Lance Armstrong’s world appears to be crashing down around him this week. The number of people coming forward who, along with admitting their own doping, or not, are saying that they have firsthand knowledge that Lance doped, is growing.
And unfortunately, not surprising.
The reality is that doping had become ubiquitous throughout the pro cycling peloton. It was common in the 70’s and 80’s and by the 90’s you simply couldn’t be competitive if you didn’t.
But it wasn’t just cycling. Doping has been common in other sports as well. Cycling is just the first sport to take a really serious stab at eliminating it. Besides instituting more testing and more rigorous testing, cycling has introduced the biological passport that goes beyond just looking for banned substances to comparing athletes blood indicators over time to look for unnatural changes.
These measures have caught a lot of dopers in the past few years and made it far more difficult to dope than it ever has been. Combined with a new crop of riders and team directors who are strongly anti-doping, the sport is likely cleaner than it has been in decades and may well be the cleanest pro sport today.
But back to Lance.
Was he cheating?
I hate to say it, but, it depends on your perspective. If you consider cheating to be having an unfair advantage over your opponents, I don’t think he was. His opponents, very likely, were doping as well. The reality is that it was a bit of a catch-22, if you wanted to compete you’d dope, if you didn’t dope, you wouldn’t be able to compete. If you wanted to be an individual savior of the sport, good luck.
How about riders who wanted to race but didn’t want to dope? Those who could have been competitive in a fully clean sport? Were they cheated? How about fan’s who bought in to the lies that so many told about not doping? I understand why they did, but that doesn’t negate the fact that they lied.
I think it would have been much better if at some point the riders all came together and decided to confess en-mass. If they came out and said “you know what, doping crept in to this sport over the past six or seven decades to the point that it became mandatory. We all, OK, many of us, have done it. But today we’re taking a stand. Past sins are forgiven and going forward we pledge to make this a clean sport.”
A pipe dream perhaps, but it would have provided a clean escape from the past and anyone caught doping after that point was fairly warned. Without such a clean break from the past, riders were left wondering when or if they should stop doping. If you don’t know that your primary competitors have stopped doping, will you? Do you want to be on that unlevel of a playing field?
Sadly, that clean break didn’t happen so we’re left with this slow agonizing ordeal.
And, the confusion of how to handle past sins. If you negate Armstrong’s wins, who do you give them to? What is the likelyhood that the second, third, or any place rider in these races was clean?
The good news is that I do believe cycling today is cleaner than ever and likely the cleanest of all major pro sports. The testing protocols put in place make doping far more difficult than at any time in the past and even what doping does still exist is of far less benefit as it requires micro dosing which provides extremely limited benefit.
I do not condone doping. However, I’m also a realist. If someone has worked extremely hard for several years to make it to the elite ranks only to discover that to be there they’ll need to dope – that’s a tough nut. You’ve finally made it to the top, you’re on a pro team, and one of your first days the team doc calls you in to his room and hands you some pills. You quickly realize that to compete, and to remain a pro, that you’ll need to take some occasionally, just like all the other pros. What’s a young guy who’s finally achieved his dream to do?
There was doping around me when I raced as a Junior & Cat 1, but quite frankly, I wasn’t serious enough to consider it. Turning pro was not realistic for me. I’d hope that if I had faced this situation, as so many have, that I would choose to leave the sport rather than dope. I cannot say that I would have made that choice though. I’m human. The pull and tug of being a top pro athlete can be huge. If everyone else is doing it, who will it hurt?
I have a huge level of respect for those who did face this and made the right choice. I’m only aware of one. I do not judge those who made the wrong choice in the past.
Rightly or wrongly I view this differently than business, government, or police corruption. I’ve faced being asked to mislead customers or lie to higher ups to cover something up. This was not a difficult choice and I’m glad to say that I made the right choice. I also quickly learned to act in a way that didn’t leave much doubt in others minds what my choice would be so that they wouldn’t even bother asking. More later.