January 27, 2013

A path too easy

On first blush, the Lance Armstrong self destruction has little to do with us. On second thought, it says a lot about our society.

We all know the surface story. Spreading testicular cancer threatened to end the life and career of a good but not great bicycle racer in the mid 1990s. He survived and, in the process, lost so much weight it changes his cycling form. He went on to win seven consecutive Tour de France bicycle races, considered the most challenging in the world. In doing so, he inspired millions of people, and raised almost half a billion dollars to help others survive cancer.

And he did most of this while taking performance-enhancing drugs.

Before he began winning, few seemed too concerned about Armstrong’s drug use. This was in an era when most everybody was doping. But once he was champion, Armstrong increasingly faced doping allegations. Each time, Armstrong correctly but deceitfully claimed he never failed a drug test. Occasionally, he also denied he ever used performance-enhancing drugs.

We now know more. Armstrong was a leader of a team that conspired to cover up rampant drug use. They also squelched and bullied potential whistleblowers. This conspiracy lasted for almost a decade.

In Armstrong’s mind, he never cheated. This is the most interesting, and self-reflecting aspect of the story. He believed unethical behavior becomes ethical in an unethical world.

Armstrong argued that doping did not give him an unfair advantage over others competing to win the Tour. He asserted that, at the elite level, almost every team was taking performance enhancing drugs, sometimes under doctor’s orders, often not, for decades. He also rationalized testosterone injections merely replaced hormones he lost because of his cancer.

Armstrong was not the most aggressive doper in cycling, and certainly not the worst among all elite athletes. Like many athletes, he believed doping was necessary to compete in a sport then rife with doping. Sporting authorities turned a blind eye in return for the 20 percent increase in bike speed doping provided. To racers, the difference between doping and riding clean was the difference between first and hundredth place. In fact, when Armstrong was recently stripped of his seven Tour wins, the sport failed to award first place to the seven runner-ups. They knew that some, and perhaps all, of the runner-ups doped too. Let’s not open up that can of worms. Let’s find a notorious scapegoat to hang out to dry, and keep the cash coming in.

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