Doping, activism at center of sports ethics panel

Austin Colbert
The Aspen Times
Former professional cyclist Lance Armstrong, left, alongside former National Football League punter Chris Kluwe, discuss activism among professional athletes during a forum Friday at the Doerr-Hosier Center in Aspen. The forum, centered on ethics in sports, was put on by The Aspen Institute Society of Fellows in collaboration with the institute's Sports and Society Program.
Austin Colbert / Aspen Times |

Even with Michael Phelps racking up gold medals for the United States swim team, the success of the U.S. gymnasts and the recent downfall of the U.S. women’s soccer team, the Russian doping scandal continues to be the story of Rio 2016.

Doping, in general, has been a hot topic for years and it doesn’t look to be going anywhere.

Friday at the Doerr-Hosier Center in Aspen, several notable former athletes sat down for a panel discussion on the seemingly unanswerable question about how to handle the ongoing doping dilemma in sports.

“It’s not Russia. It’s not the athletes. It’s a society problem. We are focused on the end result,” said Gretchen Bleiler, a retired Aspen-based Olympic snowboarder with four Winter X Games gold medals to her name. “We are focused on medals. We are focused on winning. We’ve gotten out of control. Really, it’s a huge perspective shift around, ‘Why are we competing in sports?’”

The panel on doping was one of four topics during the Aspen Institute’s Society of Fellows “Ethics in Sports Forum” on Friday, held in collaboration with the Aspen Institute’s Sports & Society Program.

Before doping became the forum’s focus, the Aspen Institute’s Tom Farrey, also a renowned journalist, moderated a discussion on activism among pro athletes.

Joining Bleiler as a panelist for the opening session was former National Football League punter Chris Kluwe and cycling legend Lance Armstrong.

“One of the big reasons why you are seeing so many athletes speak out on social issues now is the rise of the Internet, and more importantly, the rise of social media,” said Kluwe, who has spent years fighting for gay rights. “I was a punter. No one cares who the punter is. I would like them to care who the punter is, but they don’t. They are there for the quarterbacks and receivers. But the thing is, I had built up a social media presence.”

Social media

The panel discussed how technology, particularly social media, has changed activism in sports. Even a decade ago, seeing a professional athlete speak out on social issues was almost taboo.

Now, it’s an everyday occurrence.

“When I actually got to the Olympics in 2006, I was ready to respond to something bigger than just myself. I was ready to use my voice and use this platform now, as an Olympian, to talk about something bigger,” said Bleiler, an advocate for climate change awareness. “It takes a lot of courage to stand up for the things you believe in and say things that aren’t always going to be supported.”

As the panel on activism segued into the topic of doping — moderated by Jon Frankel, a news correspondent for HBO’s “Real Sports with Bryant Gumbel” — Farrey decided to ask Armstrong if it would ever be possible to create an equal playing field where children wouldn’t feel a need to chemically enhance their bodies.

Armstrong, whose own doping scandal stripped him of seven Tour de France titles, echoed similar sentiments to the other panelists in that it’s a problem that society needs to address, not necessarily individuals.

“Whatever I tell you is not going to be a popular answer,” said Armstrong, who wasn’t part of the actual doping panel. “In some ways, I have a little bit of sympathy for Russia … I don’t think Russia is alone here. It goes deeper than the Olympics. … Are we going to apply this standard across the board? We’re not.”

Russian culture

Jonathan Vaughters, also a former professional cyclist and the founder of Colorado-based Slipstream Sports, anchored the doping session alongside Bleiler.

In his early cycling days, he once lived in a household of Russian cyclists and witnessed firsthand how deep doping had taken root in their culture.

According to Vaughters, doping was never a question of right or wrong for the Russians, but a socially acceptable means to the possibility of a better life.

“These Russian guys, they didn’t say no because they never thought it was a bad thing,” Vaughters said. “It was the only decision.”

The final two panels focused on youth sports. Kluwe was joined by Dr. Robert Cantu, one of the country’s leading concussion experts, to discuss the impact of contact sports, particularly football, on young bodies.

In short, both men agreed that waiting until high school to play tackle football was a good decision.

Cantu and Angie Franks, the vice president of market development at SportsEngine, a youth sports technology company, wrapped up the forum with a discussion on giving children what they need in terms of athletics.

“First of all, I think young kids should have fun,” Cantu said. “Many papers have been written about why kids drop out, and mostly it’s because they are no longer having fun.”