Home Sociology Crime, Deviance and Doping: Fallen Sports Stars, Autobiography and the Management of Stigma
Abstract: This chapter explores the next stage of disgraced athletes’ self-narratives, which deal with their initiation into the world of sports doping, and offer an account of the crucial moments that lead them into participating in this behaviour. It is argued that a consistent feature of these accounts is the recourse to a number of techniques of neutralisation which are used to deflect the stigma arising from their labelling as dopers. In particular, the denial of injury, the denial of the victim, and the defence of necessity are used to challenge straightforward labels of‘cheat’.
Yar, Majid. Crime, Deviance and Doping: Fallen Sports Stars, Autobiography and the Management of Stigma. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2014. doi: 10.1057/9781137403759.0007.
In the previous chapter I explored how our fallen sports stars narrate their beginnings and childhood experiences. I suggested that the accounts they offer serve a number of important purposes in terms of impression management: they establish a range of childhood problems and difficulties that lay the foundation for later neutralisations around deviant behaviour; they outline the discovery of their athletic talent and present their relationship to their chosen sport in affirmative terms; and they seek to establish core personal characteristics including a disposition towards honesty, responsibility and a hostility to the illicit activities associated with doping. This chapter moves on to explore the next stage of these narratives, which deal with the athletes’ initiation into the world of sports doping, and offers an account of the crucial moments that lead them into participating in this behaviour. As we shall see, a number of techniques of neutralisation are called upon to ‘make sense’ of their actions and to mitigate their culpability in the eyes of their audience.
The first element of this initiation stage may be called ‘realisation’, and explores the authors’ new-found awareness about the presence and extent of doping in professional sport, and comprises the first ‘turning point’ in their career, paving the way for their ultimate decision to also take PEDs (the exception here is Jones, who insists throughout that she was unwittingly given steroids by an unscrupulous coach, and only became aware of this some years later - another sort of neutralisation, to which we shall return).
Realisation begins with suspicion, as the athletes witness implausible performances by their competitors. In a chapter entitled ‘REALITY’, Hamilton portrays his incredulity thus:
They defied the rules of physics and bike racing. They did things I’d never seen, or even imagined seeing ... they were circus strongmen ... you couldn’t help but wonder what was going on. I mean, I was green, but I wasn’t an idiot. (Hamilton and Coyle, 2012: 48-9)
Whilst being ‘green’ (naive, unsophisticated or gullible) had shrouded his perceptions, now harsh reality is beginning to set in. Similarly, a pivotal moment for Chambers occurs while competing at the 1999 World Athletics Championships:
By the time I’d run the first twenty metres I was done! What was happening? ... This can’t be happening, I thought to myself ... what were the Americans doing that I wasn’t? ... As he [US sprinter Maurice Greene] crossed the line he broke down from a knee injury he’d been carrying for most of the season. The man ran 9.82 whilst injured? It beggared belief. (Chambers, 2009: 35-6)
This leads to a realisation that drugs are being used to fuel such incredible performances. For example, Millar describes the point at which something definitively changes in his understanding of his sport, related to the use of the PED erythropoietin (a hormone that massively boosts red blood cell production, thereby increasing the body’s oxygen-carrying capacity well beyond normal levels):
the scales definitively fell from my eyes ... One day sticks firmly in my mind . .. I was doing everything I could just to hold the wheel in front of me ... but it was killing me. I was so tired that I was barely able to get out of the saddle after each corner ... By this point, I understood that most top guys were using EPO. (Millar, 2012: 72, 73-4, 79)
Use of the expression ‘the scales fell from my eyes’ is on the one hand recourse to a commonplace idiom; however, its implication of a sudden revelation is literally biblical in character (originating as it does in the New Testament, Acts 9: 18). This realisation about doping is occasioned first by disgust, followed by disillusionment, resentment and growing cynicism (reflected in the titles given to chapters recounting this experience - ‘Childhood’s End’ (Millar), ‘Reality’ (Hamilton)):
My initial shock and sadness on discovering such a degree of doping ... What I was beginning to learn was too big for me to fully grasp, let alone comprehend. (Millar, 2012: 76)
Hamilton describes how he became aware that, at the end of a day of racing, team officials would distribute bags (containing cocktails of PEDs) to star riders, so as to help their ‘recovery’:
That was when I saw the white bags for the first time ... brought out by the soigneurs [assistants whose role it is to care for the riders] who kept them in the fridge in the mechanic’s truck ... After two races I started looking for them. (Hamilton and Coyle, 2012: 65)
He outlines his growing sense of bitterness and frustration at their presence and their implications for his own chances:
I tried to ignore the white bags at first, but I quickly came to hate them. I thought about them often. When I felt a ... rider pass me, I thought of the white bags. When I felt exhausted and ready to drop, I thought of the white bags. (Ibid.: 66)
Resentments accumulate over time as the ‘clean’ competitors are routinely beaten with ease by the ‘dopers’:
One thousand mornings of waking with hope; a thousand afternoons of being crushed. (Ibid.)
