Christophe Bassons: Where the war on drugs is going wrong

This interview was printed in the latest issue of Procycling magazine. You can pick up a subscription right here.

Today, Bassons works for the French Ministry Of Sport and Culture to prevent doping. In London in December, he also added his voice and support to the Change Cycling Now pressure group and their manifesto for a healthier sport. After speaking briefly at the CCN conference, Bassons met Procycling to outline his hopes and fears for cycling at greater length.

Procycling: Based on what you saw and heard when you were at the Change Cycling Now conference in December, are you optimistic about the future of the sport?

Bassons: I am optimistic but the current situation isn’t good. In the peloton, it’s still going pretty quickly [smiles knowingly]. You don’t need muscles to go fast, apparently. That’s what we saw this year. And then there’s the way they’re recovering. Beyond that, I’ve never made a distinction between doping and doping behaviour that’s not forbidden but most people do make that distinction. They’ll go right to the line, even bending the rules if they have to. The one thing I hope comes out of this conference above all else, though, is for an independent agency to take over anti-doping. That’s absolutely essential.

Procycling: You have said in the past, and your old coach Antoine Vayer says now, that there’s a physiological ceiling of 410 watts on the last climb of a mountain stage, but could things not have evolved?

Bassons: Look, I don’t really believe it’s just evolution, clothing, equipment or whatever. Even if that’s all developed, how much have recovery methods really progressed? How can you change the human body? As long as people aren’t testing positive, you can’t be sure. And that’s the problem: doping controls are effective up to a certain point, because we can detect certain substances but we’re totally in the dark about others. Take AICAR, we don’t even know what it does or whether it’s being used. We can only guess that it is, based on certain performances and the effect it has on mice in a lab. I personally think people are using it but I don’t know. Same with ozone therapy.

But honestly, knowing this sport and sport in general, I know that for the majority the goal is winning and they’ll do whatever it takes. Not only that but the whole system and our culture as a society is geared towards that. It’s so easy for a young athlete to get wrapped up in that. Since Festina, nothing has really been done to change mentalities, to look at people’s motivation, the way the media covers sport – and those are the real causes of doping.

Bassons: Correct. We as a society have caused or at least contributed to the problem by lionising winners and ignoring everyone else. When I look at L’Équipe – you don’t have to be all that smart to be a journalist at L’Équipe – you write, “This team scored two, this team scored one,” and you say what happened in the match. You only talk about who won, never about anything to do with values. I actually get the feeling now that it’s countries like the USA that are evolving in this regard and setting the example. We used to say that they did what they liked over there, the NFL players were pumped to the max, but I’ve just been nominated for ‘Sportsman of the Year’ in the USA by Sports Illustrated, solely because I made a stand 15 years ago.

Procycling: Other speakers at the Change Cycling Now conference criticised the media as well. Is that not sometimes a little gratuitous?

Bassons: The media can’t and shouldn’t say that a guy is doping because he’s producing a certain number of watts. That’s not your role. I’m talking about something else. But I do think that journalists could help us by prioritising athletes’ ethics and values, pushing those to the forefront of our discourse on sport. Then you create a virtuous circle: talk more about sports people’s ethics and more besides them winning or losing, and then sponsors who want to project those same values for their company will also come onboard. That’s something that we could change. It might take 10, 15, 20 years but it’s achievable in my opinion. And it’s in our interest because this exasperating quest for victory and glory will run its course. Sponsors will get bored of that because there’s always someone willing to invest more money and there’s limited interest for a company in projecting only one message to the public: “I’ve got more money than the other companies investing in this sport.” It’s in our interests and this change can affect all sports.

Practically speaking, it would mean more articles about what the sportsman goes through when he’s competing, his difficulties, maybe even his values. And there’s a thirst for that on the public’s part. We saw that with me: my salary doubled because I became known as ‘Mister Clean’ and the sponsor loved it.

