World record performance in the 100-meter dash and climbing hills in the Tour de France are related and may be a starting point to design a better way to detect performance-enhancing drug use. In the meantime, I’ll be skeptical of greatness.
It’s become commonplace to hear accounts of world-class sprinters covering a 100-meter course in 9.9 seconds; 9.9 or faster has been run 96 times over the past 2 decades. Take one-tenth of a second off this time, run a 9.8, and it’s only been done 16 times by four different guys; Maurice Greene (twice), Asafa Powell (seven), Usain Bolt (five) and Tyson Gay (twice).
Back in the late 1980s when Ben Johnson ran the first sub 9.8-second 100-meters, he knocked almost two-tenths of a second off the existing record and won the Gold Medal in the Seoul Olympics’ 100-meter final (he ran a 9.79). Turned out he was fueled by Stanozolol and stripped of his Olympic title. Since then, Justin Gatlin and Tim Montgomery have run similar times and held the World Record and also have had their times nullified due to failed drug tests.
Testimony provided as a result of the BALCO scandal by mastermind Victor Conte, track coaches and track athletes revealed a glimpse of the performance parameters of the world’s fastest men. The prevailing wisdom was that doping was necessary in order to run world-record neighborhood times.
Conte has been steadfast in his belief that track and field athletes, and sprinters in particular, owe their success to a steady diet of performance-enhancing drugs (PED). Without even getting into women sprinters, and what we know about outstanding performances among baseball players and how drugs played a major role, there are more than enough reasons for people to be skeptical of outstanding athletic performances.
Now I’m going to shift gears and talk cycling. While it’s not a major sport, cycling has developed a cult following in the United States and in many nations across the world. Cycling is a sport that has been rife with doping, and was the first sport to really delve into the high-tech areas of performance-enhancing drug use and extraordinary medical interventions.
Even for an iconic figure like Lance Armstrong, the specter of PED use both follows and overshadows all that he, and other cycling champions, has accomplished. PED use has so tainted the sport of cycling that this year’s winner – Alberto Contador – had yet to take his perfunctory victory ride in the final stage of the Tour when former Tour winner Greg LeMond questioned the issue of the “cleanliness” of his performance.
LeMond opined in the French newspaper “LeMonde” that, “What is one to make of Contador’s record setting speed on the climb to Verbier? According to Antoine Vayer (My Note: Former cycling insider and anti-doping advocate) and his recently published calculations he would need a VO2 max of 99.5 ml to do this effort. As far as I know, this is a number which (sic) has never been recorded by any athlete in any sport. This value corresponds to the oxygen needs required of many recent Tour de France winners’ performances in mountain stages and time trials. This is like a gorgeous Mercedes sedan from the showroom showing up for an F1 race and being competitive or winning. It just doesn’t add up, show me what is really under the hood.”
To put the climb performance in perspective, Contador covered 5.3 miles (8.5 km) with an average slope of 7.5% in a hair under 21-minutes, which means he averaged over 18.5 miles per hour (30 kmph) up a series of steep hairpin turns. Much of the discussion that has come about as a result of LeMond’s column, the majority of which is in cycling circles, involves questioning the motives of Antoine Vayer and the math behind his methods.
Matters of VO2 Max, efficiency, power output and the like are way beyond the attention and interest spans of the vast majority of sports fans, but they do serve as a jumping off point for the discussion that Greg LeMond has started. Calculations and formulas aside, LeMond is on the right track when he brings up the notion of questioning outstanding performances that greatly overshadow current and historical norms.
LeMond is not some desk jockey sniping away at real athletes without the benefit of knowing what it’s like to be the best in the race. He is a Tour de France champion. He knows when something just doesn’t look right. Critics of the LeMond/Vayer school of thought, that power output calculations can be an indication of doping, have questioned Vayer’s calculations based on Contador’s 2009 Tour performance. However, Vayer published a piece earlier this summer in which he details his 3-point plan.
- Verified Doping (410 watts): Covering more than 400 meters at a world-champion level of athleticism, without getting tired and after five hours of effort
- Miraculous Doping (430 watts): Raising your leg by one meter, with 45 kilos [= 99 lb.] attached to it, more than 2000 times without faltering, after five hours of effort
- Mutant Doping (450 watts): Riding a bike at 10 km/hour up a slope of 10% steepness (which does not exist in France) while towing a cargo of 100 kilos [= 220 lb.], after five hours of effort
To understand the energy output required to reach the 410 watt level, the 400-meters would have to be covered at a rate of 9.7 seconds per 100-meters, or the world’s fastest 100-meter run, run four times after 5 hours of effort. Now you know why I started out talking sprinting.
Vayer also provides some context to this issue of the production of power. ”Since the beginning of the 1990s, the products or methods which oxygenate blood, combined with all the other toxic medications described ever more fully by former “champions,” have permitted [race] leaders to produce on their two wheels an amount of power, expressed in watts, almost double that of a donkey of the beginning of the century pulling a load (250 watts), and equal to that of a steam-engine before the invention of mechanical propulsion.”
The LeMond/Vayer position is a valid one, in that there are limits to human performance even among elites, and that extraordinary performances can be indications of PED use. Once you accept this position – that there is just so much work a human can do – details with regards to the calculations and formulas can be hammered out. Just as we know that baseball or football players cannot continue to add noticeable amounts of lean muscle mass, naturally, as they age, the amount of power a human can produce is finite and knowable within reason.
Athletes themselves have given us the reasons to question great performances and cannot blame anyone but themselves for the heightened sense of skepticism that exists among fans and journalists.