The Center for the Study of Sport and Leisure in Society

On the Doping Discourse in the United States: Think Outside the Box

In Cycling, Doping on September 6, 2012 at 1:30 pm

By Lindsay Sarah Krasnoff

As students head back to school and adults return to work, the sports world seems poised to have its own form of rentrée: a renewed discussion, about doping.

The release of Tyler Hamilton’s memoir about cycling’s doping culture, “The Secret Race,” provides an opportunity for us to have the larger discussion about doping in sports. This discussion was not fully executed when the news of Lance Armstrong relinquishing his fight against the United States Anti-Doping Agency, set as it was in the middle of many a summer vacation, splashed across international headlines. Nor was the conversation widely conducted earlier in August, amidst the glittering veneer of the London Olympic Games.

Richard Holt’s recent post, “Lance Armstrong, the Anti-Doping Campaign, and the Civil Rights of Athletes,” is a thoughtful examination of the implications of the Armstrong controversy, the fairness of the ever-changing rules inherent in anti-doping procedures, and longer-term questions such predicaments pose for athletes. But before we can talk about “fairness” in testing, we need to have an honest conversation about the place of a practice so prevalent in sports throughout the Western world that it is now found at the amateur and youth levels. Jonathan Vaughters’ article, “How to get Doping out of Sports,” is a starting point in how to address the culture that enables and facilitates doping.

The conversation in the United States falls into two categories: those who oppose doping and those who condone it. Those who are against doping contend that it is not fair, that dopers “cheat” and thus taint the game/race/competition. They note that the prevalent doping culture places pressure on athletes to dope or concede advantages in speed or strength to competitors who dope. The health risks associated with doping are not often loudly articulated today, perhaps because it has been a long time since the last high profile doping-related death.

Advocates of accepting doping point to the fact that sports are now a business-minded entertainment industry. In order to keep audiences entertained and titillated, athletes should be allowed to utilize all advantages to enhance performances, shatter records, or win games. Moreover, some argue, the competitive nature of top athletes makes them inherently inclined to do anything they can to improve and win. This line of reasoning eschews the fact that in the United States athletes are often viewed as heroes. Thus, what message is imparted by heroes who dope—that it is ok to cheat in order to be the best, or to take health risks in order to win?

There are no federal U.S. laws against doping; it is up to individual sports leagues or federations to set rules and regulations pertaining to doping or performance enhancement techniques in their sport. Thus, before proactive measures can be taken, there needs to be a national conversation about doping and its place in U.S. sport culture. While the topic is perennially raised with each newly exposed doping-related scandal, perhaps it is time to think outside the box. Consideration of the role (or lack thereof) of doping in other sports cultures can provide the fresh perspective needed to constructively move the conversation from discourse into action.

One such example is that of France, home of cycling’s most prestigious event, the Tour de France. Understanding French attitudes towards doping can provide insight, better inform U.S. dialogue on the subject, and perhaps offer different prisms through which to perceive the impact of doping. These are the most important things you should know about doping in the hexagone:

1. There is a long-held belief in France that doping is cheating, a contradiction to the ideals enshrined by Pierre de Coubertin, founding father of the modern-day Olympic movement.

2. It is a crime to use banned doping substances in France. The National Assembly passed the republic’s first anti-doping law in June 1965, which stated that anyone who used substances to knowingly improve physical performance prior to or during competition was subject to monetary fines or incarceration.[1] The law made France one of the first countries (alongside Belgium) to criminalize doping in sports.  The following year, France banned specific substances from use in athletic competitions, mostly amphetamines, and has updated the list over the decades. [2] France has thus tried to portray itself as a leader in the global fight against doping.[3]

3. French anti-doping efforts emanate first and foremost from the government. In 1987, the Ministry of Youth and Sport began to conduct nation-wide public relations campaigns to encourage an anti-doping culture amongst athletes, particularly at the youth level. Such programs were and remain designed to set the cultural tone from the earliest stages of an athlete’s career.

4. In June 1989, the government required mandatory information campaigns to be undertaken by teachers, coaches, and sports doctors to educate all athletes, especially adolescents and youths, about the ills of doping.[4]  The creation of a National Commission Against Doping, charged with dispersing information on anti-doping campaigns, was also part of this 1989 anti-doping law, as was the elaboration of doping controls and tests.[5]

5. The fight against doping in France is intricately linked to the issue of public health. Safeguarding the health of all athletes, adult and adolescent alike at the elite, professional, amateur, and leisure levels is a national priority.

