Blood doping, a cautionary story for all to ponder

October 12, 2012

My reading about the Armstrong blood doping scandal includes three reports that illuminate the moral ambiguities that are part of the life experience of most people. Not only sports heroes, but business executives, highly trained professionals, and ordinary people pursuing their life dreams are easily and often trapped by conflicting values and pressures.

A sweet drug goes sour: EPO is the easy way of referring to a drug that Kathleen Sharp describes as “one of the deadliest prescription drugs ever.” In her column prompted by the Lance Armstrong doping case she gives a brief history of the “drug to quicken the blood.”

The prescription form of this drug was developed by Amgen, a start-up company, which through a marketing partnership with Johnson & Johnson, became “the world’s largest biotech company.” Sharp describes EPO as a “naturally occurring hormone that “stimulates red blood cells.” After Amgen developed a way to genetically engineer the drug, “its use was multiplied as an energy-producing drug that would work in all kinds of conditions for which it had not been licensed. “And many doctors went along with these off-label promotions.”

Sharp continues the story of EPO’s conflicted history, including the fact that “it can be lethal. Yes, it multiplies your red blood cells. But too many red blood cells turn your blood to sludge and make the heart work overtime.” Her concluding sentence makes a point we all should ponder.

“It’s too bad about Lance Armstrong. But the real shame is that, in our get-rich, quick-fix, more-is-better culture, we are all culpable in this blood-doping scandal—both on and off the race course.”

When passion yields to corruption: Juliet Macur reports that “Christian Vande Velde cannot remember life without cycling,” In earliest childhood, he fell in love with cycling, partly because it was so much a part of the life of his father who had competed as a cyclist in the 1968 and 1972 Olympics and continued to ride hard and often.

In 1997, when he was 21, Christian signed a contract with Lance Armstrong’s U. S. Postal team. When he asked Armstrong about drugs, he was told not to worry about it. Yet, he could see that something was going on, and as his standing with the team rose higher, he was gradually initiated into the surreptitious and skillfully administered doping regimen. In 2002, fearing failure in his performances, he yielded to pressure and “stepped up his doping.”

In 2003, he left the U. S. Postal team and began to wean himself off of drugs. By 2008, he was clean.

Macur reports that Vande Velde regrets the bad choices he made. “He said his decision to dope ruined the sport’s simplicity, which he embraced as a boy as he peddled furiously next to his father on those morning rides.”

“But more painful than coming clean to the public will be coming clean to his father, he said.” When the reporter phoned, he was doing the chores around home, taking the garbage can in and still doing the dishes as his wife wanted him to do. His comment: “I guess life really does go on.”

Cornered and succumbing to the pressure: “Cycling was a refuge for me,” David Zabriskie is quoted as saying in the New York Times. “Long, hard training rides were cathartic and provided an escape from the difficult home life associated with a parent with an addiction.”

“Seeing what happened to my father from his substance abuse, I vowed never to take drugs. I viewed cycling as a healthy and wholesome outlet that would keep me far away from a world I abhorred.”

Rather than helping him escape from drugs, however, cycling “which was rampant with doping” pulled him into the very thing he had vowed never to do. “I questioned, I resisted, but in the end, I felt cornered and succumbed to the pressure. … It was a violation — a violation not only of the code I was subject to, but my personal and moral compass that I had set out to follow.”

Zabriskie accepts full responsibility for what he did, the report continues, and wants to do all that he can to “ensure a safe, healthy and clean future for cycling.”

Wretched man that I am: As I ponder these cautionary stories from real life, lines from the writings of Paul, one of the church’s first theologians, keep running through my mind: “I find it to be a law that when I want to do what is good, evil lies close at hand. Wretched man that I am! Who will rescue me from this body of death?”

The reports quoted above indicate that some of the people caught up in the bicycle doping scandal are finding release from their distress. May it be so for all of us in our times of testing.

Note: Kathleen Sharp’s column and Juliet Macur’s report appeared in New York Times, October 12, 2012, and the report on Christian Vande Velde appeared on October 11, 2012.