Lance Armstrong and Our Illusions

Lance Armstrong “gave up his fight against doping accusations.” This is how it is being reported, based on Armstrong’s bristly and defiant letter of concession. Presumably, Armstrong thinks that he maintains plausible deniability (and millions of dollars in sponsorships) this way. He can continue to say that he is being persecuted by the US Anti-Doping Agency, that they were on a “witch hunt,” that the ten witnesses who were prepared to testify against him were offered “sweet heart deals” for their own doping charges, that, in short, he is innocent and has been done wrong. Of course this is not really plausible. If Armstrong had a decent defense, he would have been able to secure at least a compromised result.  One rumor circulating earlier this summer within obscure insider-athletic circles, for example, was that Armstrong would be stripped of a few Tour de France victories in exchange for keeping the rest and maintaining some of his stature, and perhaps a wee bit of dignity. His failure to pull that off is some indication of the strength of the case against him.  Why would the US Anti-Doping Agency compromise at all if they could nail him for cheating during all seven tours?  Armstrong’s decision to stop fighting the charges deprives us of the evidence that would have been presented, but we know that the ten witnesses included George Hincapie, one of the most respected US cyclists and Armstrong’s long-time team mate, and that the accusations included use of EPO (a banned blood booster), blood transfusions, corticosteroids, and testosterone.  We also know that Armstrong had blood profiles in two years, 2009 and 2010, that were consistent with doping.

Still, why jump to the extraordinary conclusion, in the absence of a trial with all of the evidence vetted and assessed, that America’s best cyclist ever cheated throughout his entire career without once failing a drug test outright? First, as all the experts will attest, the testing is never as good as the cheating. A lot of cheating happens during training, in particular the use of banned steroids or hormones.  Even cheating that is integral to racing, such as blood doping or transfusions, can be very difficult to detect in a timely way. Second, and this is the hard part for many sports fans, it has been common knowledge for years within cycling circles that the only way to make it is to cheat. Talk to anyone who has spent any time in men’s professional cycling in the last two decades or so and they will tell you… “I faced a choice.  Start taking the meds or give it up.  Go see ‘the doctor’ or you are not going to make it.”  Furthermore, the rampant doping and drug use in cycling has been officially well known for at least the past several years, thanks to the various crack-downs by professional cycling agencies.

How can something be so very well known in some circles, and yet so hidden and unbelievable to the average American sports fan?  In part, it is because American sports fans love their illusions as much as they love their athletes.  We want more and faster records.  We want spectacular longevity and strength.  We want wins and world championships.  And yet, also consistent with some aspect of our national character, we want it all without wanting to know about the dirty things that make it possible.  We are sort of sweet and naive that way.  We are therefore shocked and bitterly disappointed when confronted with the fact that our athlete/heroes were human after all.  In Armstrong’s case, being human meant that in order to win in a sport filled with dopers, he would have to dope smarter and better.  For a long time he did, and doing so enabled him to train ferociously.  There is something to admire in that– being the most cunning and driven cheater.  Yet it is closer to admiring famous bank robbers than olympian athletes.

Professional cycling is in a state of transition, and may be heading back to the pre-illicit substance days.  If so, the best thing American sports fans could do would be to celebrate our athletes’ quiet victories and applaud their monstrous efforts as much as or more than their bling. (And here, a shout out to fourth place Olympian Taylor Phinney is in order.) If that fails to satisfy, the other alternative is to drop the illusions and hope for the next gangster who will cheat and claw his way to humanly impossible success.

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