It seems like a self-evident truth, but I've never heard the rationale behind it. Why is doping illegal in Tour de France?

I assume it is related to the safety of the riders? Then why don't they simply limit the doping to forms of doping and medical treatments that have been peer reviewed and demonstrated to be relatively safe?

Yeah, sure, it can never be completely safe, but that can be said for the sport itself, and any other sport. Riders make contact in Tour de France, they fall, there are inherent hazards to the sport. This is true for almost any sport.

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    Performance enhancing drugs are pretty much universally banned in sports. You should ask why this is in cycling specifically and all sports in general. Commented Apr 9, 2019 at 2:43
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    Read some of thing things riders used to do: en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Doping_at_the_Tour_de_France Cocaine?!?! Strychnine?!?! The next step is to get the rules applied consistently. Contador rode for the same team as Armstrong, and Contador actually failed at least one drug test... Commented Apr 9, 2019 at 9:51
  • Not a direct answer (unless reductio ad absurdum) youtube.com/watch?v=jAdG-iTilWU Somewhat graphic in a SNL skit way.
    – Criggie
    Commented Apr 9, 2019 at 22:51

3 Answers 3


You have to draw the line somewhere. If you allow all doping, then the winner will be the one most willing to sacrifice their long-term health to use the most drugs and maximise performance enhancement.

Then why don't they simply limit the doping to forms of doping and medical treatments that have been peer reviewed and demonstrated to be relatively safe?

They do this to a certain extent. One of the three criteria for adding a drug to the banned list is that it represents a health risk to athletes. There are also some substances which are allowed up to a certain threshold. Asthmatics (and non-asthmatics if they feel like it) for example are allowed to use a salbutamol (ventolin) puffer, but if an unreasonable amount of salbutamol is detected, then it is deemed as being a performance enhancer instead of being used for health.

The two other criteria for banning a drug are about fairness. They are "If the substance is performance enhancing" and "If the substance violates the spirit of the sport". If a substance meets two of those three criteria, it can be added to the WADA list of banned substances. You can read more about this here.

  • I like the last paragraph because it gets to the spirit (to say nothing of the adjudication) of the standards imposed on the bikes.
    – Paul H
    Commented Apr 9, 2019 at 22:02
  • Very good answer. However, it seems incorrect to give the impression that they allow some drugs that are safe. Because in your same answer you state that NO drug that is used AS performance enhancing is allowed. This is a basic logical contradiction, and we're back to the original problem. It seems absurd to me that high performance, exotic bike components are allowed, but safe drugs are not. I'm not an athlete myself, and I don't understand what this "spirit" of the sport is. Why not ban physical exercise too? Some have better training facilities? Elaborating some on the spirit would be nice. Commented Apr 11, 2019 at 11:59
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    As just one example, caffeine is performance enhancing, yet it isn't banned because it doesn't meet either of the other two criteria. There are plenty of substances which enhance performance, but still can be used because they aren't banned. Commented Apr 11, 2019 at 23:35

Allowing Doping defers the risk of participating until after the end of the event. In normal situations, risk taking that does not pan out is normally associated with losing, so taking risks is self limiting (people who take too many risks lose too often so do not make to to the top levels of sport)

Allowing doping means the risk taking involved in the sport will no longer be self limiting. The top level sports people will be those who are fastest, regardless of the risks they are taking. Any down side of risk taking is so too far in the future to affect the outcome.

The question then is no why is doping banned, the question is what is sport trying to identify. If its purely 'the fastest' and we discard morality, then banning doping makes no sense. If we are looking for the fastest, within moral boundaries, then banning doping is required to protect athletes from themselves.

As to allowing drugs that are deemed safe by some authority - that is a slippery slope as someone has to define and enforce a line - where does that line sit, what is safe, what is peaceable, what morals are being used to guide these decisions? Much easier, and therefore safer to enforce 0 tolerance.

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    The point is not so much 'morality' as 'fairness', i.e. clear and defined rules for everyone. It can be argued that there is nothing moral in 'protecting people from themselves', generally. But allowing unlimited doping creates unbounded competition, and mostly between biochemists at that rather than between athletes.
    – Zeus
    Commented Apr 9, 2019 at 6:17
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    "If we are looking for the fastest, within moral boundaries, then doping is required to protect athletes from themselves." I assume you mean "... then banning doping..." And it's more than just protecting athletes from themselves. Pressure from peers and management is enormous. If you don't dope when lots of other riders are, you don't get results. If you don't get results, you get fired. Commented Apr 9, 2019 at 10:04
  • @David - Edited answer. I absolutely agree, On reflection its those profiting from the the business of sport that need to be stopped more than the atheletes
    – mattnz
    Commented Apr 9, 2019 at 20:23

The root of Tour de France was a celebration in human suffering and perseverance, with anything that undermines this frowned upon. In the original incarnations riders were self-supported including having to do all aspects of bike repair:

On the way down from the Tourmalet, Christophe was hit by a race vehicle, and his fork broke, rendering his bike unusable, and the rules said that he had to repair it himself. He walked more than 10 km down to the next village, and found a place where he could repair his bicycle. He worked on it for over three hours, being watched by race officials who made sure that he was not helped by anyone. When Christophe asked a small boy, of seven years old, to work the bellows, he was fined with ten minutes.

1913 Tour de France

The ability to persevere was what brought people to watch and follow the original Tour. Over time, the race evolved, and some rules relaxed, but perseverance of the human spirit still remains the top commodity of the race.

Arguably, anything that makes the race itself "easier" in terms of apparent suffering frowned upon by race promoters. This is likely why the race has had such a complicated history with doping. They can't be seen as directly supporting doping, as it could appear to diminish the perseverance component, but at the same time they realize the physiological demands are insane so they have at times turned a blind eye. As long as the race still appears "fair" and the riders are shown hurting, then everyone so to speak is happy.

These historical constraints and nods to tradition make it unlikely that the race will ever suddenly embrace bold new approaches. The interest has never been in "fairness" but in ensuring there is a good show of suffering and perseverance.

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