Friday, June 17, 2011


June 5th, 2011, the AidsLifeCycle ride took place once again. Since doing the ‘Ride’ last year with my brave son Adam, I’ve found new appreciation for professional cyclists.

The Tour de France is the Olympics of cycling although there are other such feats. The Vuelta a EspaƱa and Giro d’Italia are just two of the many mind-boggling, super-strenuous, physically excruciatingly demanding cycling competitions. Like most extreme sports, cycling hasn’t been spared its problems.

Just this year, Floyd Landis, a former fellow cyclist from Lance Armstrong’s team Radio Shack admitted taking performance-enhancing drugs. Because of this admission, he was stripped of his title for winning the Tour de France in 2006. He seemed sincere in his interview on 60 Minutes, when he said all cyclists who want to rank among the best take these drugs. He went on to say that if you’re part of the Peloton (the group of cyclists from the various teams that ride together), or just one of the regular cyclists, you don’t have access to these drugs. But if you stand out for your talent and lead the pack, then the drugs, the way to take them and avoid detection, can be your ticket to a Maillot Jaune.

I’m a big fan of Lance Armstrong. I feel a kindred spirit with him. He battled prostate and brain cancer to come back and win not once or twice, but seven times the Maillot Jaune (Yellow Jersey) of the Tour De France, the coveted overall winning jersey that comes with prize money in the amount of 450,000 Euro or $700,000 and tons of glory. We all love someone who rises above the worst imaginable scenario, only to soars to the highest of all heights by winning over and over again the most prestigious ride among all rides.

I wasn’t surprised when Landis accused Armstrong of doping. While this hasn’t been proven, I tend to believe Floyd’s got a point. I have no doubt that all of the top riders including the stage winners who adorn the green or polka dot jerseys are doing so as well.

Illness sets you back tremendously. It took me three years to fully recover from liver transplant #2. But illness is also a powerful motivator. For someone like Lance, a competitive and ambitious cyclist who had just cheated death, the choice was clear. Do whatever it takes to prove to himself and the world that no deadly disease can get the best of him.

Personally, I’m convinced that the Tour de France can’t be undertaken without performance-enhancing drugs. Not at the speeds they go, not at that level of competitiveness and athleticism. I believe that all involved in the sport know this. The occasional victimization of a champion such as Floyd Landis serves no other purpose than to send the message that the cycling authorities are doing their best to keep the sport clean. Floyd became the sacrificial lamb for the sake of the public.

It reminds me of the war on drugs. Every now and then, a big fish gets caught, and the public at large is relieved to know that something is being done about drug trafficking. Never mind the fact that this multi billion dollar industry is alive and well, and will continue to thrive as long as people take drugs.

In cycling it’s pretty much the same. The committee, cycling official, managers and cyclists know that drugs are an integral part of their sport. Doping is alive and well among riders and will remain so as long as it’s a multi million dollar televised event, with tons of sponsors and scores of tourists.

I enjoy watching the Tour de France. I love that it’s a grueling feat. My muscles tense every time the cyclists tackle a ridiculously long and steep hill labeled ‘hors categorie’ or ‘out of category’. These hills, harder than the hardest category 4 hills, demand more than just performance-enhancing drugs. In fact, I say let all cyclists take the drugs and thus even out the playing field. I firmly believe that regardless how many drugs one might take, they won’t make you win. The race to the finish line, the title of best accomplishment will go to the cyclist who wins the mental challenge. More than any drugs, it’s determination, willpower, inner drive and a ‘mind over matter’ matter.

In my opinion, Floyd Landis deserved to keep the Maillot Jaune. He deserved to be rewarded for his mental tenacity, which is the real stuff that allowed him to win in 2006.The fact that the cyclists are doping didn’t and won’t stop me from watching the Tour.

Among all of today’s extreme sports, cycling requires the most endurance. I have respect for any athlete that crosses 2,263 miles (3,643km), up hills and over cobble stones through three countries (Netherlands, Belgium, France) in 23 days, drugged or not.

Having said all of the above, none of this applies to any other sport.

