doping is much-needed.
Many tennis fans treat the calls for increased testing as an affront, or a “witch-hunt.” Such fans often resemble the helicopter parents who contribute to academic grade inflation at schools. (Also, I’d be careful in referring to doping tests as a witch-hunt, as that was the exact terminology Armstrong used after the USADA released its report. And look how that turned out).
As followers of tennis, we need to toughen up and grow more comfortable with addressing the occasional name that is mentioned in an article on doping.
Make no mistake, the spirit of the argument is important here: Slander, petty insinuations and baseless jibes are wrong. The 2012 Canal+ ad spoofing Nadal as a doper was vile, cheap and borderline slanderous.
Apart from that instance, an informed discussion on doping should not preclude the occasional reference to a player (assuming the reference is made with relevant context and in the spirit of raising a valid question on the subject).
Take the Dr. Eufemiano Fuentes doping case that has now been re-opened, in connection with Lance Armstrong. Fuentes, who was implicated in providing riders with now-banned substances during the huge Operation Puerto case of 2006, has publicly stated that his work extended beyond the world of cycling. He reportedly worked with football and tennis players.
Fuentes’s compatriot Dr. Luis Garcia del Moral worked with Armstrong’s U.S. Postal team in 1999-2003 and in 2012, was banned for life for doping violations. Del Moral is also known for his ties to the TenisVal Academy in Valencia (where notable players like Dinara Safina, David Ferrer and Sara Errani trained). Each tennis player has since spoken to the media about this issue: Errani has asserted she’s since cut off ties to del Moral, while Ferrer and Safina deny any association altogether. This is an instance where media scrutiny is fair-play, and more information is welcome, if only to clarify the nature of del Moral’s involvement with tennis players.
5. It’s time to stop complaining about the whereabouts program.
Perhaps the 4 years since the program’s introduction have given tennis players enough time to adjust their perspective, as the indignant tone of their complaints has simmered down somewhat. Murray, in particular, has notably changed his previous views and is now in favor of a stricter program.
To the outside world, tennis is often seen as a sport where the players are molly-coddled. Andre Agassi’s recent comments about anti-doping in tennis were greeted with a fair degree of skepticism in the non-tennis sphere.
Given the rightful lack of confidence surrounding doping patrols in tennis, the last thing it needs is to generate headlines whenever one of its stars complains about the inconvenience of whereabouts testing. Reporting your whereabouts for each hour of every day is similar to punching in a time card at work. It’s similar to keeping a work Blackberry at your side for every day of the year (including vacations), in case your director needs you to revise a project for a client in the early morning. Most importantly, the whereabouts system is currently the only feasible method to effectively monitor OOC doping.
Top players such as Federer, Djokovic and now, Murray, have openly acknowledged the benefits of this system. Other tennis players should follow suit and just accept that the whereabouts program is here to stay. After all, tennis isn’t the only sport subjected to WADA’s whereabouts system.
Update: Nadal, who is scheduled to return to competitive tennis after a knee injury, has changed his position on anti-doping controls. At a press conference for the VTR Open in Chile, Nadal said that after the Lance Armstrong scandal, he now wholeheartedly supports frequent testing in tennis:
“If we have to go through a test every week, I don’t see a problem with that if it’s useful to fight what happened in other sports.”