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University of Texas professor explores cultural phenomenon of doping

  • By Mark Johnson
  • Published Nov. 16, 2012

Reshaping the sport’s culture

This matrix of social attitudes, national interests, and corporate dollars creates a stew that is the subject of Hoberman’s scholarly interest, and he can come across as jaded. But he is not hopeless about the possibility of creating a clean playing field for pro cycling. That change, according to Hoberman, starts with a complete reshaping of the sport’s governing federations and it’s a process he is personally keen to contribute to as a source of historical and cultural expertise about doping.

“The failure of national and international sports federations to control doping is primarily a political phenomenon, though it is conventionally misrepresented as being caused by the moral degeneracy of individual athletes,” Hoberman writes in “Testosterone Dreams.” Long before USADA’s Travis Tygart clashed with the UCI, U.S. congressmen, and Armstrong himself in the course of doing his job, Hoberman wrote that “the historical record shows that the minority of sports officials who have been openly dedicated to the eradication of doping have been unable to prevail against less-dedicated colleagues bent on tolerating or covering up the doping practices of their athletes, coaches and doctors.”

Speaking of the history of international and national Olympic and cycling federation leadership, Hoberman is leery of payoff scandals surrounding people like Pat McQuaid and Australian Olympic Committee Chairman John Coates, who the UCI recently picked to recommend members for a commission looking into its own handling of the Armstrong Affair.

“The more you learn about these characters, the better you understand why we are reading the kind of stuff we are reading today. The percentage of really sketchy people who are in these powerful and influential positions, and who are relevant to administrating an anti-doping program, is very high,” he said.

Sketchy knows sketchy, and to end this vicious cycle of self-protection, Hoberman says cycling needs a meltdown.

“You need a zero-hour where the power elite has basically imploded and there is significant demand for an informed operation that is not corrupt,” he said.

Hoberman sees commercial interests as able to fill this vacuum. It is perhaps telling that IMG Media, one of the world’s largest sports management agencies, is moving aggressively into the sport by striking deals with Giro d’Italia owner RCS Sport and spring classics organizer Flanders Classics in Belgium at the very moment the sport seems to be crashing down to a leadership nadir.

“There is a root-and-branch dimension to this,” said Hoberman. “I’ve spent the last 25 years thinking about how the doping systems works; that produces an historical perspective that can be useful when formulating policy.”

If he were asked for advice on how to help move pro cycling forward, Hoberman says he would focus on culture, not enforcement.

“I would propose de-emphasizing the policing operation while concentrating on rebuilding what the sport is inside elite cycling culture,” he said. “You have to pay a lot more attention to the riders. You have to look very hard at the team as a community that shares the right values.”

Today, Hoberman says, both at the level of the teams and cycling’s governing institutions, “there is an ambiance, there is an ethos, there is a code; and it is very hard to produce integrity.”

Given the opportunity, Hoberman would welcome the opportunity to step in and contribute to sea change in the sport.

“There are rational, informed ways that one can introduce reform,” he said. “And if anybody asked me to do it, that’s the kind of thing I would do.”

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Mark Johnson

Mark Johnson

Writer-photographer Mark Johnson's work has been published in titles including VeloNews in the United States, Cycling Weekly in the UK, Vélo in France, and Ride Cycling Review in Australia as well as general-interest publications including The Wall Street Journal and the San Diego Union-Tribune. His book on the Garmin pro team, Argyle Armada, was published by VeloPress in 2012. A Cat. 2 road cyclist, Mark has bicycled across the United States twice and completed an Ironman triathlon. He graduated from UC San Diego and has a Ph.D. in English literature from Boston University. His other passion is surfing, which he does frequently from his home in Del Mar, California. Follow him on Twitter @ironstringmark.

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