Like many others, I expect, I am tired of reading and hearing about doping. I am tired of being asked my opinion on doping, and particularly on Lance Armstrong and doping. I love this sport, and I am sensitive to the beating it is taking. Like a bad dream, I would like to wake up and have it all go away. Unlike a bad dream, it won’t.
Despite my personal desire for escape, cycling utah, as a cycling publication, must report and weigh in on this topic. Thus, in this issue I will be reviewing The Secret Race, Tyler Hamilton’s damning book, co-written by Daniel Coyle, on doping in the professional peloton, and in particular with and by Lance Armstrong. Also in this issue are three articles by Jared Eborn regarding Lance Armstrong and his now-shattered world.
However, I want to make a few observations and share some thoughts on this whole sordid affair. First, let’s be clear about this. Lance Armstrong did not invent doping. Nor did he single-handedly bring about the widespread use of PEDs (performance enhancing drugs) in the professional peloton. Just read some early writings from Tour de France history. Remember Tom Simpson who, ironically, has a monument in his honor near the summit of Mont Ventoux where, in 1973, he died as a result of having used amphetamines. Recall that the Festina affair was in 1998, Lance’s first year back in competition after recovering from cancer. And that on that Festina team was one Richard Virenque who denied doping, and even wrote a book, Ma Vérité (“My Truth”), proclaiming his innocence, only to finally admit otherwise. After a short suspension, he was allowed to return to racing and became a French cycling hero. In sum, doping was well-integrated in the sport before Lance began his reign.
Rather, like everything else in his career, Armstrong took what was already there, and did it smarter and better. His attention to detail, his focus and intensity, his intelligence and awareness, all led to Armstrong being the best in all aspects of the sport. Doping was a part of the sport, and he organized and did it better than anyone else.
Second, as clearly detailed in Hamilton’s book, there developed a dichotomy between “cheating” and “breaking the rules”. Riders knew they were breaking the rules, but it was not cheating. Rather, it was just a part of the sport. They were “rationalizing”, something we have all done to a degree in one or more aspects of our lives. (This brings to mind a legal seminar I attended as an attorney where the presenter made the statement, “There is no such thing as truth. Only perception.” Doping was perceived as part of the strategy for performing well, not as cheating.) One thing that should give us all pause is the challenge, “What would you have done?”
Third, would Armstrong be treated as a hero, as others are, if he “came out and told the truth”? Not a chance. People love to have heros toppled, and, oh man, he was a hero and he has been toppled. Because Armstrong was so wildly successful, and arrogant about it, and not so nice to those who crossed him, intentionally or otherwise, his fall is especially satisfying.
In that vein, though many former teammates are being lauded for coming forward and admitting to their prior drug use, don’t pretend they would have done it voluntarily. While I am certain their admissions are cathartic, it would not have happened without grand jury subpoenas and a sense of impending exposure. I am not condemning them. I dare say that nearly everyone would want to keep past sins under wraps even if they had been repented of them.
Fourth, Lance Armstrong is not evil incarnate. It is a fact he had cancer. It is a fact he created the Lance Armstrong Foundation which has impacted the lives of, and provided support and comfort for, thousands of cancer sufferers, their families and friends. While his career was built in part by breaking the rules, his efforts on behalf of cancer sufferers and survivors are positive and good. And, I believe, well-intentioned.
Finally, I am not a Lance supporter. (I continue to maintain, though, as outlined in my column last month (“Still A Champion?”), that in a world without doping Armstrong would still have won all those Tours de France.) Rather, I am glad USADA doggedly pursued its investigation when many (including me) believed it to be past history and wished USADA would just leave it alone. But I refuse to jump on the bandwagon and throw him under it. In a way, I see him as a tragic figure: As a man who saw how the game was being played, who then played it more intelligently and better than anyone else, and who lacked the moral foundation to think that it might be wrong. In that latter respect, he was, we are learning, one amongst a whole lot of others, including a lot of good people.
But yes, I am glad for what USADA has done. Glad because of the widespread impact this appears to be having, right down to its UCI roots, on this sport that I love. I think the reverberations from this are going to be felt throughout the sport for many years into the future. I believe it is going to help secure for those coming into the sport the ability to compete cleanly and honestly, and help provide for us fans clean and honest competition to be excited about.