Professional cycling is in a weird place right now. Last week Lance Armstrong was finally stripped of his multitude of accolades after the covers were lifted on one of the most prolific doping scandals in the history of sport.
What was more shocking was how endemically woven it had become in to the practice of the sport. Shortly after the facts began to unravel the New York Times produced this excellent visualisation:
Of course Armstrong’s 7 Tour de France malliot jeune are prominent, as are Contador’s 3. But more interesting is sheer the volume of other riders who have either have either tested positive, admitted to doping or been sanctioned by an official cycling, or antidoping agency. I mean in 2003, it accounted for 7 out of the top 10 riders (more worryingly, with an average of 5 out of 10 over the last 10 years, what really happened in 2012? – arguably cycling’s best year and certainly the year it was propelled into the consciousness of the British public)
What I find interesting about this all of this is that according to the data, doping appears to have become the category norm. In essence, to take performance enhancing drugs had become the default setting for professional cycling.
Default settings are really important for setting behaviour, as they in effect offer the path of least resistance to an outcome and a socially accepted means of reaching it. People have strong tendencies toward this, inertia and a bias toward accepting the status quo of whatever situation they are faced with. Because, of course it is easier to do nothing and go along with it – irrespective of whether or not it’s the right thing to do. So in cycling, when the default setting for performance is to dope, riders don’t challenge this status quo.
So, when the team leader of the US Postal team sets the new precedent for behaviour and diffuses it outward through his team, he changes the architecture of choice within cycling. When you look at it from this behavioural perspective, perhaps what Lance Armstrong has done is far more impactful than just cheating his team to victory; perhaps he has changed the behaviour of a whole sport.
We are conditioned to abhor any form of physically altering method in sport, it is perceived to give an unfair advantage and extend the possibilities of human capability by altering the physiology of the athlete. But, in the case of cycling, it stops being a fair advantage, because by default, every competitor has been altered in this way. They have all, through medical science, found a way to better their performance. If you were to compare cycling to say, Formula 1 – in Formula 1 you have basically 2 areas of competition the drivers’ championship and the manufacturer’s championship, one is about human skill and the other about human ability to optimise machine performance. This is less pronounced in cycling, as the only machine that can be optimised is the bike.
What I find interesting about the doping scandal is that the machine that was optimised went from the bike to the human. Through scientific endeavour, they are bettering human performance in the way an engineer would modify elements of a car to make it a better racing machine. We talk a lot about a Darwinism at play in technology, a survival of the fittest, with the fittest being those that serve a genuine human need or purpose. And we say that great technology (and let’s divorce the word technology from things that run on electricity and just look at it as the application of scientific knowledge for practical purposes) extends human capacity. It is realistic to say that methods used by the US Postal team fit the mould of great technology and application, but perhaps not so through the amorphous filter of morality.
So as a provocation, and ignoring the huge ethical debate embedded in this subject, is it fair to say that through the augmentation of technology on humans, cycling has been progressed by its riders becoming faster, stronger and better athletes, thus making it a better sport? Transhumanists (who believe that enhancing of this nature is desirable), would say yes. Perhaps this is a step towards Kurzweil’s Singularity on a physical scale. Or perhaps little enhancements like the contraceptive pill, contact lenses or even mobile phones are the baby steps we have been taking for a long time. But in a world where default settings are increasingly being set by technology, do the rules then change with its ability to stretch performance? I don’t know. But I think that people’s natural aversion to biotechnology is rooted in the fear that it may corrupt or compromise a value they have in the world or the people they care about and I can only imagine this changing.
Technology moves quickly, but the pace adoption and cultural appropriation is much slower. Once it was unheard of to see Cricketers wearing helmets even though they were freely available, now they do so by default. Perhaps we are moving toward the new default being defined by biotechnology.