So the big sports news this week has been Lance Armstrong, seven time winner of the Tour de France, and therefore the greatest cyclist in history, and the evidence that, despite his protestations to the contrary, he cheated. Doped. Took performance enhancing drugs. This week’s Sports Illustrated laid it all out there. Based on an investigation by the USADA (US Anti-Doping Agency), the case made in SI is thorough and damning. I think it’s safe to say that the ‘beyond reasonable doubt’ standard has been met here, at least in the court of public opinion. I don’t think think there’s much doubt that Armstrong built his success on a foundation of PEDs. And thus comes the recommendation that the UCI, the Union Cycliste International, strip him of his titles.
SI‘s story points out something rather interesting; the difference between US and European attitudes about doping. It’s quite a bit like the difference in attitudes towards the sexual philandering of politicians. Francois Hollande, the current President of France, for example, is quite open about his mistress, Valerie Trierweiler, who was, also openly, mistress to Patrick Devedjian, minster of finance in the government of Nicholas Sarkozy. This despite the fact that all three were married to other people. But nobody in France thinks anything of it. It’s all considered no big deal. Uh, we Americans don’t see it the same way.
But in France, it’s just expected that the winner of the Tour de France was doing, well, whatever, steroids and human growth hormone and blood doping and whatever. You can’t win that race if you don’t. Or couldn’t. Bradley Wiggins, this year’s winner, says he didn’t dope, and protocols have been beefed up to the point that he probably didn’t. But was this true in the past? As SI quotes five time Tour winner, Jacques Anquetil, “You’d have to be an imbecile or hypocrite to imagine that a professional cyclist who rides 235 days a year can hold himself together without stimulants.”
SI‘s story suggests the same. Armstrong cycled as part of the United Postal Service team, a hand-picked cadre of top flight cyclists, all of whom doped, and all of whom have now come clean about doping. The cyclists against whom he competed all doped as well. The evil genius in all this, Dr. Michele Ferrari, was an expert on the newest methods of doping and masking agents, and a close advisor to Armstrong’s team, but he consulted with many other riders as well.
The language the American sports media uses to describe the use of PEDs tends towards the moralistic: cheating, a fraud, doping. (I just did it too, calling Dr. Ferrari an ‘evil genius.’) But how can an action be ‘cheating’ if everyone in the sport is doing it? How can administering prescription drugs be illegal if they’re prescribed by a doctor?
Lance Armstrong has always seemed like an immensely competitive guy, a guy who is so driven to win, that no other considerations seem to matter much to him. The guy he reminds me of most in all of sports is Michael Jordan. They’re both guys whose need to win almost seems pathological. I had a friend like that in high school. Real average guy, Tony, not all that big, not all that fast. He was a running back on our football team, and when the game was on the line, you basically couldn’t tackle him. He just wanted to win more than anyone else on the team.
The language of sports suggests that’s a good trait to have. We talk about guys giving 110%, we quote Vince Lombardi (‘winning isn’t everything, it’s the only thing’), we give massive props to guys who lay it all on the line, who leave everything on the field, who want it more than the other guys. Sports is the ultimate meritocracy, and merit means effort, especially if it leads to winning. Is there a dark side to sports success? Of course there is. But we don’t emphasize it much. Sometimes, when we look at the battered body of a retired sports hero, we notice how a guy we once admired, even sort of worshipped, can’t climb stairs anymore, can’t remember the names of his children. Or we see them give up. End it. Pace Junior Seau, requiscat Dave Duerson.
But our favorite sports narrative ever is the guy who just flat out won’t quit, the guy who absolutely must win, no matter what, regardless of cost. Kirk Gibson hitting a game winning World Series home run on one leg. Kerri Strug sticking the landing on a broken ankle. Michael Jordan barfing on the bench, every time out, then willing his team to victory.
And Lance Armstrong, cancer survivor, and seven time winner of the Tour de France.
Barry Bonds set himself the task of becoming the greatest hitter the game of baseball had ever seen. He allowed no other consideration to intrude on his pursuit of that goal. Lance Armstrong committed himself to the goal of becoming the greatest cyclist in history. He refused to let any other factor dictate his fate. He made it. They both made it. Now they’re both reviled as cheaters.
I get that it’s not as simple as saying that Armstrong cheated in a time when cheating was rampant. I get that cyclists who would much rather not have jeopardized their health by using steroids were essentially forced to go along with the crowd, quite possibly to their own detriment. SI‘s story describes a cyclist named Christian Vande Velde, who Armstrong put on the Postal team, who didn’t want to dope, and the pressure Armstrong put on the guy to go along with the other guys on the team. Let’s say Vande Velde develops health problems relating to HGH or something. Could his illness be blamed Armstrong? In a sense, yes, I suppose so.
But if the UCI takes away Armstrong’s medals, if it declares that Lance Armstrong did not win the Tour de France from 1999 to 2005, wouldn’t it be saying something absurd? He did win those races. He was the greatest. Those are the historical facts. I suppose some kind of sanctions might have some deterrent value, might prevent future riders from doping. But don’t re-write history. Contextualize it, explain it, but what happened, happened.
Grown-ups make choices, and live by the consequences of those choices. Lance Armstrong chose to endanger his health in pursuit of a goal. I’m uncomfortable with all the moralizing. If a sport, or sports federation, chooses policies to protect the health and well-being of its participants, then yes, rules should be established, consequences defined. But both major league baseball and world-class cycling chose to bury their heads in the sand. Lance Armstrong was the most exciting, charismatic athlete ever to choose cycling as a career. Cycling profited, both materially and in terms of publicity, from his success. He also inspired millions of cancer patients with his story (incomplete and falsified though it was). I’m uncomfortable with a current PED witch hunt that ignores those realities.