 As for the AidsLifeCycle ride, there were times when I wished I had some performance-enhancing drugs; especially when tackling the hills called Evil Twins and Quad-busters. They might not have been ‘out of category’ hills for anyone else, but they certainly were for me. 

Monday, June 13, 2011


I got in my car and switched on the radio as I always do when driving back home from the gym. As usual, Larry Mantel was on, and his guest was Scott Carney. I’d never heard his name before but you can be sure my ears perked up when he said, ‘…organ trafficking.’

Scott Carney is a contributing editor for Wired magazine and an investigative reporter who used to live in India. He became interest in organ trafficking after a friend of his died there. The vultures immediately began to circle (not literally). Before his friend was dead, organ brokers came out of the woodwork, asking Scott what he intended to do with his friend’s body parts.

India is a growing economy, but there are still plenty of Third World characteristic in the way the country functions. One of these is a lack of basic, essential, well-organized, regulatory mechanisms i.e. laws on the books that are actually enforced. In this case (and countless others), it means supervised and controlled organ donation, retrieval and transfer laws. According to Carney, ever since organ transplants have become commonplace, life expectancy has risen around the world by thirty years. The problem is the means by which this life expectancy has been attained.

China is pretty much in the same boat when it comes to organ trafficking, but India seems to have the most blatant problem. On one hand, consider the 25 billionaires who have emerged from India’s steadily growing economy. On the other hand, consider over 51% of the Indian population don’t have a toilet. It would be presumptuous of me to say “don’t have a toilet in their home” because stacked cardboard boxes hardly qualify as a ‘home.’ 51% of India’s population means twice the population of the United States uses a toilet outside of their dwelling or, a plastic bags...if it’s available. Add lack of social standards, rampant corruption and mismanaged, inefficient bureaucracy to this equation and you have a recipe for exploitation.

I can tell you in all certainty that the 25 billionaires don’t become targets of organ trade rings. However I’m not so sure about the five hundred million who don’t have toilets. Everybody from broker, to doctor, authorities, hospital and donor are in on the scam. Scott Carney went on to mention a group of eighty women post tsunami so desperate to feed their family they sold their kidney for less than $2,000. When you don’t have a toilet, it sounds like a lot of money. But it isn’t. It was quickly spent, and the families ended up in even worse situations than before (is that even possible?), especially in those much too often cases where the organ retrieval hadn’t been done properly.

Speaking of retrieving an organ properly…most recently, a seventeen-year-old boy in China really wanted an iPad 2. So much so that he was willing to do anything to get one, even sell his kidney. And it was much too easy for him to do this. A broker contacted the teen on the Internet. The teen ended up following the broker’s instructions, and going to hospital #198 in Chenzhou without notifying his parents, and having his kidney removed.

This story is disturbing on so many levels. It turns out, hospital #198 wasn’t qualified to perform such a surgery. You’d ask yourself, why would they accept to do the job? As a result, the boy is having serious health complications due to…a poorly retrieved organ. China, the up and coming economy just like India, has plenty of corruption to go around. No matter how illegal, everyone is a willing participant if it means a payday. Organ trafficking has become a very lucrative way to compensate for low paying jobs, joblessness and poverty.

Now about the boy; this is an example of the increasing consumerism among Chinese youth. There’s a strong likelihood peer pressure from friends or classmates pushed the teen to these extreme measures. Perhaps he wanted to fit in. Or he fell pray to the ‘keeping up with the Jones’ mentality now rampant in the newly materialistic China. The boy received $3,400 for his organ, got an iPad 2, but might die because no one ever stopped him along the way.

No system is perfect. Here in the United States, some doctors have slipped through the cracks. In 2005, St. Vincent hospital in Los Angeles had to shut down the liver transplant department. Doctors gave a Saudi national who was #52 on the list, a liver that was meant for a near-death person. He ended up passing away. While it’s sad such an unethical decision was made, it’s also true that the checks and balances worked. A thorough investigation shed light on the fraud. Dr. Lopez, head of the transplant department, had to resign.

What is the conclusion if you live in India or China and need an organ? Best case scenario is that you’re somehow related to one of the 25 billionaires. Short of that, you’re pretty much on your own.