sports psychologist & clinical psychology

TOUR’S DRUG CLOUD SHINES LIGHT ON PRESSURE TO CHEAT

Sacramento Bee – July 26, 2008 – Melody Gutierrez – It’s another stage in the speculation race of sports, with Tour de France winner Floyd Landis the latest athlete facing allegations of doping.

If Landis is indeed guilty of using illegal substances to win, it raises the question: Why do so many athletes think they can beat the system and win by cheating?

“It’s bizarre to me at this stage of drug testing and focus on sportsmanship that these athletes feel they can defy science and logic,” said David Carter, a professor of sports business at University of Southern California. “Their need to win and win at all cost must, in their mind, trump reality.”

Landis’ Phonak team suspended him on Thursday after learning he had tested positive for “an unusual level of testosterone/epitestosterone” during Stage 17 of the Tour, which ended Sunday. Landis made his remarkable comeback through the Alps during that stage.

Landis could become the first Tour de France winner stripped of the title.

Landis isn’t guilty yet since test results from a backup “B” sample are still being processed.

The 30-year-old American cyclist said the court of public opinion has already decided.

“Unfortunately, I don’t think it’s ever going to go away, no matter what happens next,” Landis said in a teleconference.

When asked if he took any banned substances to win, he replied: “No.”

The backup sample can take up to two weeks to process, but Landis is experiencing a marketing fallout from the allegations. A congratulations message on team sponsor Phonak’s Web site was replaced with a warning that Landis will be dismissed if sample “B” returns positive. Other reports say Landis will not appear on the “Tonight Show” today as scheduled.

“My opinion is when he comes out on top of this, everyone will think so much more of him,” his mother said.

“So that’s what valleys are for, right?” Arlene Landis told reporters outside her home in eastern Pennsylvania.

If he cheated, there will be plenty of short-term financial consequences for Landis, Carter said. But in the long run, it’s up to fans to hold him accountable. It’s the same race already run by some of baseball’s elite players and myriad big names in track, several of whom have been implicated in the infamous BALCO scandal in the Bay Area.

“The sports industry won’t change unless there is a business reason to do so,” Carter said. “Fans haven’t voted with their wallets and remote controls. There hasn’t been meaningful financial ramifications, so sports just continue down this path.”

Sports psychologist John Murray said athletes who cheat to win are driven by ego and, when successful, it’s financially rewarding.

Murray said drugs in sports are more prevalent than most people theorize, which is why testing has become such an important part of keeping it clean. Some athletes can’t be trusted to police themselves.

“It comes back to their competitive nature and finding every advantage to success,” Murray said. “It sometimes overrides clear thinking.”

But that wasn’t the case for Mari Holden, an Olympic cycling silver medalist, who said in a telephone interview that she couldn’t sleep at night if she knew she was cheating. Holden, of Colorado Springs, Colo., said she hopes Landis’ test results come back negative because she feels her sport is being picked on enough.

“I personally don’t think there is an excuse for cheating,” said Holden, who is an athlete ambassador for the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency. “Obviously, there is a lot of pressure in sports. People want to win.”

Holden said she felt that pressure and knew if she desired to use performance-enhancers, it would be fairly easy to find someone to help her. As her career winds down, Holden said she’s happy she’s accomplished everything while clean.

“I wanted to look at my results and know they were mine,” Holden, 36, said. “That didn’t matter if it was second place or 10th place. There is definitely pressure in sports and you can see why it’s tempting.”

In doping scandals, most of the attention goes on the perpetrator, not the runner-up victim who is robbed of a fair race or game. Second-place Tour de France finisher Oscar Pereiro, who would become champion if Landis is not cleared, said winning at this point would not feel the same.

“Should I win the Tour now, it would feel like an academic victory,” Pereiro told the Associated Press at his home in Vigo, Spain. “The way to celebrate a win is in Paris, otherwise it’s just a bureaucratic win.”

Suzy Favor Hamilton knows how that feels. The three-time track and field Olympian said she sometimes wonders how many more titles she would have won had her sport been drug-free.

Favor Hamilton’s running rival Regina Jacobs likely cost her a few titles. Jacobs retired in 2004 after receiving a four-year suspension for testing positive for the steroid THG. Favor Hamilton finished second to Jacobs seven times in the 1,500 meters at the U.S. Championships.

Jacobs was forced to forfeit the 1,500-meter title she won in 2003 to second-place finisher Favor Hamilton.

“I wish it was fair when I was playing,” Favor Hamilton said while in Sacramento to be honored at the NCAA Division I Track and Field Championship in June. “That bothers me.”

There is a way to stop the culture of cheating in sports, said Peter Roby, director of the Center for the Study of Sport in Society. He said it starts with teaching kids to value more than just winning and providing a context of playing for more than just oneself. Roby said if an athlete has a high esteem for their teammates or the organization they represent, then there is less desire to cheat.

“The lack of perspective of why you are competing in the first place drives you to those decisions,” Roby said. “There is nothing inherent about being a competitor that drives you to cheat. It’s happens when you need to win to satisfy your ego or benefit you financially.”

Understanding the consequences is key. Carter said if Landis did cheat, it’s not only destroying his integrity but further sullying the sport of cycling. On the eve of the Tour de France, a number of cyclists were tied to the Spanish doping scandal “Operation Puerto,” including pre-race favorites Jan Ullrich and Ivan Basso.

While as many as 200 athletes may have received performance-enhancing drugs in that scandal, only cyclists have been tied to it so far.

“I don’t get why they don’t think it will happen to them when there is litany of athletes behind them who have kneecapped their marketing and alienated their fan base,” Carter said.

Dr. John F. Murray is a sports psychologist and clinical psychologist providing sports psychology and counseling services based in Palm Beach, Florida.

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