Friday, July 28, 2006

Floyd Landis Re-Considered

A couple of days ago I wrote about Floyd Landis’s amazing comeback victory in the Tour de France, and implied that his Mennonite roots could have contributed to that success. Yesterday’s sad news about Landis’s testosterone test forces a second look.

Sad is the right word. That’s how I felt about the test result and the rejiggered view that it forces us to take of Landis and the Tour. Not shocked, however. The Tour has too long and deep a history of drug problems for a new one to shock anybody.

Here’s how I look at it, from my runner’s perspective. Sprinters are tempted by testosterone derivatives, including steroids, that build power and speed. Marathoners are tempted by blood boosters like EPO that build endurance. Tour riders are doubly tempted: They need power for the time trials, and endurance for those monstrously long and difficult mountain stages. It’s no surprise to me that Tour riders too often succumb to temptation.

In Landis’s case, the circumstantial evidence is extraordinarily damaging. The guy has deteriorating hips, and knows this Tour might be his last. He suffers a damaging blowup on Day 16, falling far behind the leaders. Every Tour expert in the world says that it will be essentially impossible for him to catch up. The next day, he does the impossible. He wins the Stage, and basically catches up to his rivals. Only one problem: Because he has won the Stage, he faces mandatory drug testing. And that test reveals an illegal ratio of epitestosterone to testosterone.

Let’s forget about the biochemistry for a moment. Here’s what you need to know. Normal people don’t fail this test. Abnormal people don’t fail this test. Only super-abnormal people fail, and that’s why doping authorities go after them. Your epi to testosterone levels don’t go skyhigh, with very, very few exceptions, unless you have manipulated your body chemistry in highly suspicious ways. (Yes, some athletes have beaten the epi test results before the Court of Arbitration for Sport, or other bodies, but these have been on technicalities not relating to the test’s essential power.)

You fail the epi test, and you should get bounced. Sorry, Floyd.

In the court of public opinion, athletes often gain precious points for their “explanations.” Landis has already begun to argue that his tests could have been thrown out of whack by certain hormones and cortisone shots he was taking to lessen the hip-arthritis pain. We’re all partial to the notion that someone should be allowed to take a few pills for their mortal pains.

However, this argument doesn’t hold up in elite sports competition. The rules are very clear. A failed test is a failed test. No explanations can change this. Got bad arthritis? Sorry to hear it, but you have only two options: Don’t ride; or live with the pain.

If you start taking stuff that changes your epi to testosterone ratio, you’ve violated the rules. Just as much as if you had taken human growth hormone laced with nandrolone and steeped in EPO.

There’s no gray area in drug testing in elite sports. If you failed the test, you failed the test. The real and final assessment of Landis’s Mennonite roots will be whether or not he can bring himself to state the truth that simply.


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