Lance Armstrong, Drugs and the Ambivalence of a Sportsfan

I'm kind of happy with today's column. You should read it.

Every year around this time, you can count on seeing several things. High temperatures, fireworks stands and new doping allegations against Lance Armstrong. Seriously, it happens every year. This time, the United States Anti-Doping Agency (USADA), a semi-governmental body, has suspended Armstrong from both cycling and triathlon competitions and has begun an investigation into his alleged drug use between 1996 and 2005, as well as 2009 and 2010.

The Tour de France begins in a couple of weeks and usually during the Tour, or immediately preceding it, someone or something announces that they have incontrovertible evidence that Lance Armstrong used performance enhancing drugs (PEDs) during his tenure as the Greatest Athlete in the World.

For many years, I really believed that. Lance Armstrong was the Greatest Athlete in the World. Continued here...

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    Robin Williams (yes, yes, I know) did an actually-funny bit about Lance Armstrong. After noting that Armstrong’s competitors accused him of using drugs, Williams paused, then said, “It’s called ‘chemotherapy’!” (Then in a thick, fake French accent said, “Eet’s unfair! ‘E cut off one of ‘is balls! Eet make ‘im more aerodynamic!”)

    I hope the claims are proven false (though the way the USADA—and WADA—work, that’ll never happen). I want to believe that someone with an improbable physiology and an inhuman tolerance to pain like Lance Armstrong could beat the pharmaceutically-enhanced in a more-or-less straight fight.

    Realistically, Armstrong probably took advantage of the same witches’-brew concoctions every other top cyclist of the time was being injected with. He’d have been stupid not to do so. I’m not convinced that makes his victories less noteworthy—if he’d been the only one using EPO or whatever, that would be different—and given the history of cycling he probably doesn’t even deserve an asterisk by his name in the record books.

    And nothing is helped by the likes of Greg LeMond and Chris Boardman insisting that Lance Armstrong just had to have been doping since they couldn’t have achieved his level of performance and of course they were as pure as the driven snow (pull the other one, it’s got bells on).

    I have no idea what the solution might be. Short of monitoring absolutely everything that every athlete puts into his or her body, there’s no way to be certain that a sport is drug-free. Take the money out of the sport(s) and the problem goes away, but so do the sport(s).

    Ironically, the people who do know what’s being used and—just maybe—how to stop the practice are the very people who are supplying athletes with the performance-enhancing drugs in the first place. The various governing bodies would do well to see if some of the poachers would like to become gamekeepers. If nothing else, it would force the cheaters to become more clever and they’re frankly not clever people.

    The prologue starts in Liège, 30 June at 14:00 (UTC+1).