Lance Armstrong should have kept his titles
It is certainly the most infamous event in cycling history, and it probably has a claim to be the most infamous in sports full stop.
I’m sure everyone even without an interest in sports was aware of the sensational scandal when Lance Armstrong, winner of a record 7 Tour de France’s, testicular cancer survivor, founder of Livestrong and inspiration to millions of sports fans and cancer patients was first stripped of all his Tour wins and then publically admitted to his abuse of performance enhancing drugs thoughout his years as a pro cyclist.
It was pretty extraordinary as it was probably the first time a worldwide name and someone who had transcended the boundaries of his sport to enter mainstream conciousness had been so publicaly busted as a ‘cheat’.
There have of course been a few high-profile steroid cases such as Marion Jones or Ben Johnson but in those cases it was only really the world of athletics (and US athletics for that matter) that were really affected or well-aware.
The Armstrong case was a huge shock for many for three reasons;
- His status as a cancer survivor and the ‘fairytale’ of his comeback from near death to triumph was an almost perfect narrative that formed the basis for his Livestrong charity, which not only raised a huge amount of awareness and funding for cancer treatment and research but also became a beacon of inspiration for millions.
- His countless stenuous and aggressive denials over the years when asked about his drug use; he actually sued people who accused him.
- The fact that he was so convincing in his denials and that he never failed a drugs test.
As well as the stain of being forever branded a ‘cheat’ and the ignominity of having his titles removed the whole debacle painted a pretty ugly picture of Armstrong as a person; a liar and a bully who would crush everyone who opposed him or didn’t subscribe to his way of doing things.
He even had the audacity to attack his critics while on the winner’s podium for his 7th Tour de France victory, which once you know what we know now displays a pretty breathtaking arrogance that he’d never be caught.
But…he’s not a cheat
Yes, he seems to be a bully and pretty unsavoury character. But to say that he somehow had an edge over his competitors by using PEDs because everyone else was riding on just cornflakes, sugar and water is about as naive as saying the USA invaded Iraq just so they could free the Iraqi people from a dictator.
It also appears that to some by using PEDs Armstrong basically took a taxi to win those 7 titles because they must have made it so easy for him.
For him to be cheating, he would have had to be doing something which others were not that would give him an unfair advantage.
So clearly when he was stripped of his Tour titles, they gave them to the second place finisher, who would obviously have won fair and square had Lance not been injecting himself every day.
But they didn’t, because that rider too was proved to have doped.
The third place person then?
No, because they were also doping!
In fact in all 7 years 1999- 2005 there is now no official winner. So if all the others were doing it, how was Armstrong getting an unfair advantage?
If you took all the drugs away who would still be left standing?
You might want to argue that Armstrong had a better response than the others to steroids so even if they all were taking they he has an unfair advantage.
There is such a thing as how well you respond to drugs; some people seem genetically predisposed to making huge gains while on certain drugs, whilst others can take the same and train the same and while still make tremendous progress, not make the same strides as the first person.
However this is just another genetic variable that shows we are all not equal; it’s not fair that some people don’t seem to have to study but still get better marks than those who work their asses off, but that is life, and that is reality.
This argument is the same as saying it is unfair that someone was born with a greater lung capacity or higher natural red blood cell count than others; there is nothing you can do about that, you just accept that that person is naturally lucky.
Winning something like the Tour de France, or being a elite level professional sportsperson requires above all a huge work ethic and relentless desire to be the best, coupled with desirable genetics and natural talent. Look at all top sportspeople and they all have an insatiable desire to be the best, sometimes to a fault.
If you could somehow take all the drugs away and guarantee everyone was lifetime natural you would still end up with the same winners, the only difference would be the size of the record.
A perfect example of this is by Armstrong himself; check out this famous clip that shows how much true grit and determination really count:
You can’t inject that kind of mentality.
So if his rivals were also doping and his will to win was a huge driving factor for his success then how was he cheating again?
We live in a drugs culture; don’t expect pro sports to be any different
Did you have a coffee this morning? Did you have it to feel more alert and ready to work? Do you take paracetamol when you have a headache so you can continue to function? Caffeine and painkillers are drugs.
You are also doping to improve your performance.
When the average joe takes part in 5km fun runs or amateur races people suck down glucose gels, caffeine drinks like Redbull and painkillers like there’s no tomorrow, and there is literally nothing to win!
What do you think happens when you get a group of ultra competitive, alpha-type, win-at-all-costs professionals together where the prize is fame, glory and millions in sponsorships?
Drugs tests are useless
Something good (from my point of view) to come out of the whole Armstrong saga was the fact that despite never failing a drugs test and lying convincingly for so long he enventually confessed. It showed how easy it was to get around the tests.
The US Anti-Doping Agency (USADA) called Armstrong’s doping program as ‘industrial’ in size; how could it not have been picked up? What chance do the doping controls have in picking up the one guy injecting EPO in his hotel room?
Not to mention there are such things called Theraputic Use Exemption (TUE) forms where as long as you declare you have been proscribed something like testosterone by a doctor to combat your ‘naturally low’ levels that’s fine. (You can’t do this for stuff like EPO but you can literally take steroids within the rules as long as you declare it beforehand!).
So to recap, imagine you are an aspiring professional athlete:
- You are insanely determined to be the best; no-one remembers second place, fame and glory await the winner;
- The winner picks up all the million pound sponsorships;
- If you do it right, you’d have to be stupid to get caught;
- You would need to dope to even compete with your rivals, let alone beat them, as they are all aware of the first three points.
What do you think would happen? Is it cheating, really?
I’m not defending Armstrong’s behaviour or his actions as he is a bully and not a very nice person; he aggressively tried to destroy the reputations and livelihoods of those who vocally opposed him when he knew himself he was so blatantly lying.
But his lifetime ban and the stripping of his titles while in the same breath acknowledging his rivals also doped is merely pandering to public sentiment who in the main believe that drugs can turn you from a couch potato to superman. He’s a scapegoat.
I mean this year’s winner of the Vuelta d’España, Alberto Contador actually failed a drugs test in 2007 and was stripped of his 2007 Tour de France win! Where is the backlash?
Lance Armstrong was a bully. He was deceitful. He profited from his lies. He damaged a lot of lives. But in the context of the era he competed in, against the rivals he had, as an athlete deserved every one of those Tour de France wins.
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