Wiggo, grey areas and business ethics
I am a cyclist and I use performance-enhancing drugs.
Well, one drug. I will never set out on a long ride without a couple of cups of strong coffee and all my training rides are punctuated by a further coffee stop en route. You will see almost every endurance athlete, from lowly weekend warriors like me to professional marathon runners, take exactly the same drug to improve their performance.
If you think I am being facetious, I’m not. Caffeine is not only a stimulant, it is catabolic – it facilitates the burning of fat for energy as well as more immediate energy reserves, just like the steroid triamcinolone. It is completely legal in professional sports at present, but until 2004 the World Anti-Doping Agency put a limit on the amount of caffeine used by athletes, and it remains under consideration.
If you follow sports at all you can hardly have missed this week’s Parliamentary report into doping in sport which made a variety of scathing pronouncements about the alleged use of drugs, particularly triamcinolone, at Team Sky during the build up to Bradley Wiggins’ successful tilt at the Tour de France in 2012. ‘Wiggo Doping Shock’ screamed The Sun and other papers were not much more sympathetic.
Dig into the articles, however, and you will find a statement in every single one stating that no rules were broken by Team Sky or Wiggins. Instead they will talk about ‘grey areas’ – the space between what’s legal and what’s ‘ethical’. And of course, ethics are highly subjective.
And on that, the whole debate pivots. Respected French cycling journalist Francois Thomazeau tweeted: “Doping is not about morals, it’s not about health, it’s not even about performance enhancement. It’s about respecting rules.” On the other hand, UCI President David Lappartient, who helps set the rules, accused Sky of “cheating within the rules”, an interesting use of logic. Others have invoked Lance Armstrong, a ridiculous comparison given Armstrong not only deliberately smashed the rules but went to elaborate lengths to cover up that cheating – no grey areas there.
The problem for Sky is that when British Cycling capo di tutti capi David Brailsford set up the team, he set a mission of putting a clean British rider on the top of the Tour de France podium in five years. He proclaimed a ‘zero tolerance’ policy, sacking staff and team members who were found to have past involvement in doping, but this quickly proved difficult in practice given the endemic doping of the ‘EPO years’. Then there’s the attritional nature of professional road cycling, particularly the insane physical challenge of the three week Grand Tours. If your top athlete gets hit by pollen allergies at the same time of year as the Tour de France, do you hope a standard medicine will manage that problem, or do you nuke it if the rules allow you to do so?
Brailsford is only the latest in a long list of leaders proclaiming an ethical regime and then getting hoist by his own petard as the messy realities of life kick in. And this is the lesson for business ethics from this whole farrago – it is easy to make a commitment of perfection, but it’s impossible to deliver in practice.
Photo © Petit Brun, used under a creative commons license.