Seven Tour de France titles stripped. That’s the recent recommendation by the US Anti-Doping Agency in light of a plethora of doping accusations made against Lance Armstrong.
I’m profoundly ambivalent. I want Armstrong to be clean with an irrationality that says more about my desire for athletic heroes than my interest in cycling. But I also think our cultural obsession with unfair advantages is a bit misguided. Remember Oscar Pistorius—some claim his carbon legs give him an unfair advantage even though they mean he has less musculature and must start each race slower than athletes with flesh and bone legs.
We also allow all athletes to consume caffeine, which is a known performance-enhancing drug. And athletes with more money almost universally fare better. The more they can spend on coaches, trainers, massage therapists, sports psychologists, on technology that assesses every muscle’s twitch, on nutrition and nutritional supplements, on traveling to train in high altitudes, etc. etc., the better they perform. So caffeine and money are clear performance-enhancers—and are totally legal. The lines demarcating “unfair advantage,” in my mind at least, are drawn in a series of grays. Easily smudged. Not easily defended.
And there’s something about Armstrong. His name, for one—how could you name a child “Lance Armstrong” and not expect him to become a superhero? His overcoming of testicular cancer. The way he has shifted his athletic career to cancer research and support. He may be a cheater. But I respect so much of what he’s accomplished—and that makes me want so badly to believe he was clean. Or at least, I want to believe he didn’t dope any more than any other first-rate cyclist.
My friend Kevin, who knows much more about cycling than I do, wrote me, “If he is stripped, they will have to go pretty deep to award the win to a “clean” rider. I think some years you’re out of the top ten to find someone who hasn’t been implicated.” In other words, cycling is rife with doping. And if we believe Armstrong was doping, then we probably have to believe everyone of his caliber was also doping.
And if everyone was doping and Armstrong still won, doesn’t that still make him the best rider? Such is the case with the high-tech half-body swimsuits used by many swimmers in the 2008 Olympics. Although those suits are now banned as providing unfair advantage, the swimmers who medaled while wearing them still get to keep their medals. I understand they weren’t illegal then, and maybe that’s the sticking point. But if everyone wore them, and three swimmers still performed better than everyone else in the pool. . . then what? Then aren’t those three swimmers still the best in the pool?
I’m struggling through my thinking here, not sure—still, again—why I want so badly for Armstrong’s Tour de France success to remain. As I said, I don’t think the lines between “fair” and “unfair” are very well drawn, are very easily defensible—and often have more to do with knee-jerk reactions than actual science. But there’s something else simmering below the surface: a desire, maybe, to believe that a human can accomplish seemingly un-human feats without the help of specially concocted drugs. Isn’t that why we make heroes, because they’re better and stronger and braver examples of the human species? Because they reflect back to us the fullest extent of human potential? To leap tall buildings in a single bound! Wouldn’t we all like to make that leap?