Cycling’s Most Controversial Rider

And exactly who is “cycling’s most controversial rider”? Despite NBC’s attempt to paint him as such in their like-named Vuelta advertisement campaign, it is hardly Alberto Contador.

And I daresay it is not Lance Armstrong – at least for today. For once.

Today, the fascinating career of Alexsandr Vinokourov made its final bow in the grandest fashion, winning the 2012 Olympic road race Gold Medal in his characteristic stealthy & wily racing style, upending the hopes of the host nation and nearly everyone’s expectations.

Similar to what happens after major Lance news, most cycling fans on Twitter saw their timelines fractionate after Vino’s Olympic road race win – exposing personal loyalties, doubts, & antipathy towards the 38 year old Kazakh cyclist. Today the factions seemed to fall under one of 4 categories:

1. Vino is a doper and never deserves to win because once a doper always a doper.

2. Vino is an unrepentant doper and never deserves to win for being unrepentant.

3. Vino is a doper who served his time and deserves to win; though I may or may not happy about it.

4. Vino is a doper who served his time and deserves to win; all the more so because of his comeback from [doping ban, grave injury, etc.]

(I did not include the “They all dope” cynics incapable of nuanced reasoning.)

My personal stance is that of Group 4, but with an asterisk.

Vino grew up in under the heavy shadow of Communism’s Iron Curtain, in one of the former Eastern Bloc nations. He entered one of their sports ‘schools’ from an early age. As such, he was fully steeped in their mentality of utilitarian totalitarianism, particularly in terms of doping in sport. Scandals such as the doping of East German females are well known. What’s important to remember is that these young athletes were trained in a different moral milieu than the standard western mores that many of us take for granted today. In a communist totalitarian state philosophically dominated by utilitarianism, the ultimate end is what you can contribute for the good of the state as a whole, regardless of methods (the “good” being glory for the State within international athletic competition). There is much less (if any) of a role for Western ethical standards of right and wrong as we know it. If the State is your ultimate authority, you do what it says – that IS your ethical code.

I believe this was the case for athletes like Vino, Ullrich, & the East German swimmers. They doped because that was part of the methodology they were taught. They learned from a young age how these things were done. They therefore had little to no sense of what they were doing was wrong in and of itself. This was likely reinforced by the fact that this era was during the time of rampant doping use. Though technically there were rules codifed, we all know as humans actions speak louder than words.

Now, I am not putting forth this argument as an apology or excuse for his actions. Vino was banned and rightly so. But a more nuanced look at his culpability within his own life’s context might help explain the apparent lack of remorse shown publicly, aside from any temperamental difference from more Western-influenced, vocal & emotionally effusive riders such as David Millar. Additionally, it is logically inconsistent to fully expect someone growing up within the mores of Vino’s social environment to understand why he should be ‘repentant’ – remorse is not strictly a cardinal or even defined virtue within utilitarianism.

Now one can argue the universal human existence of guilt/remorse through conscience and the natural law, but even that, like other innate human tendencies, can arguably be arrested in development or suppressed by environment. One can also make an argument that his free will was impaired in actively choosing to continue what he was taught by example during the height of Omertà. This is not necessarily the case for others who willingly thwarted the rules of their own accord, with full knowledge and consent. Again, Millar’s book is a fascinating exposé into this psychological process.

So consider giving Vino a break. At least in part. As soon as he burst on the scene, Vino was an explosive, exciting rider. Unlike other riders, he has never been mired with regret about nor carried vendettas (at least overtly) over his years in doping. It simply was a phase in his life and career that he suffered and paid for, before returning to do what he knew best – racing a bike.

For all the bellyaching from cycling fans about conservative boring tactics, It is refreshing to have been witness to Vino’s reckless, carefree attacking style throughout his career. And that instinct, the mark of a true racer, is undeniably real.



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3 Responses to “Cycling’s Most Controversial Rider”

  1. spandelles Says:

    Vino is a convenient scapegoat. He is a wildcard winner; spoilt the script for the favourites!

    Your post is spot on as far as the former Eastern Block goes, other systems have condoned or promoted doping of their young Olympic athletes too. Herbie Sykes has been interviewing for GDR cyclist in the last two Rouleurs: interesting reading. Walsh’s Lance to Landis a good counterpoint on US coaching abuses.

  2. Evan Simpkins Says:

    my favorite sport is mma, and there is a similar thing going on there, as in all of sport i guess. the ethics of ped’s and such is an interesting topic. in mma, there is a lot of testosterone replacement therapy, i hear.

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