It's cycling season! I love this time of year. Paris-Roubaix, the Giro, the Tour of California, eventually the Tour de France. I don't compete in cycling...I just ride my little bike. But, I am infatuated with the sport. The athleticism, the grit and determination, the endurance. (Who cares that I can't ride with the elite ladies...can you play with Tiger?) But, alas, this year it's different. This year we know there are drugs. No more skirting around the issue, arguing ad naseam over the physical impossibility of the month long feats of fortitude (also known as stage races). They did it. They raced dirty.
Yet (and maybe I'm clouded by my pure love of the sport) even in light of the EPO and testosterone and HGH, I am still amazed by the sheer ability of these athletes. I have trained elite-level athletes just will never doubt the amount of themselves -- both physically and mentally -- they pour into their sport. Drugs or no, the training and sweat and internal turmoil that take place to compete on the international stage is astounding.
But sadly, this year, this cycling season, the drugs always there. Is he really clean now? Does that amazing sprint or breakaway prove that he's not clean? Sigh...
As a nutrition scientist, I have been asking myself: Are the athletes the only ones to blame? At some level I feel like it's our own fault...as if we've set up our heroes to fail.
A few weekends ago, I saw a documentary called The Levi Effect. In the film, Levi Leipheimer, of American cycling teams Radioshack, Discovery, and Postal Service (among others), narrates his journey through the lens of a bike saddle. Toward the end of the movie, Levi opens up about his drug use while racing in the early 2000s...how he felt the only way to get and stay on top in cycling was with illicit performance-enhancing drugs. It just became so clear while listening to him, that the latest drudge-fest in cycling is simply the epitome of the pressure we put on ourselves to perform from a very young age. Of the experience, in an interview in the Press Democrat in October of 2012, Leipheimer said:
"At first you go from a 13-year old boy who falls in love with cycling and you have this idea, this vision of what the sport is like. Along the way, little by little, honestly, you get your heart broken, piece by piece. You come to realize what it was really like. You're so far down the road after a while it became easy to cross that line. It was a huge internal struggle, though. Do I not make this decision to dope and continue to see how far I can go? Or do I regret it for the rest of my life because I didn't find out how good I was? At the time, we thought if I don't do it but that other guy's doing it and he wins this race? I know I can be as good as him, so I want to try to find out if I can win that race, too. It was a damned if you do, damned if you don't. I didn't want to live the rest of my life bitter regretting finding out."
And yet this condoning of synthetic enhancement, of needing external supplements to be physically superior, is not only pervasive in cycling -- or football, or baseball, or sprinting. It's in our own homes. In our gym bags. It starts in the lunch boxes of our children. We have become completely obsessed with performance, probably to the detriment of much of our own health and often without the acknowledgement of the physical work required to achieve athletic success.
We spend $4.8 billion (with a b-) on Gatorade products every year...nevermind PowerAde, and Vitamin Water, and fill-in-the-blank miracle powder. Even the all-natural (insert air-quotes) sports aids are flying off the shelf at record rates. Our society is fixated on the need for product-enhanced "recovery", "speed", and "size". Yet, over 35 percent of Americans are obese. OBESE. Not just overweight. OBESE. Another 33 percent are simply overweight.
(...but this isn't a lament about fatness, rather an admonishment of the prevalence of over-the-counter performance enhancing drugs...)
And, there is no doubt, we start our kids on drugs early. If a child is given a sports drink after pee-wee soccer and told it will help her recover from her game (sadly, during which it seems children are only getting ~20m of vigorous activity anyway), are we surprised that this child will grow up expecting to need flashy nutritional support for any activity? Coconut water after yoga. Smoothie after 45 minutes on the elliptical. Protein shake after a squatting session. Then vitamin pills with 3000% the daily value of B-Vitamins (cause they're important for muscle building, right?), and then performance enhancing powders containing chemicals such as DMAA (cause B-Vitamins aren't enough anymore...), and then, when she's good and primed to make that decision that solidifies her athletic career, then maybe it's not such a pole vault to EPO or HGH. It's simply the next step.
The good news is, even at the highest levels it appears as though the human spirit does not need chemicals to prevail. Levi himself has been able to win clean since dumping all banned substances from his medicine cabinet in 2007. Indeed, Leipheimer has snagged stages in several prestigious bike races as well as a medal at the 2008 Olympics. Further, he's on a crusade to help future athletes in his sport from having to turn to doping to win.
"It's important an environment is created where they don't have to make those decisions like we did."
But this responsibility to change a culture so accustomed to drugs, can't come just from the highest performers in athletics -- those that have already fallen into the hole. It has to start with us. As parents, as trainers, as nutrition and exercise professionals. Because when more than 80% of adults and adolescents are not meeting even the minimal Physical Activity requirements of 150mins per week, the last thing we need is a sugar and caffeine laden sports drink or 400+ kcal protein smoothie (nevermind a jacked up chemically boosted supplement powder).
We really just need some water and a pat on the back for a workout well done...and, maybe a cut-up orange for old times sake.
(*Cycling Photo Credits to the ever creative B.Graham)