The Secret Race by Tyler Hamilton…. Best science book of the year

I nominate this fascinating story for the best science book of the year in two categories—bio-chemistry and psychology.  Tyler Hamilton, a cycling hero, gold medal winner and legend of the early 2000s, tested positive for performance enhancing drugs.  After years of maintaining his innocence publicly and trying to get back into biking, he agreed to tell all to a federal prosecutor and the world.  What comes out is a remarkable story of the corruption and moral turpitude that run through all the “moneyed” sports, the psychological walls that cyclists, doctors, managers, coaches, and race directors must build within their own minds to make it through the days, and a veritable arms race of chemicals that are being poured into the healthiest bodies on the planet to give them just a little more of an edge over their competitors.   And all brought to you by the big money vehicle for advertising that professional sports have become.

Lance Armstrong is quoted throughout the book, but the real revelation is how he thought about cycling.  He came at it from a completely professional perspective with the assumption that everyone else in every race was also cheating (by doping), and that you are a chump if you don’t get just as good at playing the doping sport, and the avoiding the testers game, as you are on the bicycle.  It is a truly rational view, and one that was shared by virtually everyone in professional cycling.   Hamilton chronicles his own first encounter with this reality, as well as how the moral objections of others evaporated over the space of weeks, or days or even an afternoon.  It is clear that 20 year old is faced with a choice to take drugs (to do what everyone else is doing) or to abandon the dream that the cyclist has held since childhood, that has moulded his life so fundamentally that his identity is inextricable from the bicycle.

What is clear from this book is that Hamilton has come to terms with his choice and his life, as have, this fall, virtually all of professional cycling’s greats from the last 15 years.  What is not clear yet is whether cycling, or any professional sport, can change.   It has always had the most rigorous anti-doping regime amongst the professional sports (have you ever seen footage of 70s era basketball or football players—it’s inconceivable that the 25% increase in muscle mass of modern players is accomplished through better diet and training regimes…..), but the incentive to win, to fame, to fortune is extraordinarily powerful.  And science can help to tilt the playing field your way, or make the hill less steep.   I hope parents become a bit more thoughtful about pushing their kids into competitive sports—or stick to curling, which is probably the only sport unaffected…..

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Posted on December 13, 2012, in Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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