Illustration by Paul Windle
Lance Armstrong’s Confession Is Just the Start
In case you haven’t heard, Lance Armstrong has confessed to doping during his cycling career. All of the faux moral posturing can now officially stop.
I’m not talking about Lance. I’m talking about the steady stream of former teammates, employees and even journalists who as recently as this week were still apparently awakening to the reality that a Stage 4-cancer survivor competing in the most grueling, steroid-soaked sport in the world was powered by more than just his God-given strength and will. I’m talking about those who expressed offense at the (equally obvious) revelation that Armstrong’s doping program was highly organized, as if it would have somehow been better if he had shot himself up with dirty needles in a dark alley of some medieval European town.
Now that our long era of shattered innocence is finally over, it’s time to move past the sanctimony and outrage and proceed with a more sensible conversation about drugs and sports.
We might begin a century ago, when, having just completed a long Alps climb, the French rider Octave Lapize called the organizers of the Tour de France “damned murderers!” -- the implication being that such a grueling competition would basically kill you. Against this backdrop, it’s easy to see how cycling became a laboratory for drugs that boosted riders’ ability to perform and (no less important) masked at least some of the pain associated with spending three weeks furiously pedaling a bike up a lot of big mountains.
As the historian John Hoberman has documented, medically supervised drug use has been part of professional cycling since the middle of the 20th century. Amateur riders were expected to be clean; but pros, who rode for a living, could take whatever they could get their hands on. Moral judgments weren’t made. The only relevant questions were whether the drugs themselves were safe -- or if they could dangerously desensitize the body to overexhaustion. Also, whether they were equally available to all riders.
Nothing fundamental has changed since then, and cycling’s governing body, the UCI, is almost wholly to blame.
Like so many unaccountable international sports organizations -- the International Olympic Committee and FIFA come immediately to mind -- the UCI is little more than a catch basin for hustlers and opportunists who know exactly what’s going on inside their offshore enterprise zones and see no reason to stop it. As Hein Verbruggen, the UCI’s longtime leader and current “honorary president” (presumably for life, unless Armstrong takes him down with him), is reported to have said: If the public were satisfied with the Tour de France riders going 25 kilometers an hour (15 miles per hour), there wouldn’t be a doping problem. But it wants 42 kilometers an hour, and there’s only one way to get there -- by doping.
This same Verbruggen has never missed the chance to label individual riders who confess to doping as unworthy of respect. He also routinely puts his organization’s autonomy and profitability above the integrity of the sport it governs.
Of course, maybe we ought to rethink the very notion of integrity when it comes to drugs and sports. Performance enhancers of one form or another have been around forever, but not until the rise of anabolic steroids was there a doping crisis in sports.
There are many drugs doctors are legally permitted to administer to Tour de France riders. Why are some approved and others not? Why does cortisone -- which alleviates pain and enhances performance -- represent an acceptable level of pharmaceutical aid, but not, say, stanozolol? Then there’s this absurd provision: Under the UCI’s rules, cyclists are allowed to take hormone supplements if their health is in danger. In other words, PEDs are fine if a doctor says they’re necessary.
Doping isn’t a moral problem. It is a social, political and economic problem “misrepresented,” in Hoberman’s words, “as a function of the moral degeneracy of athletes.”
Doping is also inevitable. As long as athletes can earn more money and glory by outperforming their competitors, we will never eliminate PEDs from the world of sports. Which leads us to a universal truth about drug use, one that applies equally to elite athletes and homeless junkies: There’s no point in vilifying the user without also asking why he became one.
As it is, Lance Armstrong is just another reminder that we’re failing in the War on PEDs in much the same way that we failed in the War on Drugs. After ignoring the widespread use of PEDs for years -- in cycling’s case, for decades -- we started an expensive, no-holds-barred crusade for their prohibition, shaming users as moral degenerates and criminals.
Instead, let’s pause to consider -- if only for as long as Oprah Winfrey’s two-night interview with Armstrong -- the underlying reasons that steroids are so common in sports: Because we value winning above all else, and pay winners accordingly. Because we expect to see transcendent athletic performances with casual frequency. Because of the unrealistic physical demands of endurance sports. Because we have embraced performance-enhancing pharmaceuticals in virtually every other realm (the bedroom, the classroom, the battlefield, and so on).
The world’s most famous doper is finally on record and presumably ready to cooperate with authorities. Let the outrage end -- and the sensible conversation begin.
(Jonathan Mahler is a sports columnist for Bloomberg View. He is the author of the best-selling “Ladies and Gentlemen, the Bronx Is Burning,” “The Challenge,” and “Death Comes to Happy Valley.” The opinions expressed are his own.)