6. To help fight the urge to dope, French sports medicine has evolved to emphasize technique and training so that athletes could obtain top form and improve performances through natural ways rather than resort to doping.

7. Since 1975 there has been mandatory medical supervision of athletes. Part of that year’s Mazeaud Law, which formally codified the role of sport in the state and society, stipulated that anyone who practiced organized sport had to obtain an annual medical certificate to attest that they were in good physical condition and could participate.

8. Medical supervision includes education about doping agents, their impact upon the body, and how doping can jeopardize one’s athletic training and career.

9. Despite such efforts, a study conducted under the direction of Dr. Patrick Laure in the late 1990s and early 2000s found that many general practitioners had limited knowledge of doping in sports, even though they encountered the issue on a daily basis.[6]  The lack of concrete knowledge led to general practitioners unwittingly prescribing doping agents to athletes for performance-enhancing purposes.

10. Contrary to statements by some French authorities, the country still grapples with doping from the ranks of professionals to the youth athletes, particularly in sports where there is a lot of money involved. Still, thanks to the criminalization of doping, there is not the same proclivity to validate doping for entertainment values or for its legalization. Rather than spend energy on debating the legality (or illegality) of doping, French efforts are on anti-doping education, medical supervision, and developing better, more scientific ways to fine tune the body through diet and improved training regimens.

French headlines covering last month’s Armstrong affair were manifest, as the media, athletes, and public opinion have long been skeptical of Armstrong’s insistence of racing “clean.” The leading national sports daily, L’Équipe, proclaimed that August 24th was “The Fall of the Boss,” while Le Monde noted that “The Armstrong Myth, Cancer Survivor, Was a Tale Too Pretty.” The fall of an icon represented a high-profile victory for the anti-doping fight and propelled treatment and coverage of the story. As the conversation over doping within U.S. sports increases in crescendo, understanding different national examples and contexts of doping may be instructive in how Americans conceptualize the issue. Once there is a consensus over the role and place of doping within U.S. sport, then steps may be taken to ensure a more “fair” treatment of athletes going forward.

The author is a historian in the Office of the Historian, U.S. Department of State. Her forthcoming book, “The Making of Les Bleus: Sport in France, 1958-2010,” (Lanham, MD: Lexington Books) examines the history and evolution of French soccer and basketball development.

All views portrayed in this article are those of the author and do not represent those of the U.S. Department of State or the United States GovernmentInformation for this article was obtained from publicly available information, as well as from oral history interviews conducted by the author during 2006-2008.


[1] French Government, “Loi 65-412 du 1er juin 1965 tendant a la répression de l’usage des stimulants à l’occasion des compétitions sportives,” Journal Officiel de la République Française, June 2, 1965, 4531.

[2] French Government, “Décret N 66-373 du 10 juin 1966 pourtant règlement d’administration publique pour l’application de la loi no 65-412 du 1 juin 1965 tendant à la répression de l’usage des stimulants à l’occasion des compétitions sportives,” Journal Officiel de la République Française, June 14, 1966, 4753.

[3] “Jean-François Lamour: ambition pour le sport, measures pour la jeunesse” Agence France Presse, January 18, 2006 via LexisNexis.

[4] Loi 89-432 du 28 juin 1989 relative à la prévention et à la répression de l’usage des produits dopants à l’occasion des compétitions et manifestations sportives. Titre Ier, Article 2, Journal Officiel de la République Française, July 1, 1989, 8147.

[5] Loi 89-432 du 28 juin 1989 relative à la prévention et à la répression de l’usage des produits dopants à l’occasion des compétitions et manifestations sportives. Titre Ier, Article 2, Journal Officiel de la République Française, July 1, 1989, 8147.

[6] Patrick Laure, “General practitioners and doping in sport: attitudes and experience,” British Journal of Sports Medicine, 2003:37, 335.

  1. Lindsay, excellent post and a great way to look at best practices in other countries. I like the focus on education and medical supervision.

  2. Thanks ~ you’re right, particularly as it is such a universal issue. What are other best practices? What can we take away and apply towards the U.S. context?

  3. Good rebuttal to Holt’s earlier post. BY the way, there are laws in U.S. against administering pharmaceuticals to people without pathologies.

  4. Thank you, Peter, I will look further into that aspect.

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