Cheats, whistleblowers, and win-at-all-costs competition

A view from the agon

Kevin Ryan ( NUI Galway School of Political Science & Sociology)

ISSP Seminar Room, Cairnes Building, NUI Galway 13:00 :: 24th January 2013

The paper is based on a case study of the controversy surrounding former professional cyclist Lance Armstrong, and the aim of the inquiry is to use this case as a way of thinking critically about the wider implications of performance metrics.

Prior to the introduction of anti-doping laws during the 1960’s, the use of stimulants and pain-killers in the sport of cycling was often presented as evidence of the inhuman working conditions that cyclists had to endure. During the 1990’s, the whole question of ‘doping’ took on a new significance because of the health risks and competitive advantages attached to ‘blood boosting’. As a result of investigations by the US Food & Drug Administration, the US Anti-Doping Agency, and whistleblower testimonies by former team-mates, Armstrong is now at the centre of a controversy which is framed by the notion of ‘truth’. Using the concept of ‘agonism’ as a vantage point, the paper examines how the relationship between cheats and whistleblowers combine as a game of truth: a game that insists on truth as a means of saving the sport from its own excesses. The purpose of the game is ethical: to weed out the cheats so that the game is played according to the rules, thus enabling participants to compete as equals. The effect is to intensify competition, ensuring that enterprising individuals and teams will continue to do what it takes to stay in the game and gain an edge over their rivals, a trend already established in the way that athletes, coaches, sports doctors, and team managers adapt and respond to the demands of competition by ‘dialling the numbers’, i.e. through the use of performance metrics. Overall, the case study offers insights into how attempts to govern the excesses of competition reinforce the logic of competition itself, thus ensuring that ‘inequality among equals’* will prevail.

* Foucault 2008 The Birth of Biopolitics

ISSP Sponsors: