Lance Armstrong has for some months been losing whatever credibility he had. With doping allegations culminating in his recent admission via highly publicized interview with Oprah, the final bricks have been pulled down from Armstrong’s house of lies. But are people being unjustifiably harsh to Armstrong? Yes, what he did was wrong, but his actions were, in all honesty, a reaction to a culture in which he was in. Armstrong is simply the latest of many athletes from the sports world to be discovered.
Spanish cyclists, Alberto Contador, a three-time Tour de France winner was recently found guilty of doping and has had one of his titles striped. American Floyd Landis likewise was stripped of his Tour de France title for doping. Danish cyclist Bjarne Riss admitted to using erythropoietin, or as it is more commonly referred to as, EPO, a medical procedure used to increase red blood cells in anaemia sufferers. His use started in 1993 and lasted through to 1998, including his 1996 Tour de France win. Miguel Induráin, a five time winner of the Tour de France, won during the era in which EPO was born, and though evidence has never been brought to bear against him in terms of doping, the governing body of cycling had a difficult time determining who was and who wasn’t using EPO as no drugs are used in the process and many have suggested that such dominating performances would not have been possible in that era without the use of such methods. EPO was simply the most recent form of doping that had been going for decades, and had already taken one life in cyclist Tom Simpson. The doping tradition continued after Simpson’s death when five-time winner Eddy Merckx was caught in the 1970’s. To avoid detection some riders adopted complicated tubing systems used in concert with condoms that gave the impression of urinating, but somebody else’s urine was placed. This allowed cyclists to dope undetected. The 90’s era doping trend culminated in the Festina Affair when the Festina Cycling Team was caught with performance enhancing drugs (PEDs) and police looked through other teams’ rooms to discover a wide network of performance enhancing drugs. And this was the era in which Armstrong failed to compete at the top level despite cycling during what many refer to as the prime years. It wasn’t until after this event that Armstrong says he started doping. Doping was the reason Armstrong wasn’t winning early in his career. He started doping, he says, to level the playing field, and it seems like a fair observation. Armstrong was simply picking up on a decades-long tradition in cycling. As a result of his recent admission, Armstrong has been stripped of all seven of his tour de France titles, but no winner has been announced in his place as nearly all of the cyclists on the podium during Armstrong’s winning years are currently embroiled in doping allegations of their own, further illustrating that doping was in fact the only way to truly compete in that era. Armstrong has also been handed a lifetime ban from cycling, which may seem fair to some, but in the context of other sports, it comes across as harsh.
Steroids, for example, had been rampant in Major League Baseball for some time. Baseball player Alex Rodriguez, who was awarded what is perhaps the richest contract in the history of professional sports, has admitted to, and has test positive for, PEDs. This happened from 2001-2003. Yet Rodriguez is still playing, and he was only one of 104 players who tested positive for performance enhancing drugs in 2003. Barry Bonds is another big name in baseball whose steroid use has been well documented, but in his early days he did not use. If fact, it was not until the home-run derby of 1998 which saw Mark Mcgwire and Sammy Sosa race to a new single-season home run record that Bonds started using. Both players, according to some reports, have tested positive for banned substances. Bonds was clean at the time, but MLB baseball, still recovering from the strike a couple seasons prior, were was happy to see ratings go up and turned a blind eye to the drug use(and still to this day does little to discourage the use of performance enhancing drugs). Players like Bonds risked losing out on contracts and winning unless they adopted the methods used by those who were having the most success. And when they were discovered, the awards and contracts earned, and the records set by players who used PEDs did not have these things taken away. Bonds, like Armstrong, turned out to be the fall guy for steroid use in Major League Baseball, but like Armstrong, prior to the use of PEDs, was merely one of the athletes who were barley treading water in his sport despite the natural talent he possessed and the hard work he put into his game. Neither Armstrong, nor bonds were the first to use performance enhancing drugs, nor were they the only athletes using them in their respective fields. They just happened to be among the best at what they did.
There is of course the question of money. Cycling is not like other major sports where one can earn a great deal of money even if they are not among the elite of the sports. The minimum wage in the NBA for example is over a million dollars a season for a veteran (though rookies can make potentially slightly less than that total). Players who have never even been considered for an all-star appearance are sometimes making tens of millions of dollars over the course of a five-year contract. No such contracts are offered to the cyclists who come in 15th at the Tour de France, and so for a cyclist winning is key to staying in the sport. It has been estimated that Armstrong has earned as much as 20 million dollars a year via his winnings and endorsements, but would he have been able to get such endorsements had he consistently finished only in the top ten at the Tour de France, never managing to win as cyclists who used performance enhancing drugs walked away with the crown? Not very likely. No winners have been named in place of Armstrong, but when everything finally gets sorted out as to who actually won those Tour de France titles that have been vacated by Armstrong, is anybody going to go back to the winners and offer them endorsement deals? Armstrong could have refused to use PEDs, and he may have been awarded each of the Tour de France titles he won while using had all the other users of PED been eliminated from contention, but would he have been celebrated so many years after the fact? Would have been able to capitalize on his performances? In all likelihood the answer is no. And not only that, but had he not been able to win during that era, he may have found himself out of a job and out of the sport.
Armstrong’s accomplishments are still extraordinary. Few athletes would have been able to dominate the way he did even with the use PEDs and EPO, and as is very clear, such practices were commonplace throughout his winning years. Does he deserve praise for his accomplishments? Perhaps not, but nor does he deserve to be demonized. We live in a culture where results seem to be all that matter. How many championships can you win? How many gold medals? Would Michael Phelps be as celebrated as he is today had he only won silver medals instead of gold? His accomplishments would have perhaps been no less impressive considering the level at which he was competing, but finishing second isn’t good enough in American culture. And the use of PEDs aren’t even looked upon with contempt. Alex Rodriguez still has many fans who buy and wear his jersey, despite having tested positive for banned substances. It is natural growing up in Western culture to put a heavy value on winning. People are naturally competitive, and such competitiveness is more often rewarded than not. Now there are some things in Armstrong’s personal life that suggest he has personality flaws in terms of his treatment of people he has worked with and the bullying nature of his tenure as Tour de France champion, but those for me are a separate issue. There are a lot of assholes who are forgiven for their insensitive behaviour because they happen to be very good at what they do, whether that is right or wrong. But on the count of his use of PEDs, I think it is unfair to demonize Armstrong. He is a symptom of a problem, not the cause. It is our culture who pushes people to such ends, and it was the culture of cycling that pushed Armstrong into illicit behaviour. Armstrong was faced with a choice, to give up on his dreams, or to level the playing field. What he did may not have been right, but it is understandable.