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Le Tour de Farce: Lance Armstrong, Drugs, and the Integrity of Sports

Monday, 4 February 2013  | Mick Pope


You’d have to be living under a rock, even if you are not any sort of cycling fan (like I am) to not know about the scandal over Lance Armstrong finally coming clean over his doping over many years. I’ve been following Le Tour de France intently for about four years, by which I mean staying up late to follow the live stages, buy the tour guide and talk excitedly with my colleagues at work about the previous night’s action. I’ve been kind of aware, including watching SBS for highlights for some years more. It was hard not to know about Lance and his feats. He stood as a giant above the sport. Before his disgrace he was the valiant cancer survivor who had overcome testicular cancer that had also spread to his lungs, abdomen and brain, and then gone onto win the great race seven times. He was a great campaigner for cancer research with his Livestrong charity. Now his name is mud and he lies in disgrace.

Armstrong had spent years ardently denying he was a cheat. In his biography Tour De Lance, Bill Strickland recounts how Armstrong had looked him directly in the eyes and told him that he had never doped. Strickland bought this lie and declared to Jim Lehrer on The News Hour that Armstrong was clean. I suppose there were many who wanted to believe who now have egg on their faces. Lance was not an individual; Lance was an institution, a brand, a phenomenon, a legend. I suspect Lance bought into all of this; how else could he have lived the lie so long?  

When you look at road races like Le Tour, you begin to understand why some cyclists feel that drugs are necessary to recovery, just surviving the gruelling three and a half thousand kilometres (2013 race) over some of the most beautiful country and steepest peaks the world has to offer. Drug usage in cycling, as in many other sports, is nothing new. A quick internet search shows that as early as 1886, cyclists were using drugs to enhance performance. The racing great Eddy Merckx was expelled from the 1969 Giro d’Italia. Armstrong comes from a period where it appears that doping was common. Doping has gone on since Armstrong, with three-time Tour de France champion Alberto Contador having the banned substance Clenbuterol in his urine sample, which he blamed on contaminated meat. Even as I write, Spanish rider Luis Leon Sanchez has been provisionally suspended from his team for being linked to a doping doctor.  

So is Armstrong a fall guy for a period where it was the done thing? Or is he a mastermind? Drug-taking has been all too common, although the fact so many cyclists have been caught is both reassuring as well as disturbing - reassuring that people don’t get away with it.

The issue with Armstrong is the persistent denials. During the 1999 Tour, he tested positive for corticoids but blamed it on a prescription skin cream for saddle sores. He later admitted it was a cover story for his doping. In 2005, he was accused of using EPO during 1999, a period before it could be tested for. There have been accusations of bribery, and certainly he has bullied people who have accused him. To lies he has added more lies and deceptions, legal chicanery and bullying. Even his confession was finely crafted, a piece of staged cinema on one of the greatest media stages he could find, Oprah. Even now he is accused by cyclists like Bradley Wiggins of lying about making his 2009 comeback drug free. The US Anti-Doping Agency (USADA) said that is was ‘overwhelming’ that he had been engaged in the biggest doping conspiracy in sports history to win the Tour de France seven times.

So why do we love to hate him now? Lance has, in the eyes of many, betrayed us. He has lied to us, cheated his way to the top and cheated to stay there. Once or maybe twice we can forgive it seems, but to live out a lie as if it were the truth makes him a tragic figure, a man caught up in his own hubris. No one really likes a cheat, especially those who compete against them. But we wanted to believe Lance was clean, that he really was a superhuman. True he had many natural gifts and abilities, and cultivated them over a long time naturally. Yet he also cultivated them artificially, and for that we all feel cheated. If Lance has been the subject of an extended witch hunt, it’s ultimately due in good part because he has played that role; winning seven Le Tours as if by magic - magic in a syringe.

Calvin said that the heart was an idol factory, and this applies as much to the fans as to Lance himself. He made an idol of fame and success, of raw power and stamina, of wealth and adulation. We made him an idol because we wanted to believe in the human spirit and body. It would have been nice if he was clean when so many he defeated were not. We want the simple sport of riding a bike, something we can all take part in, something clean and green, something exhilarating and accessible, to be something that can be done without resource to doctors and drug labs. We need it to be so.

And so while he is guilty of cheating, and may be guilty of perjury, of taking money under false pretences and unfairly suing people, he’s simple a sinner and idolater just like you and me. While he deserves to be stripped of medals, awards and honour, he does not to be stripped of his humanity. More than anything he deserves the ire of those he competed against and cheated of titles. Yet he is also a scapegoat for what has at times been a dirty sport we want to be clean, for our own guilt and shame for cheating on tests, tax returns, road rules and more. None of us will likely ever disappoint so many as Armstrong has done, deceive as many, affect as many. But while trite, it is still true to remember we only avoid judgement through Christ.

In the longer term it is hard to know the implications this will have for cycling. Will it continue in the Olympics if the web of complicity spreads wider? It would be sad if such a noble sport suffered more indignities. Ultimately the goal of competition is to win, but winning at any cost is, ultimately, actually defeat. Until hearts are clean, bodies will not be clean. It’s with this sense of realism and of hope that I’ll approach this year’s racing season, and stay up again late into the night watching Le Tour de France, hoping that it doesn’t end up a Tour de Farce.


Comments

Gordon Preece
February 5, 2013, 10:18AM
Nice piece, Mick. One additional perspective is to take on the Julian Savalescu perspective that if 'everyone's doin it, doin it, pickin' their nose and chewin it' we should not just legalise it but virtually make such human enhancement compulsory. This is not just in sports, but education, to get smarter, drug-enhanced people, but also morally as a recent medical journal article argued (see most recent Bioedge) that appropriate use of drugs and enhancement will make us more moral. Without a positive view of humanity made in God's image in all our strength and frailty, as the glory and scum of the universe as Pascal said, our society will succumb to Lance's temptation across a range of areas, I fear.
Neil Bull
February 5, 2013, 10:26AM
Great article Mick.
I think somewhere deep down most of us want to have the fame and fortune... to be the top of our field. We even wouldn't mind being renowned for wonderful charity works like Lance.

It a seduction that could happen to anyone, even in Kingdom work.
Ray Walker
February 5, 2013, 3:33PM
Thanks Mick. Last night's 4 Corners program was a sad reflection on professional sport as we know it. There is little doubt that Armstrong master minded his fall from grace. Regrettably we now hear of Soccer heading in a similar direction whilst the current drugs policy enacted by the AFL is questionable. Where big money is involved greed takes over unfortunately.(5 Feb)
Ken Rolph
February 5, 2013, 6:28PM
I was born just on the middle of last century. Sport in those times had greater ties to something larger than individual athletes. When we arrived at this century I could see which way it was going, and switched off entirely. Now it's all just self promotion and branding. They can't afford not to win because they have such large parasitic retinues to support. I don't understand why people can't see this.

I'm with Voltaire. Everyone go and ride their own bicycle.

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