Like many, I’ve followed the Lance Armstrong doping case for quite some time now. It has essentially been ongoing in one way or another for many years and I’m sure it’ll keep going. But given that Lance has lost sponsors, titles, etc at this point it probably makes sense to comment at this point. As long-time blog readers may know, I’ve been a pretty big fan of professional cycling at certain points in the past. Here are a couple of posts from several years ago: post one and post two. I’m not quite as big of a fan of pro cycling these days simply because it’s hard to follow in the US and I gave up. I still pay attention to the grand tours but that’s about it. So given that I’ve followed the Tour for a number of years, I have read a number of things about doping and I’ve seen many cyclists come and go because of it.
I don’t know how else to put this but, basically, anyone who thought that Lance wasn’t doping was either ill-informed, naive or an idiot. Anyone who knows anything about sports like cycling knew that the dominance Lance exhibited was not possible without performance-enhancing drugs. Lance OWNED that race. Given that most of the field was doping, how would it be possible for a clean rider to overcome the most determined, skilled, genetically talented and well-trained riders in the world when they are on drugs as well? Let me tell you something: it isn’t. Drugs offer too much of an advantage. There are a lot of naive people, particularly in the Western world, who believe that “grit” and “determination” can overcome chemical advantages all else being equal. Nope. You’re wrong. It’s fine if you want to keep believing that but it simply isn’t true. Of course, a genetic freak who has all of the best training resources and mental strength will overcome a random person off of the street who trains with drugs for a bit. Drugs don’t work magic that overcomes every other advantage. But if you take a big group of people who are all mentally strong, all genetically built for a certain task, all provided with great training resources, etc and then you give drugs to some of them, the ones with drugs will win out. It’s just how it is.
So, armed with that knowledge, it’s quite easy to spot drug usage. Take Lance for example. He went up Alpe D’Huez in 37’36″ in 2004 (source). In the history of the tour, only Marco Pantani has approached that time and Marco Pantani was definitely doping. Everyone on the top of that list on Wikipedia doped. I remember reading an article about the Alpe D’Huez times and the person who was writing the article theorized that it wasn’t possible for someone to go up Alpe D’Huez in less than, at best, about 41 minutes without doping. You can read more about cycling, doping, performance and mountains here, although that is not the article I am thinking of. Point being that as soon as Lance went up that hill in 37.5 minutes, you knew that he was using performance enhancing drugs. Whenever I make statements like that around people (Americans in particular), they usually flip out and say something like “oh, so now everyone who does well is automatically using drugs?” or similar. In a sport like cycling, the answer is, simply, yes. They are using drugs. You might be naive and you don’t want to believe it but they are using drugs if they are doing something that is so far above and beyond what anyone else has ever done.
So I, along with many other people, have known that Lance used drugs. I knew it for many years and, frankly, I was okay with it. He was competing against a field of riders who were going to use drugs also. What else was he supposed to do? He could have stayed clean and been a middle of the pack no-name rider or he could use drugs and become a world-famous champion and do things that no one has ever done before in the sport. I don’t blame him AT ALL for choosing the latter. This is what we as sports fans demand of our athletes. We want them to win and we want them to dominate. We want them to beat people who are on drugs. How do you think the media and public would react if the USA went from winning the most medals at the summer Olympics to winning the 8th most medals? There would be a public outcry, the USOC would be raked over the coals, athletes would lose sponsorships/supporters/funding/gigs, people would bemoan the demise of the USA, Mitt Romney would blame Obama for letting the country’s athletics fall apart, etc. No matter what they say, no one really wants that. People want the USA to win but they don’t want to know the truth of the requirements to win on the world stage. If you truly believe that world-class USA swimmers, track and field and others are not using performance-enhancing drugs and winning on the world stage, you are naive. They are using them. 100%. There is no question about it at all and it’s really not even a debate amongst those who know how these things work. In my mind, it doesn’t take away from their achievements in the least. They are working within the system that exists.
Now, the question about whether drugs are cheating is pretty obvious as well. Of course drugs are cheating. There’s no question about it. The rules say they are banned substances. However, like I said above, you will NOT win at an elite level without drugs in certain sports. So you need to find a way to get around the rules. Whether your tactics consist of micro-dosing (taking small amounts to avoid testing over certain limits), bribing someone, using body doubles (the Chinese are famous for this) or similar, you are finding a way to be competitive. To me, it’s no different from an NBA player hacking someone’s arm when an official isn’t looking. You’re finding an advantage and taking it. Sports are cutthroat. There’s no honor in sports at the top levels. Everyone is going to do what they can to win and that’s just how it is. It isn’t little league where people get trophies for trying hard. If you want to be honorable, enjoy not winning. It’s fine to do that but take note of how much attention sponsors and the media pay attention to honor. Answer: not much. Yes, drugs are cheating but so what? Your choices are winning+cheating or not winning and not cheating. Most of the time, the people who say they would choose the latter are people who never had the opportunity to be a champion. It’s easy to get on your high horse and skewer the people who made the decision to take drugs and have a chance to win. It’s a whole lot harder to train your whole life and say no to the thing that will allow you to compete on the world stage. If you’ve done that, I totally respect your decision.
So what’s the solution to all of this? In my mind, until drug testing is actually effective, out of competition anti-doping should be eliminated. And, frankly, as of right now, it is not even conceivable what effective drug testing would look like because it’s a constant cat-and-mouse game right now and anti-doping officials are losing. In sports like weightlifting, how are you supposed to effectively test North Korean weightlifters when they are training inside of a closed country where it is impossible to test with any measure of surprise? It’s no coincidence that, in weightlifting, North Korea won three golds out of fifteen available at the London 2012 Games. Out of competition testing is wildly unfair and inconsistently applied to athletes around the world. I would keep testing at competitions to keep athletes in line as much as possible but even that sort of testing is pretty unfair and not that useful. Athletes with access to talented chemists are going to be able to find advantages and get a leg up on the poorer athletes without access to the same resources. But, resources and so on are pretty much always spread out unfairly in all aspects of life so that’s nothing new. But at least in competition testing can be applied fairly across the board in terms of surprise, timing and so on.
The reality is that drugs are part of the sports landscape and they have been for a long time now. They are not going away. You will not win on the world level without them. Once you get over that fact, it becomes a matter of how to best deal with it. Many choose to put their head in the sand and pretend the issue will go away or that drug usage is being effectively controlled. It isn’t. It’s estimated that 80-90% of the NFL uses Human Growth Hormone (it isn’t being tested for yet). Even in poker, there is RAMPANT drug usage to help boost concentration in marathon sessions. It may not be against the rules but it’s no different from taking EPO as a cyclist. The rules are really pretty arbitrary and inconsistent. Lance did what he had to do. To me, the recent news about Lance doesn’t change the fact that he DOMINATED the Tour for years against a bunch of the best riders/teams/coaches in the world and all those teams were systematically doping as well. He still won those races and put in years and years of incredibly difficult training, effort, dedication and so on. To me, he’s still one of the greatest American sports heroes of my lifetime and he’ll always hold that spot in my mind. I applaud his decision to be competitive.