Sunday, July 19, 2020

Performance enhancing drugs and finances

The recent two chapter ESPN documentary about the rise and fall of cyclist Lance Armstrong (which I watched in a Spanish cable platform) tells both the personal story of the cheater and the psychological character behind him, and the institutional history of the struggle between a clean sport and doping. On the personal side, it shows the two faces of a mostly serial selfish man, who is capable of crying for his son, but at the same time is unable to remember the number of the T-shirt with which the son plays in a football team. Or who treats arrogantly and dismissively most of other riders in the peloton, but at the same time shows empathy and love for his main rival at the time, the (also disgraced) German Jan Ullrich. The conclusion one draws is that Armstrong shows many of the tendencies of normal human beings, and therefore one must not expect much from their individual heroic decisions to fight doping. Therefore, the need for institutions.
On this, the documentary explains how the world cycling federation, UCI, colluded with Armstrong until the last minute to protect him as a heroic cancer survivor who was a great magnet to draw fans from all over the world, and especially the USA. Although Armstrong took illegal substances from very early in his career, it was EPO, administered by the meticulous Italian doctor Michelle Ferrari since 1996 (after a short resistance by Armstrong when according to him EPO started to become widespread in 1993),  that probably put him under what he calls high octane doping. Then, by coincidence or not, he had a cancer that was very close to take his life, he survived, and he came back to win seven "Tours de France", the most prestigious cycling race. When he was still recovering, in 1998 the Festina scandal (the police arresting a team of cyclists in the French race) triggered the creation of the World Anti-Doping Agency, which is today the top global authority on illegal drugs in sport. Lance Armstrong became rich and powerful as a result of his victories and his heroic story, and it was not until 2009-2010 that he began to be investigated, not by sports authorities, but by federal judicial authorities in the USA, after several press reports had questioned his practices. Although this initial investigation was closed without conclusions, it was soon re-started by the US anti-doping agency, which finally found Armstrong guilty of doping after many former team mates testified against him.
In European soccer (football) there is not much talk of performance enhancing drugs, but there is talk of performance enhancing finances. The European football federation put in place some years ago the Financial Fair Play (FFP) regulations in collaboration with the European Commission, the European Union executive body. These regulations were meant to alleviate the unbalance produced by a series of huge investments in top teams that came from sources of finance located in sovereign or other funds of autocracies like Qatar, Abu Dhabi or Russia, investing in teams like Paris Sant Germain (PSG), Manchester City or Chelsea. The regulations establish that money invested in soccer should come form soccer revenues. The loophole is that these clubs have apparently found very easy to inflate sponsorship deals with brands that draw from the same funds, to be compliant with the letter of the regulation. That is why this week the Court of Arbitration of Sport (CAS) has ruled that Manchester City had not broken the rules, as previously established by UEFA, and would be able to play next season in the European Champions League again. Some authors like Stefan Szymansky have claimed that these regulations are unnecessary, because what these investments do is to increase the number of teams that credibly compete at the top level, reducing the dominance of traditional clubs like Real Madrid, Bayern Munich, Juventus or Barcelona. It has to be said that there is some hypocrisy about money coming from outside sources, as traditional teams in some cases have benefitted from tax privileges that have allowed them to sign and retain some of the best players in the world, or their countries have used other sources of tax payer money (like public broadcasters) to support their national champions. Is performance enhancing finance a big problem in European soccer? Yes, but it is very difficult to fight. The ethical doubts raised by the origin of the finances of clubs like Manchester City or PSG should probably be directly addressed by conditioning the participation of their clubs in European competitions to high ethical and human rights standards in their owners' other areas of business (namely, ruling their countries). After all, that is probably one of the main strengths of European institutions: their ability to put conditions to participate in European club goods.
What the history of performance enhancing drugs can teach to performace enhancing finances in sport is that fighting them is a long and winding road.

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