OK, the Super Bowl is thankfully over, but we’ll have to endure the mania of NY fans for a while. Just three months ago, fans were roasting quarterback Eli Manning as an underachiever. Today they think his entry to the Hall of Fame is just a matter of time, and even a little bit of an insult to his legacy unless he gets a private wing.
One story that you may not have seen with all the big game hype was the latest chapter in the professional cycling doping saga. At this point, I think it’s gone beyond a saga and passed over to multi-volume epic. The two bits of news that came out were: 1) Alberto Contador, 2010 Tour de France champion, was stripped of that title due to a positive drug test, and 2) the U.S. Attorney office announced that they would no longer pursue Lance Armstrong as part of their investigation in to a doping program involving many of Armstrong’s team mates.
On Contador, I give a healthy “yawn”. I think I read somewhere that since 1961, 13 of the 25 Tour de France champions have been implicated in doping or performance enhancing drugs through positive tests or admissions of use. The sport has been riddled with cheating for decades. Find a champion, flip a coin and watch heads come up less often than a cheating champion.
The Armstrong thing is another issue. His story is legendary. Armstrong won the Tour de France seven consecutive years from 1999 through 2005. In the midst of that, he survived a bout with testicular cancer, and his success serves as an inspiration for even non-sports fans. Armstrong, due in part to his athletic record but also due to his tremendous work around cancer awareness, has a gigantic legion of loyal followers. And to his credit, he’s had no positive tests, despite reportedly being the most tested athlete in world history.
From my perspective, however, his success without some element of cheating is just not believable. There isn’t a lot that separates one elite athlete from another. Competitors in 100 meter dashes are routinely separated by tenths of seconds or less. And, as we have seen in track and field and more recently baseball, PEDs give athletes shocking advantages over the field. I refuse to believe that an athlete could have completely dominated a sport, specifically a sport that has been riddled by cheating, and not have cheated himself. It defies logic.
Sure, we’ve seen athletes dominate sports. Edwin Moses didn’t lose a championship race for almost an entire decade. Michael Jordan led the NBA in scoring for years, while also taking home defensive player of the year awards. Wayne Gretzky scored more goals that any other player has scored points (goals plus assists). But in those examples, and countless others, their successes didn’t come against a field of athletes later proven to have been chemically enhanced.
The defenders of Armstrong will point to the lack of a positive test, and claim it’s me that is being unreasonable. But the way I see it is this. Imagine I have a 100 mile commute every day, and I make that trip in right about an hour. I’ve been doing it for years but have never been ticketed. Now a reasonable person will conclude I’ve been speeding. Maybe I have a radar detector, maybe after years of the drive I know where the speed traps are, maybe I got pulled several times but always cry my way out of it, but there is no way I could make the trip without breaking the law. An Armstrong defender will point to the fact that I never got a ticket, and say there is no way I’ve been speeding. The same goes for seven (SEVEN!) consecutive tour victories in an era of cheating. There is no way that was done clean.
I’m not looking to diminish Armstrong’s legacy. If almost every top cyclist was cheating, including himself, then his domination came on an oddly level playing field. The fact that he was able to continue his training and successes despite significant medical issues is truly inspiring. One cannot adequately describe in words the positive impact his philanthropic crusading has had on those whose lives have been impacted by cancer.
But if he did what he did without any special help, then he has to be considered the most outstanding athlete we’ve ever seen. He would have flat-out owned word class athletes who were aided by cheating. I cheered him in every Tour, and I’d like that. But, that isn’t the truth. Drugs move everyone up a notch. Drugs turn solid pros into major leaguers, drugs turn major leaguers into all-stars, drugs turn all-stars into hall-of-famers, and drugs turn hall-of-famers into legends. That is what we’ve seen here.
It’s not hard to see why Armstrong and his supporters still cling so tightly to the idea that he was 100% clean. His image, one that inspires so many around the world, is worth fighting for. But the incessant denials, amid performances that scream to the contrary, are doing more damage than good. It just keeps the story alive, and as each of his contemporaries falls, Armstrong looks to be more and more in denial. What happened is ancient history. Everyone was doing it, and Lance was still the best. Come clean, pun intended, and let’s move on.