The political economy of cycling and doping as licensed fraud

“Political economy came into being as a natural result of the expansion of trade, and with its appearance elementary, unscientific huckstering was replaced by a developed system of licensed fraud, an entire science of enrichment.” (Outlines of a Critique of Political Economy, Friedrich Engels, 1844)

I. Brewer’s thesis

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Benjamin Brewer‘s paper, Commercialization in Professional Cycling 1950-2001: Institutional Transformations and the Rationalization of “Doping”, is superb and well worth a full read. Here I want to offer a presentation of his narrative followed by a Marxist understanding of the political economy of cycling and doping as ‘licensed fraud’.

Brewer historically (and geographically) contextualises the prevalent and sophisticated social organisation of doping in contemporary professional cycling, which includes new relations between medicine and sport, within the institutional changes made by the Union Cycliste Internationale (UCI), which brought about a deeper commercialisation of the sport, that in turn led to new competitive pressures and changes for teams and riders, and “fertile ground” (pg 277) for innovations in training and doping. Brewer sees the relationship between commercialisation and doping as “one of unintended consequences” (pg 296) – a point on which we differ (see my post, Who is the real enemy of professional cycling – Lance Armstrong, or capital personified?, and part II here).

For professional cycling, Brewer makes plain, there was no “idyllic, pre-commercial past later sullied by the cynical demands of business and money making” (pg 277); instead, there is the question of degree and impact of commercialisation during its lifespan. Cycling has long relied on commercial sponsors, who expect returns from the money invested in advertising.

Writing on the classical period (1950-1984), Brewer notes:

“Major teams were almost always structured around a single dominant leader – occasionally two – expected to garner nearly all of the team’s results. […] Team leaders made enough money to support themselves training and racing year round, but very few cyclists attained any lasting wealth from racing. Most returned to low-prestige occupations upon retirement having saved very little money during their racing years. Pro cycling in this classical period was mainly a ‘blue-collar’ sport practiced by the sons of the lower classes for fans from the same milieu […]. Because only a small number of team leaders were expected to deliver the major results during this era, the bulk of racers cared very little about their own results. The resulting atmosphere was one of marked fraternity […].” (pg. 282-283)

On the history of cycling and doping, Brewer recognises that the two “were partners from the start” (pg 284), but, in the classical period, doping was “a loose system reliant on informed speculation combined with traditional knowledge” (pg 285). This would change.

Brewer moves on to what he defines as the transition and reform period (1984-1989). Greg LeMond’s arrival on the European scene signified a “profound shift in traditional team arrangements, principally in the area of salary negotiations and pay scales” (pg 286). Sponsorship changed in nature too, from “small-scale, ‘shoestring’ endeavours” to “more sophisticated marketing tactics of large corporations” (pg 286). Amidst this came the institutional reforms of UCI, notably, its Mondialisation campaign. In the classical period a majority of riders came from a small number of western European countries: France, Belgium, Italy, and Spain. UCI’s Mondialisation drive – for the “global expansion of cycling” (pg 288) – introduced the World Cup and a computerised rankings system for riders; moreover, Mondialisation meant deeper commercialisation of the sport. Brewer states:

“The advent of the rankings system for both teams and racers, in tandem with the new rules for admission to the major races signaled a profound change in the political economy of professional cycling. The major races are precisely the reason major sponsors enter the sport since these events attract the bulk of media attention, particularly the highly coveted television coverage. Thus, entry into the major races directly determines which sponsors will realize the return on their initial sponsorship investment.” (pg 289)

The contemporary period of professional cycling, from 1990 onwards, institutionalised these changes. Brewer cites Australian cyclist Allan Peiper from 1992:

“The points system was fun to begin with, but then came the rule of taking the five best-placed cyclists from each team, and adding their points together for a team total score. The top 20 teams could ride the World Cup classics and the Tour – the rest would miss out. So points became really important. Points really became money. The old system of team leaders and domestiques was to be undermined.” (pg 290)

Brewer underlines the effect: “From the outset of the rankings system the most frequently heard complaint from the racers and team directors was the increasingly cutthroat nature of competition and the increased speeds in races” (bold: my emphasis, pg 293).

The new competitive pressure of the contemporary period has changed the team, from its classical time, into a less hierarchical structure to reduce the risk for sponsor investment (since risk is spread out across a number of key riders), and has laid fecund ground for innovations in training and preparation: if, Brewer states, “traditional doping provided an immediate performance ‘spike’, the new epoch of performance-enhancing pharmacology would be best represented by an upward curve punctuated by periodic (and regular) plateaus” (pgs 294-295). What Brewer offers is a highly persuasive, and well researched, argument; indeed, the independent report to UCI published in March 2015 provides further evidence to back up his thesis.

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II. Licensed fraud: Engels’ thesis

What has become of the professional cyclist, the worker, under such evolving conditions of existence? The Mondialisation campaign of UCI was a success in radically transitioning the sport hand-in-hand with global capital accumulation. While the professional cyclist and team have long been branded commodities to aid in the delivery of greater profits on related branded commodities, the commercialisation of professional cycling is much deeper and more expansive in its contemporary era. Brewer notes:

“The ‘value-added’ by sponsoring a team […] was confirmed by a vice-president for sales at the US Postal Service, sponsor of the team with which Lance Armstrong has won multiple editions of the Tour de France. Gail Sonnenberg stated: ‘Like any other sponsorship, it’s about building our brand,’ continuing, ‘This is not something we do because it feels good’ […]. Ms Sonnenberg claimed that in 1999 the team ‘brought the post office $10 million…more than offsetting the cost of being the team’s title sponsor.’ The Managing Director of Danish corporation CSC echoes this sentiment regarding his firm’s $2.5 million investment in a team: ‘We could have spent up to $50 million to have obtained the attention we’ve had so far. Cycling is perfect for branding a name’ […].” For a current example, it would be worth considering INRING//’s analysis of “The Finances of Team Sky”.

(Wikimedia Commons)

(Wikimedia Commons)

(Wikimedia Commons)

(Wikimedia Commons)

The entertainment factor of professional cycling, and all of its apparent glamour (see my post, All laid bare: cycling, commodity fetishism, and podium girls), diverts us from something. To be sure, doping in cycling is illegal, but if we define ‘doping’ as the consumption of a drug to enhance the performance of an athlete, and we define ‘drug’ as a medicine or substance consumed with a physiological effect, and we know both of the close relationship between medicine and sport, and of the imperative of capital personified for endless self-expansion, then perhaps we can sense a truer reality. As Engels (1844) remarks:

“the first maxim in trade is secretiveness – the concealment of everything which might reduce the value of the article in question. The result is that in trade it is permitted to take the utmost advantage of the ignorance, the trust, of the opposing party, and likewise to impute qualities to one’s commodity which it does not possess. In a word, trade is legalised fraud.”

The Mondialisation pioneers may retort, “‘Have we not carried civilisation to distant parts of the world? Have we not brought about the fraternisation of the peoples […]?'”; and one might reply:

“Yes, all this you have done – but how! You have destroyed the small monopolies so that the one great basic monopoly […] may function the more freely and unrestrictedly. You have civilised the ends of the earth to win new terrain for the deployment of your vile avarice. You have brought about the fraternisation of the peoples – but the fraternity is the fraternity of thieves.” (Engels, 1844)

‘To the House of Rothschild!’ Socialism, charity, and Aladdin

“We are often told that the poor are grateful for charity. Some of them are, no doubt, but the best amongst the poor are never grateful. […] Why should they be grateful for the crumbs that fall from the rich man’s table? They should be seated at the board, and are beginning to know it.” (Oscar Wilde, 1891)

In a world of suffering, a basic human instinct to give to charity reflects a desire to do something and to connect. When charity workers appeal in supermarkets for donations to food banks, I feel that instinct and give readily. The statistics below from The Trussell Trust plainly illustrate just how critical such charity-giving has become to contemporary British society.

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And yet there is a painful ambivalence to charity, which shouldn’t be ignored. We live in a world of suffering, and we live in a world of tremendous wealth. Charity alleviates the suffering of a limited some, for some limited time, and to some limited degree, while charity is captive to capitalism. Charity cannot eliminate the root causes of why people need charity, namely, inequality, poverty, and political power, which lies in the hands of a few, for the benefit of a few. Recognising this doesn’t mean shrugging one’s shoulders the next time someone asks for a donation to a food bank; ‘Alas, the problem is capitalism!’ Recognising this does mean that if one desires to live in a humane, equal, and fully democratic society, then one needs to engage in political struggles to change our existing world, whose political economy fuels (on the one hand) a limitless thirst for capital accumulation and causes (on the other hand) unequal, exploitative, and inhumane conditions of existence – all the while, charity soothes, a little.