Procycling: You don’t think the media already do some of this? There are plenty of ‘human interest’ stories…

Bassons: Only if there’s room, next to the story about the winner. Honestly, I think we can work on this. As you probably know, I work in anti-doping for the French Ministry of Sport and at the moment I’m running a poster campaign, showing an athlete with a Post-It note stuck to his forehead and ‘Cheat’ written on it. The slogan is ‘Sometimes it’s hard to get rid of a label’. Now that poster is going to be completely useless if the media don’t send out the same message. My poster will just look like do-gooder’s propaganda. Because at the moment, the peloton is full of guys who were doped for years and have come back from their bans with absolutely no contrition or shame, and the media welcome them…

Procycling: There were one or two rehabilitated ex-dopers at Change Cycling Now. Vaughters, Jacksche…

Bassons: Well, on my side, with young people, I try to ram home the message that if they cheat they have to live with the consequences. And I will refuse to work with people who don’t assume the consequences of their actions. That’s clear. In my work with young people, I don’t even use the word ‘doping’. I call it ‘cheating’. For years, people have said that it’s doping because it damages your health but that’s nonsense. What happens when a substance enhancing your performance isn’t dangerous but is banned? Is that doping? No, let’s call it what it is: cheating. Cheating a fellow human being and yourself.

Procycling: The message to take from your book, Positif, is that people with your values aren’t cut out for top-level sport.

Bassons: But I did choose it. The problem is that if you want to be involved in elite sport, which I did, you pretty much have to aim for professional sport. Elite sport and professional sport are one and the same thing these days. And I agree with you – pro sport at the moment isn’t an easy environment for someone who doesn’t need to win at all costs, and that’s because we don’t work on the fundamentals, the basic philosophy. In most countries, you’re in compulsory schooling from the age of about five to the age of around 15. That’s 10 years. Ten years during which the kids aren’t allowed to say no. He’s not allowed to say no to his teachers and he’s not allowed to say no to his peer group. Yet we expect him to be able to say no to doping when he’s 17? We expect him to join a professional team, maybe alongside his childhood heroes, and say no to them when they tell him he needs to dope?

He’s totally ill-equipped in that situation, because we haven’t brought him up to think independently and defend his ideas. If a kid smokes cannabis because everyone in the group smokes cannabis, the group is going to exist but the kid won’t as an individual. That’s what I say to the kids: you won’t exist, you’re going to be like the others and it’s only the group that will exist. It’s only by avoiding this that a kid will develop independent self-esteem – be more concerned with what he thinks of himself than what others think of him.

Procycling: We’re talking about big, cultural changes here. It’s a 100-year job.

Bassons: Of course. But if we teach kids that they will only exist if they’re recognised by others, they will only care about success, media recognition – and the surest if not only way to get that at the moment is by winning. It’s not money. It’s all to do with admiration, ego. One of the reasons I never doped is that I was always my own judge.

I was only worried about progressing, beating myself. I knew that if I ever used performance-enhancing drugs, the bottom would fall out of my motivation, that it wasn’t why I was doing sport.

I know it sounds idealistic but sport should be about growing as a person, not showing that you’re better than someone else. We’ve got the whole idea of competition totally wrong in our society: competition should be about excelling, beating yourself, not beating someone else. And it wouldn’t even take that much or that long to shift some mentalities. If, once a week or once a month, the athlete on the front page of L’Équipe wasn’t there for his or her results but there for his values, that would make others sit up. Then the athlete would think that, okay, maybe he’d never be on the front page for winning but he could be for his great sportsmanship or whatever else. Because that’s what they want – recognition, admiration. They don’t care how they get it. So, yes, we can do this, and I’m optimistic, but I’m also realistic: as long as we don’t change the way we create and sell the image of sports people, and as long as we don’t teach kids self-respect, we won’t evolve. We’ll perhaps get better at repression, which is what has happened over the last few years, but we’ll make no progress at all in terms of prevention.

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