Drawing the line on Armstrong

2012-10-24 11:36
Lance Armstrong (AFP Photo)
Drawing the line on Armstrong

Let me start off by stating my position on the Lance Armstrong doping scandal. I believe he used performance-enhancing substances to achieve success in his cycling career. I also believe that he used his influence to coerce fellow teammates into using performance-enhancing substances. I acknowledge the strength it must have taken to return to professional sport after surviving cancer and I also acknowledge and appreciate the charitable work he has done over the past 15 years even though, given the circumstances, there is a Machiavellian feel to it. As with many people, I respected him as a powerful symbol of triumph through struggles. 
What we think.
 A few weeks ago, and before the USADA/UCI ruling, support for Lance Armstrong was equally divided. Post USADA/UCI ruling, public opinion hasn’t really changed. Though, what has changed is the argument for support. Before, those who supported Armstrong claimed he was innocent. After, some still claimed his innocence, but many of his supporters (in the face of damning evidence) said that it was unfair that it was only he who was being pursued, given that many of his fellow cyclists had also doped. As always, there will be the indifferent observers. There are conspiracy theories, but expert opinions on whether he doped or not are undivided. (
Differing opinions are healthy, but what we have to be clear about is what our position is and in particular why we hold that view. It is very important that we take the emotion and sentimentality out of our analysis of a case like this. It is insulting to the critical faculties when one relies only on emotion in the face of evidence that is far more tangible.
He is innocent. It’s a witch-hunt.
The 1,000-page report by USADA is by all accounts damning. If you maintain that Lance Armstrong is innocent, there can be only three reasons why you hold this view: 1) You have not read the report, 2) You do not understand the evidence, 3) You choose to not accept the evidence. What is likely is that most will support the witch-hunt proposal: I don’t know, it may or may not have been, but should it really matter? If you accept the evidence, then it should not matter. If you don’t accept the evidence (after reading it), then you would think it matters. Even if this were the case, USADA would have had at least some evidence to initiate an investigation.
For the sake of argument, lets entertain for a second that Lance is innocent: It is quite astounding that he managed to win 7TdF titles while EVERYONE around him was doping. Remember we know this is the case because they were either caught or admitted to it, most recently, Steffen Kjaergaard. We acknowledge the extent to which these drugs can improve performance, so that means that Lance not only won 7TdF titles, but he was in reality significantly better than the guys who finished behind him.
Based on the studies done on him by Prof Coyle at Uni of Texas, we know that Armstrongs efficiency and Vo2Max is not significantly better than his fellow elite cyclists. Something has got to give. We are left with two options: 1) Either Lance was in fact cheating and he is just a normal human being (or at least like all other elite cyclists) or 2) He wasnt cheating and the drugs had no effect on the performance of the other cyclists. I leave it to you, good people, to reach your own conclusion as to which explanation is most reasonable.

But Livestrong
Many will idolise Armstrong for his work with Livestrong, and they are right to, but many are tempted to use this as justification for what he did. However, the argument holds true only insofar as one can prove that this was his intention, but there is no evidence that it was. The impact Lances fall from grace will have on Livestrong is possibly the most difficult element for any of us to handle. While we all hope it grows in strength and service, it should not detract us from seeking justice - particularly if Armstrong is involved.
But Lance wasn’t the only one.
Yes, Lance wasn’t the only one who doped, and we know this partly because many cyclists have come forward at great personal cost. But it strikes me as a wholly unconvincing and immoral reason to not pursue him. A further step down this line we meet the claim that because so many cyclists were doping, it was a level playing field. Any appreciation for physiology and individual variability will tell you that individuals respond very differently to these sorts of substances. Within the limits set by UCI, some cyclists may gain a relatively greater personal advantage than another cyclist. I.e. If the legal limit for EPO levels is X and athlete A has a natural level of X-20 and athlete B has a natural level of X-10, it is clear that full advantage of EPO ingestion up to permissible limits will benefit athlete A more than for athlete B. This means that it is not fair contest even if everyone is on EPO. There is an important distinction to be made between supplements such as protein shakes, Engergade on the one hand and EPO, testosterone on the other hand. The former merely allows an athlete to fulfill their potential, while the latter fundamentally shifts an athletes potential.
When you enter a sport, you agree to the codes that govern it - anything outside of that is cheating. Rules can and do change over time, but for a competitor to take this decision themselves is tantamount to striking a referee in protest.
But other sports.
Yes, we know that doping exists in other sports – no one I know denies that it does. It almost certainly exists in our beloved sport, rugby. However, to argue that it is unfair that cycling is scrutinized in the way that it is compared to other sports is hypocritical given the attention you feed it by reading this very article. It is the fact that cycling receives so much attention that it is under the spotlight. I would argue the same applies to Lance Armstrong. We feed ourselves the Armstrong witch-hunt theory by giving the case so much attention. Does anyone know or care about the other cyclists USADA is investigating? No, because they haven’t won 7 TdF titles. It is simple as that. Even if we entertain the idea for a moment that the world was ganging up on cycling, by what stretch of the imagination is this an ethical reason to not attempt ridding the sport of this cancer?
There have been calls for an amnesty for cyclists of the Armstrong era, akin to our Truth and Reconciliation Commission. I am not totally opposed to the idea for the simple reason that it would bring clarity to the struggling sport, except that Armstrong’s vehement denial and martyr-like response to the allegations leaves me feeling that the effort would be wholly unfulfilling of its humble intention.
Our assumptions about Lance Armstrong must be critically examined. Whatever is inconsistent with the facts - no matter how fond of him we were/are - must be discarded or revised. We all to some extent know that the picture is not rosy, and we shouldn’t let disappointment of the fall of an idol cloud our judgment.

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