INTRO: As well as being a two time kiteboarding World Champion, Mark Shinn is also a super keen cyclist and has found the recent widespread news surrounding Lance Armstrong very worrying, but not for the reasons you may initially suspect
PHOTO: Malwina Wrobel
I'm certainly not qualified to cast opinion over the whole sordid cycling affair (well, over a beer or two, perhaps), however, the whole thing has left me disillusioned with the state of sport.
After reading many people's opinions, it's the fallen hero status of their favoured athlete that seems to disappoint them the most, but this doesn't bother me so much. Having been at the pointy end of a competitive sport (admittedly only in our own very small world) I appreciate how addictive the need to win can become. The 'win at any cost' mentality can easily take over, even in kitesurfing - a sport with no serious public recognition and certainly not with millions of dollars at stake.
I can only imagine how much more intense these feelings must be when you compete in one of the largest sporting events of the year, especially when you are one of the most publicly recognised athletes worldwide. In fact, I'm not even surprised at the revelations that pretty much every pro cyclist of the time was using illegal methods. The fine line between exhausting every avenue to squeeze out the last percentage points of performance legally, and illegally, is a very fine line, with much left open to interpretation and personal ethics (which are certainly more flexible when there is a serious amounts of money at stake).
In many cases the drive to achieve better performance seems to cause more innovative thinking than the drive to level the playing fields with rules. The law becomes reactive rather than proactive. If the law makers had the ingenuity and ability that the athletes have, they would be athletes, surely? Apparently around 80% of pro bike riders are registered asthmatics, meaning that if found with Ventolin in their system, they're not cheating. 80% of athletes in one of the hardest endurance sports in the world have a debilitating breathing disorder. Really? I just want to understand the rules and, despite a lot of effort, I don't.
In all honesty, anyone that's passionate about their sport is potentially guilty of their own small form of 'doping', or at least cheating. If you've ever made a small adjustment to your gear to go faster, bought something new to be able to jump higher, tried to glean vital technique tips to help nail that latest move, then you've started on the slippery slope. Okay, of course, I grossly exaggerate, but to be the best at your sport you need to be the most dedicated and push the hardest and, when people are that competitive, why are we surprised when they take it beyond what the powers that be call the 'limit'?
What has really disappointed me is my own reaction to it. It's such a complicated issue and there are so many non-sensical rules that I'm just indifferent to it now. If you have pain in your leg for instance, you can take pain killers to make the pain go away and your performance will be enhanced. Shimano could be announcing a new gear system that makes it '10% easier to climb a hill' - but is it cheating? How and where do you draw a line?
Someone gets to decide which drugs are and are not performance enhancing; and it's all done without the help of the law. If you have anaemia and a low red blood cell count, you'll be prescribed EPO, a legal treatment. If you're an athlete and it's found in your body however, that's now illegal. Apparently, some riders turn their homes into a sealed hypobaric chamber and reduce the amount of oxygen in the air to simulate altitude training, causing the body to produce more hematocrit, (exactly what EPO does). So we're in the situation of injecting a drug being illegal, but spending half a million on converting your house isn't.
Caffeine, on the other hand, has a well-known effect on the human body yet, within certain limits, it's legal. The authorities tell us the rules are there to protect the rider's health, but how seriously are we expected to take that? If the athletes' health was so important, surely there are much easier steps to take.
In gymnastics they tried to ban somersaults on the exercise beam as they said it was too dangerous. Should there be a speed limit in downhill mountain biking or no more Ruben Lenten style kite loops in kitesurfing; you'll find it seriously difficult to convince me that these activities are not causing more injuries to riders than drugs are, and don't wheel out the old argument that drugs are cheating and not safe for the rider, hence the difference, because until 1967 all drugs were legal in sport.
All I want is to watch a race or a match and enjoy the skill and athletic performance of the best in the world as the action unfolds in the same way I might look at a painting - appreciating the skill and vision of the creator (let's face it, if we start applying drugs tests to artists, we might soon have a very bland world to live in!).
Lance Armstrong may (or may not) have been a better cheater than all the rest, but does it really matter who won a bike race 15 years ago? Raising half a billion for Cancer Research seems to be a more notable achievement. I really enjoyed watching the tour unfold this year but doubt I will ever go back and watch it again. I suspect that the sport is 'clean' now, but then again 'clean' only means that whatever they are doing is not breaking the current rules.
I'm a little scared for our sport, too. As an Olympic sport our athletes fall under the WADA doping laws and must follow the same regulations as the Tour de France riders. Imagine if such a revelation came about in kitesurfing. Cycling has millions of practitioners so, if 10% are disillusioned with doping stories and give up, the sport will survive. If 10% of active kiteboarders decide to stop, that would have a very large impression.
Throughout all this bleakness, I did find out something amusing today. Apparently, on the first day of the Kite Racing World Championships in Cagliary last week there was a crash involving about 28 racers. The cause? Step forwards Dorian van Rijsselberge, current Olympic Windsurfing Gold medalist. Looks like he is not a master of the kite just yet! Now that did make me smile.
OUTRO ? Mark recommends a book: 'Put Me Back on My Bike - the search for Tom Simpson' - a fascinating and eye opening look into the cycling practices of the time, before team cars, organised re-fuelling... and helmets!
Find more on Mark and his boards at: www.shinnworld.com
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