In the past week, Lance Armstrong has been everywhere and it hasn’t been good. A bunch of teammates and other people close to him gave a bunch of evidence that during his seven-year reign as Tour de France champion he participated in blood doping and used several other substances to gain a competitive advantage. On top of all of that, he lied about it and let himself get painted as some sort of Christ-like sports demigod who descended from the mount to defeat cancer, plagues and a bunch of other doping cyclists.
Let’s take this a little bit at a time. First off, is it Lance’s fault that the media turned him into a feel-good story about a man who beat testicular cancer to win a bunch of races? No. Sports writers are looking for that story everywhere and will jump at the chance to embellish his actual record to deify him. It’s not his fault that he fell from so high.
Did Lance actually cheat? Yes. But from my casual following of the Tour for the last decade and a half, it seems like everyone cheats. That doesn’t make it acceptable, but I have sympathy for athletes in sports where everyone is doping or taking PEDs, because it’s a true lose-lose. You either lose clean or win dirty. If you’re competing clean against a bunch of doped-up pro athletes, no amount of talent or training will overcome the physical gap to win.
Is it OK to cheat to win because everyone else is doing it? Certainly not.
Is it OK to lie about cheating? Certainly not.
Does it make it at least a little more acceptable that cheating and lying is just a part of cycling culture? That question is irrelevant.
I have friends who made dramatic gestures like cutting off their Livestrong bracelets while putting out candles and listening to “Goodbye Yellow Brick Road” by Elton John. I know people who are giving up on cycling or yellow clothing or the postal service or whatever they associate with Lance Armstrong. This is a perfect opportunity for people to overreact, and plenty of them are.
To those people, I have two things to say:
1) Professional athletes make their living running, jumping, throwing or riding better than anyone else on the planet. If they choose to take PEDs or blood dope to do so, what’s the big deal? They take measures to increase performance at their job, but who doesn’t? At the end of the day, Lance Armstrong makes money for cycling because he rides his bike fast. You know what would make more money? Riding the same bike faster. I don’t care when athletes artificially boost their performance. Four-hundred-foot home runs are awesome. Five-hundred-foot home runs are more exiting. Ninety-eight mph fastballs are incredible, but 101 mph fastballs are inhuman.
Am I supposed to think that clean sports are superior because those athletes are competing on the same playing field as me? Genetically, that’s not anywhere close to true. The reason I watch pro sports (cycling included) is that I want to see the bounds of human possibility expanded. I will never hit a home run over a major-league fence, that’s why I’m interested in guys who can hit the ball entirely out of the park. I watch sports because I want to see unbelievable feats of human athleticism, not because I’m looking to empathize with people like me. I will never understand fans who get upset about pro athletes to are literally giving up years of their life to perform better for their teams and their fans.
2) There are certain things in life that are more important than sports. Cancer is one of them. Lance Armstrong’s campaign to raise funds for the advancement of cancer research is unparalleled. He’s made so much progress for cancer research that I don’t care what else he does ever, he’s going to net out positive for me. So what if he doesn’t go down in history as the greatest cyclist in the history of bikes? He’ll still go down as one of the most important leaders in the fight against cancer, and that’s WAY more important.
Hate on Lance Armstrong all you want. He’s not a fraud. He’s not a cheat. He’s an athlete who tries hard to win, but what athlete doesn’t? If the doping scandal has ruined your view of Lance Armstrong because to you he was a pile of cycling achievements, the problem isn’t with Lance, it’s with you.