With Lance Armstrong and his confession to Oprah Winfrey in the news, we’d thought we’d reprise this piece that was originally posted in October 2012.
I don’t feel sorry for Lance Armstrong.
Yesterday, in the wake of the release of the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency’s report that revealed compelling testimony from 26 people, including 11 of his teammates, that Armstrong was not only doping, but was a sort of drug lord, Armstrong quit as head of his Livestrong foundation. He lost his endorsement deals with Nike and Anheuser-Busch.
Armstrong knew the rules and broke them and not only lied about it, but also took a holier-than-thou stance and accused others of lying about him. He was doping before he had cancer and after he had cancer. He couldn’t have done the things he did without the dope.
So I don’t feel sorry for Lance Armstrong. I don’t like him. He’s a liar and a cheat and a hypocrite and for all the good he’s done in the world–all the money he’s raised and all the people he’s inspired–he deserves to take a fall for the horrible way he’s behaved.
My question is, did it have to be this way?
I heard a fascinating interview with Dan Coyle this week on the Slate sports podcast Hang Up And Listen. Coyle has written a couple of books about the secretive world of cycling, including, with Tyler Hamilton: The Secret Race: Inside the World of the Tour de France: Doping, Cover-ups, and Winning at all Costs.
In the interview, Coyle responds to the idea that “everybody is doping, so the playing field is actually level” with disdain. He says that illegal doping makes the field more uneven, because not all athletes have access to the doctors and the drugs and the subterfuge.
He’s right. What strikes me, though, is that the playing field is always inherently uneven. No two people have the same genetic makeup, and we all grow up in different circumstances, with differences in environment and nutrition and training and parenting and medical care. It’s not possible to have a level playing field.
If I grow up with supportive parents, eat a balanced diet, practice with great coaches in the best facilities, and have doctors to take care of my ailments and deficiencies–correct my vision, heal my illnesses before they damage my body, repair my muscles and bones and connective tissues when I’m injured–don’t I have great advantages over athletes growing up in less-than-ideal conditions? Doesn’t the bobsled team from Canada have a natural advantage over the Jamaican bobsled team?
And why are performance-enhancing drugs so much different from eyeglasses or Tommy John surgery? Lest you think it’s a ridiculous comparison, consider this: according to Loren Grush of Fox News, “Now, student athletes looking for a way to get an extra boost in their pitching arm have been putting their hopes in an elective surgery called ulnar collateral ligament (UCL) reconstruction.” That’s Tommy John surgery. Elective Tommy John surgery. So apparently it’s okay to surgically alter your body, but not to take drugs that allow you to train harder, which is what Armstrong did.
Let’s be clear about what performance-enhancing drugs do. They don’t make you grow muscles. They don’t turn you into Superman. They allow you to train longer, faster, harder. You still have to put in the work.
So why are we so afraid of them? Where do we draw the line between good vitamins and supplements and evil drugs? What’s the difference between Tommy John surgery and EPO? Between Lasik surgery and testosterone? Why do we think it’s okay to alter our bodies in one way and not another?
Doping is real, and athletes and their doctors are becoming better at disguising it all the time. We’re fond of talking of “the steroid era” in baseball, but we’d be fools to think it’s over. As long as they can use them to gain advantage, athletes will use drugs.
So instead of trying to enforce anti-doping rules, why not abolish them? If the field is already uneven, perhaps allowing all athletes to do whatever they can to increase their strength and endurance should be okay–and would actually help level the playing field.
Are we trying to save athletes from themselves because the drugs are unsafe? Sure–some of them, anyway. Athletes who take steroids certainly increase their risk of cancer. But they’re taking crazy risks with their bodies, anyway. Lots of football players die young–and pretty much know that’s what they risk to play the game they love. Cycling? I’d need both hands to count my friends who’ve been injured–some of them severely–in cycling accidents.
Also: we don’t much care if pro wrestlers or movie stars take steroids to pump up their bodies. Why to we treat competitive athletes differently?
Lance Armstrong still won the Tour de France seven times, and lots of his competitors were doping, too. No doubt many of them also had had surgery to repair broken bones and torn ligaments. Some of them had great coaches and world-class training facilities; others were on their own. It’s not fair or even, and it never has been.
So I still don’t feel sorry for Armstrong. But I wonder why some forms of performance enhancement are good and others are bad. One way to eliminate cheating and lying is to eliminate the need for the duplicity.
Photo by de:Benutzer:Hase (Self-photographed) [CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons.