Tour de France Doping

Here's a classic collective action problem. You've been training your whole life to be good at cycling, but you know that to do really well—to have a chance at winning a major race—you have to use performance-enhancing drugs. It's not because you're not good enough, it's because everyone else is doing it.

Your choices are either to stick to your principles and refuse to cheat, knowing that you'll never do well and might even lose your contract, or cheat, justifying your action by pointing to all of your competitors who are doing doping.

It's no secret that such was the environment within the professional peloton during the 1990s. We knew this before Lance Armstrong confessed earlier this year to doping, even if we didn't know as many details. Today the 100 running of the Tour de France began, and to mark the occasion Armstrong told the press yesterday that it was impossible to win the Tour in the nineties without doping.

He's right. Although Armstrong has been stripped of all his Tour wins, no one else has been awarded them because so many other riders have already been disqualified. Jan Ullrich, who won the Tour in 1997 and then was second to Armstrong six times, only just admitted earlier this week to doping throughout his career. Many other riders have also confessed or been caught over the years.

The good news is doping seems to be less common. A new generation of cycling is upon us, or so goes the PR of the last few years. But why is doping wrong in the first place? There are two general reasons. First, it's a game. What's a game? To get philosophical for a moment, it's a tough question. The philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein famously stated that games have no necessary or sufficient conditions. That is, the concept is indefinable. However, here's a definition from Bernard Suits that I think challenges Wittgenstein pretty well:

To play a game is to engage in activity directed toward bringing about a specific state of affairs, using only means permitted by specific rules, where the means permitted by the rules are more limited in scope than they would be in the absence of the rules, and where the sole reason for accepting such limitation is to make possible such activity.

On Suits's definition bicycle racing is a game because there are imposed limitations on accomplishing the task of covering a certain distance. For the Tour, the task is to tour France as quickly as possible, only one can't do it in any old way. There are limitations to which everyone competing agrees, including permitted equipment and what substances one may ingest. Compare cycling to the “game” of mountain climbing. The goal is to get to the top of the mountain, but there are restrictions on achieving the goal: one can't take a gondola or a helicopter, for instance.

It doesn't actually matter what the rules are—professional sports leagues change the rules all the time. They're completely arbitrary. What matters is the agreement between competitors. So if the rule says “don't use method x” and someone does, that person is cheating. Everyone else has agreed to the rules, so the one cheating has an unfair advantage.

The second reason is that cycling racing is zero-sum, meaning that when one person wins every other competitor loses. There's a lot of money in cycling, and people care a lot about who wins. It might not be so bad if everyone else benefitted from the accomplishment. When considering whether performance-enhancing drugs are wrong in academics, perhaps they're justified if using cognitive enhancers might lead to a cure for cancer or a major breakthrough in (let's be bold) philosophy. (Of course, academia is not zero-sum. There are all types of instances, including awards and admissions, in which one person's success is at the expense of someone else.)

The story is that doping is wrong because it gives an unfair advantage. But as Armstrong said, there wasn't an advantage over competitors in cycling in the nineties: doping was required to even have a chance at being competitive. Is it still wrong if so many others were doing it?

There are again two ways to go. On the one hand, you might think that given that so many cyclists were doping, it wasn't wrong for any of them to do it. But this is only because so many were already breaking the rules. In other situations in which only a few were doping it would be wrong to do so. The problem with this option is that it leaves deciding permissibility in the hands of the competitors, which is exactly what the rules are supposed to prevent.

On the other hand, you might think that there's something wrong with going against the rules no matter what. It's no justification to appeal to the crowd, and saving one's career still doesn't make it okay. Perhaps this is because agreeing to the original rules constitutes making a promise, and promises ought to be kept. Or perhaps it's because the spirit of the game is tainted by cheating, no matter its ubiquity. The problem with this approach is that it's unfair for someone to suffer while others benefit. If the point of rules is an equal playing field then it's not wrong to do what's necessary to achieve equality.

I haven't decided which camp I'm in. I love cycling, and it's a shame that it has undergone such a bad spell. I'm impressed that there seem to be some competitors who didn't cheat—it's impressive that they avoided the temptation. But I also can imagine the frustration of knowing that the game wasn't fair. Perhaps some of you have clearer intuitions. In the meantime, vive le Tour.