There is a darker side to charity too. Take Cameron’s heralding of a Big Society in 2010 – “from state power to people power” – whose vision of charities running public services is a guise to the neoliberal dismantlement of the welfare state and the public sector in favour of market forces. Take as well the world’s most famous philanthropist, Bill Gates (who has a net worth of $80 billion). On the Gates Foundation’s approach to global health problems, the New Internationalist quotes, from 2008, the World Health Organisation’s Head of Malaria Research, Aarata Kochi, who calls the Gates Foundation a “cartel”, which suppresses the diversity of scientific opinion, and is “accountable to no-one other than itself”. The New Internationalist continues:

“Setting out his approach at the 2008 World Economic Forum in Davos, [Bill Gates] said: ‘There are two great forces: self-interest and caring for others.’ To reconcile the two, the Foundation pursues partnerships in which, guided by NGOs, academics and assorted ‘stakeholders’, donor funds are used to overcome the ‘market failures’ which deny the poor access to medicine, by paying pharmaceutical companies to sell their products cheaper and pursue research projects they would otherwise ignore. […] The arrangements have, however, created concerns. As Tido von Schoen Angerer, Executive Director of the Access Campaign at Médecins Sans Frontières, explains, ‘The Foundation wants the private sector to do more on global health, and sets up partnerships with the private sector involved in governance. As these institutions are clearly also trying to influence policymaking, there are huge conflicts of interests… the companies should not play a role in setting the rules of the game.’ […] A study in the Lancet in 2009 showed only 1.4 per cent of the Foundation’s grants between 1998 and 2007 went to public-sector organizations, while of the 659 NGOs receiving grants, only 37 were headquartered in low- or middle-income countries. […] Research by Devi Sridhar at Oxford University warns that philanthropic interventions are ‘radically skewing public health programmes towards issues of the greatest concern to wealthy donors’. ‘Issues,’ she writes, ‘which are not necessarily top priority for people in the recipient country.’ […] [Dr David McCoy, a public health doctor and researcher at University College London] insists […] that it is important to mount a challenge: ‘Appealing to the megarich to be more charitable is not a solution to global health problems. We need a system that does not create so many billionaires and, until we do that, this kind of philanthropy is either a distraction or potentially harmful to the need for systemic change to the political economy.’”

To anyone dazzled by the idea of a marriage of capitalist self-interest and caring for others, the words of Friedrich Engels, from a piece called “To the House of Rothschild” in the Deutsche-Brüsseler-Zeitung in 1847, are worth recollecting. Here Engels deconstructs Karl Beck’s poem “To the House of Rothschild” to construct a searing critique of philanthrophy. (The Rothschild dynasty established their banking business in the 1760s, and by the nineteenth century had accumulated the greatest private wealth in the world.)


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Engels remarks of Beck’s poem:

“It is not the destruction of Rothschild’s real power, of the social conditions on which it is based, which the poet threatens; he merely desires it to be humanely applied. He laments that bankers are not socialist philanthropists, not enthusiasts for an ideal, not benefactors of mankind [sic], but just – bankers. Beck sings of the cowardly petty-bourgeois wretchedness, of the “poor man”, the pauvre honteux with his poor, pious and contradictory wishes of the “little man” in all his manifestations, and not of the proud, threatening, and revolutionary proletarian. The threats and reproaches which Beck showers on the house of Rothschild, sound, for all his good intentions, even more farcical to the reader than a Capuchin’s sermon. They are founded on the most infantile illusion about the power of the Rothschilds, on total ignorance of the connection between this power and existing conditions, and on a complete misapprehension about the means which the Rothschilds had to use to acquire power and to retain power.”

Engels continues, citing extracts from Beck’s poem:

“The rule of gold obeys your whims
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
Oh, would your works could be as splendid
And your heart as great as is your power! (p. 4).

It is a pity that Rothschild has the power and our poet the heart.


You occupied in eloquence the teacher’s chair,
Attentively the rich sat as your pupils;
Your task: to lead them out into the world,
Your role: to he their conscience.
They have gone wild – and you looked on,
They are corrupted – and yours is the blame (p. 27).

So Lord Rothschild could have prevented the development of trade and industry, competition, the concentration of property, the national debt and agiotage, in short, the whole development of modern bourgeois society, if only he had had somewhat more conscience. It really requires toute la désolante naïveté de la poésie allemande [all the utterly depressing naivety of German poetry] for one to dare to publish such nursery tales. Rothschild is turned into a regular Aladdin.”