I’d given heart and soul to my sport and hadn’t come anywhere near a medal position. Something wasn’t right. (Chambers, 2009: 38)
I felt that I couldn’t do anything against them ... Taking on the riders on EPO seemed like an impossible task when you were clean ... I’d grown to hate the suffering and humiliation of always finishing so far behind the front of the race. (Millar, 2012: 115, 151)
We should note the evocative use of emotionally charged language that is used to communicate these experiences - use of terms such as ‘crushed, ‘suffering, and ‘humiliation’ convey a profound sense of degradation that understandably evokes sympathy. Here we see a second pivotal turning point, with the ‘clean’, ‘honest’ competitor coming to the conclusion that he is the one being cheated:
I was thinking that I had been conned and cheated ... At this point in proceedings I was seething and I was thinking how many medals and championships I’d been cheated out of. (Chambers, 2009: 53)
I had been cheated out of my livelihood. (Hamilton and Coyle 2012: 68)
I felt a new level of frustration as I watched the white bags get handed out. Now I could measure the injustice . .. This was bullshit. This was not fair. (Ibid.: 77)
Being denied access to PEDs is depicted as a sign of the athlete’s margin- ality, and thus indicative of their precarious grasp on their professional career:
They [the white bags of PEDs] were given only to the more veteran riders on the team. The guys I thought of as the A team. That’s when I felt a sinking realisation: I was on the B team ... Unless something changed, I was done for. I was going to have to find a different career. (Ibid.: 65, 77-8)
This sense of being a victim of cheating by others comprises a powerful rhetorical manoeuvre - the one who has been associated with wrongdoing (an offender) reverses positions, presenting himself as the victim of wrong-doing by others. Subsequent deviant acts are now contextualised as a corrective step, a ‘balancing of the scales’ that have been tipped against the individual through the rule-breaking behaviour of others. The references to loss of livelihood also quantify the harm caused to the ‘victim’ in monetary terms, the unfair deprivation of the means to sustain one’s life and commitments. It furnishes a moral rationalisation for the decision to start doping, which is now represented as a necessary step to counteract the disadvantage the narrator has unfairly suffered - not to do so would only further their victimisation. It can be seen as akin to the ‘defence of necessity’ offered up by white-collar offenders whose ‘rationalization holds that certain types of criminal behaviours are necessary to achieve vital economic goals or just to survive’ (Coleman, 1987: 412). In his interview-based study of professional cyclists, Sefiha (2012: 226-7) likewise found that claims about ‘the endemic nature of PED use in the professional ranks’ was used as a justification for doping, which was deemed by the riders as a necessity for remaining competitive. This representation of the situation also makes recourse to a ‘denial of the victim’ (i.e. other competitors). As Sykes and Matza (1957: 668) suggest, this is
an insistence that the injury is not wrong in the light of the circumstances ... by a subtle alchemy the delinquent moves himself into the position of an avenger and the victim is transformed into a wrong-doer.
Another sense in which the victim may be denied is by construing them as a ‘vague abstraction’ (Sykes and Matza, 1957: 668). For our athletes, this is possible since there is no specific individual that they can point to who is directly harmed, and the implication that ‘the sport as a whole suffers’ lacks the immediacy that comes with a clearly identifiable individual who will suffer as a consequence of wrong-doing.
The depiction of others as the ‘problem’ and the self as victim also lays the basis for another key neutralisation, namely the ‘denial of injury’. The conventional understanding of cheating is that it entails gaining an unfair advantage over others, by behaving dishonestly and using illicit means. However, one can’t be cheating, or gaining an unfair advantage by choosing to dope, since everyone else is already doping - by joining in, one is in fact simply ‘levelling the playing field’:
it was not going to give me an edge but it would simply level the game ... everyone was telling me it was the others cheating me ... We [Chambers and his then girlfriend, sprinter Kelli White] both agreed that we hated having to cheat to win but we realized that our competitors were doing the same thing. (Chambers, 2009: 54, 63)
I’ve always said you could have hooked us up to the best lie detectors on the planet . .. and we’d have passed. Not because we were delusional . .. but because we didn’t think of it as cheating. It felt fair to break the rules, because we knew others were too. (Hamilton and Coyle, 2012: 126)
Even amidst subsequent expressions of remorse, regret and admission of guilt, the denial of injury returns forcefully, with the narrator angrily pushing back against the deviant label that is sustained by those admissions:
You can talk all you want about the BBs [bags of blood] and the Edgar [a euphemism for EPO]; you can call me a cheater and a doper until the cows come home. But the fact remains that in a race where everybody had equal opportunity, I played the game and I played it well. (Ibid.: 246)
In these athletes’ accounts, denial of injury also works through downplaying or minimising the nature and extent of their own transgressions - what they did was no worse than everyone else, and perhaps even less intensive and extensive. This way of representing doping is apparent in Lance Armstrong’s televised confessional interview:
My cocktail so to speak was only EPO, but not a lot, transfusions and testosterone. (Armstrong quoted in Mahon, 2013)
Crucial here is the use of the adjective ‘only, and the qualification ‘not a lot, which implies that his use of PEDs was in fact limited as compared to that of others - and if that is the case, then he is logically less blameworthy than those whose use was much greater. He repeats this underplaying strategy in an interview with Le Monde, extending the argument to his whole team (US Postal):
Our system was very simple, very conservative, not evil at all like they [USADA] said. (Armstrong in Mandard, 2013)
‘Simple, ‘conservative’ and ‘not evil’ - these form an adjectival triumvirate that answers accusations of injury by diminishing the seriousness and scale of the acts in question. Jones likewise minimises her involvement in doping. She insists that:
Yes, I took a performance-enhancing drug and I can’t go back and undo any of it ... I’m the one who put it in my body. (Jones, 2010: 34)
This admission of culpability nevertheless contains an attempt to limit its extent by the use of the singular article ‘a’, and the singular pronoun ‘it, This neutralisation of the scale of misdeed is offered in the face of widely publicised accusations that Jones in fact used multiple PEDs over many years (her former husband, C.J. Hunter, has repeatedly claimed that she received and used the hormone THG, as well as EPO, and insulin - Fainaru-Wada and Williams, 2007: 93). The blend of acceptance of responsibility and simultaneous evasion of it, apparent in Jones’ account, is not unusual amongst offender narratives - what amounts to ‘a tangled muddle of self-justification, denial, and distortion’ as the individual struggles in the face of shame and stigma (Aronson, 1992: 304).
Perhaps the ultimate extension of the denial of harm related to doping can be found in disgraced baseball star Jose Canseco’s book Juiced (2005). Canseco not only argues that the vast majority of his fellow professionals doped (as he did himself), but that far from being harmful, steroid use (if properly administered under medical supervision) is a benefit for the game, for the health of the players, and for society at large:
As a result, baseball and other sports will be more exciting and entertaining.
Human life will be improved too. We will live longer and better. (Canseco,
In the terms set out by Scott and Lyman (1968: 47) we see here a difference between justifications and excuses. Excuses ‘are accounts in which one admits that the act in question is bad, wrong, or inappropriate but denies full responsibility’. Most of the self-narratives examined here have such excusing at the heart of the techniques of stigma-management employed. Justifications, on the other hand, ‘are accounts in which one accepts responsibility for the act in question, but denies the pejorative quality associated with it’. Canseco’s neutralisation strategy unusually adopts this stance of justification, challenging the normative consensus that doping is in itself bad or immoral. However, while few other sports stars branded with the label of ‘cheat’ and ‘doper’ go as far as Canseco in denying the harm involved in their actions, almost all offer contextual accounts that minimise it and in some way excuse their choices around use of PEDs.
A final form of rationalisation offered in accounts of the initiation into doping takes shape through normalisation. Not only is such rulebreaking activity deemed to be widespread, it is also represented as a normal part of the culture and context in which it took place. Such claims amount to suggesting that the athletes were understandably ‘drawn into’ doping because the milieu in which they lived and worked rendered it commonplace and acceptable. Coleman (1987: 413) notes that this kind of rationalisation is commonly deployed by white-collar offenders who insist that their actions were in keeping with the norms of their organisation or industry - the individual is ‘not responsible for his or her behaviour when merely conforming to the expectations of others ... corrupt employees often claim that they have not done anything wrong because their actions were considered acceptable behaviour by their peers’. Our narrators relate this normality thus:
The soigneurs didn’t make a big deal out of them [the white bags] . .. they were so matter-of-fact, so routine. (Hamilton and Coyle, 2012: 65)
Baffi [Hamilton’s roommate on tour] wasn’t being secretive about it in the least, just matter-of-fact and precise, like he was fixing an espresso. (Ibid.: 75)
Most of the guys ... had their own little medical bags with their ampoules and syringes, and it did not appear to be any different to them having a protein drink ... injecting yourself was normal. (Millar, 2012: 75)
The normalisation of doping is presented by some (such as Hamilton) as a sign of inclusion and acceptance within the sporting scene - in essence, a deviant subculture that recognises and rewards conformity with its normative endorsement of doping, and deems the refusal of PEDs as a sign of naivety or weakness:
So I did what many others had done before me. I joined the brotherhood ... I took the pill ... The red egg [testosterone] was a badge of honour, a sign that Pedro [the doctor] and the team saw my potential. (Hamilton and Coyle, 2012: 68, 70)
I think they thought I didn’t understand, that I was naive ... to riders like Casagrande I was a fool. (Millar, 2012: 85, 93)
Such presentations of cultural context, peer judgement and peer expectations resonate clearly with commonplace social understandings about how ‘falling in with the wrong crowd’ can ‘lead astray’ those under its influence. The link between peer-association and delinquent behaviour has certainly enjoyed the endorsement of numerous criminological researchers (Sutherland et al., 1995; Thornberry et al., 1994). From our narrators’ standpoint, the initiation into doping is explained through a combination of factors (being unfairly disadvantaged, the ubiquity of the practice, and pressure in the face of peer attitudes) that serves to make it understandable, explicable and perhaps forgivable. In effect, the narrators challenge the audience to situate itself in their position (a situation depicted as demoralising, unfair, unjust, highly pressured, career threatening) and accept that the decision to dope, while not morally right, is also entirely comprehensible. As Hamilton puts it:
In some ways it’s depressing. But in other ways I think it’s human ... I think everybody who wants to judge dopers should think about it, just for a second. You spend your life working to get to the brink of success, and then you are given a choice: either join in or quit and go home. What would you do? (Hamilton and Coyle, 2012: 66, 317)
In concluding this chapter, I will give the last word to Lance Armstrong. When asked ‘How did you make the choice to use performanceenhancing substances?’ he replies simply ‘Human nature ...’ (Mandard, 2013). Choices made in accordance with human nature are, in the end, not choices at all - they are the inevitable and natural outcome of ‘how people are’. What more direct way of excusing an action and claiming mitigation in the face of public opprobrium?
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