Saturday, January 19, 2013

In Defense of Lance


I perceive that the People’s Court has adjourned to consider Lance Armstrong’s guilt or innocence. Surprisingly, the most serious charges do not appear to be doping.  By that, I mean, that most Facebookers do not seem to be upset that Lance Armstrong doped.  I just assume that Americans are calloused.  The good ol Unites States of America did not invent doping. I suspect it has always been around but was introduced into the Peloton on a large scale in the late 1980s shortly after that the eastern bloc countries enjoyed Olympic booty from doping in other sports, namely weight lifting. 

The thing about Americans, I think, is that we go all in.  We may not have invented doping but, if you have to dope to compete, we do it right.   American sports fan also know better than to criticize too harshly when it comes to doping because our society orbits around dope.  We worship it. It separates us from the Third World really. 

Let’s start with my favorite spectator game:  Football.   (I really do like football).   As I understand it, professional Football, Baseball and Basketball (and others) are not considered Olympic sports.  It confuses me because Baseball and Basketball are in the Olympics but for some reason the three staples of American pro sports are not drug tested by the United States Anti-Doping Association.  For all practical purposes, they are not drug tested at all. 

One thing Lance is absolutely correct about is that Travis Tygart, CEO of USADA is not at all accurate when he describes the doping scheme on US Postal as the biggest doping conspiracy in history.  I fancy that is just a mediocre lawyer trying to feel better about his agency’s epic failure to meet its most fundamental function.  Let’s face it, but for the Department of Justice’s file, the USADA would still be whining about its lack of funding and suspected drug use in cycling.

I suppose it does not matter. Clearly, the USADA is not at all able to detect doping when it is occurring.  Even if USADA was competent and had jurisdiction over the NFL, no reasonable person would honestly believe that the players who play in a Super Bowl are not juiced out of their minds.  Ok, except maybe the kicker.  Too much caffeine for sure but other wise probably clean.

For all of these complicated reasons, most folks do not seem to mind the fact that Lance doped.  They certainly have forgiven Floyd Landis, Tyler Hamilton, George Hincapie, David Zabriskie, Levi Leipheimer, Jonathon Vaughters and the long list of other cyclists who were allowed to confess and continue blissfully with their cycling careers.

I also do not think that most people believe that Lance forced other athletes to dope like the USADA seems to imply.  That would be nonsensical.  Floyd Landis failed a drug test after he won the Tour de France and after he rode on the same team with Lance.   The same is true for Tyler Hamilton.  Clearly, they left US Postal and brought their syringes with them. Both of these guys blame Lance for their fall, their lack of popularity and, oh, Lance was mean to me.  These guys were all grown men who had free will.  They could have left US Postal anytime they wanted and could have competed (and doped) on other teams such as Cofidis, Telekom, CSC and so on.  Speaking of which, Lance certainly did not force his competitors to dope.  Shall I name a few of his top rivals?  Jan Ullrich (suspended for doping), Vinokourov (suspended for doping), Ivan Basso (suspended for doping), Alberto Contador (suspended for doping),  Valverde (suspended for doping), Ivan Mayo (failed drug test but never suspended).  The list could go on.  Don’t believe me?  For all of you football fans out there, Fausto Coppi was like Joe Namath of cycling. Here is his approach:
Coppi spoke of the subject in a television interview:
Question: Do cyclists take la bomba (amphetamine)?
Answer: Yes, and those who claim otherwise, it's not worth talking to them about cycling.
Question: And you, did you take la bomba?
Answer: Yes. Whenever it was necessary.
Question: And when was it necessary?
Answer: Almost all the time

The greatest cyclist who ever lived was not Lance Armstrong.  His name was Eddy Mercx, who was popped for doping in the 1969 Giro.  Mercx to this day, in my opinion, was not only a great cyclist but a good father and a good person.   We have forgiven Mercx for doping. 

So, what exactly is it about Lance?   I suppose it is because he is a Liar, Liar Pants on Fire.  He did deny doping.  But, that is not really that far off of doping. Doping is lying.  Mercx lied.  He claimed that he was innocent.  So, did Flod Landis.  Landis went around the country raising money from amateur cyclists and fans for his defense fund and began each campaign for money with a sincere explanation of his innocence. He dame to Seattle and I personally know an amateur racer who gave him money. 

The problem with Lance, unlike all of the other dopers, was that Lance won a lot. He also had a PR machine as good as his bike.  He was vocal, visible and very cool.  This meant that he was constantly asked whether he doped.  They really don’t ask the losers if they doped.  

All of us mortals loved it because we love winning. Admit it.   We LOVED the Lance Armstrong era.  It was awesome because we were winners.  And, now, we feel duped.  That’s why we hate him. We hate him because we all fell for it and became groupies. 

But, that’s really as much our fault as his.  After his interview with Oprah, I read posts that were extremely mean.  He’s an asshole. Insane.  Narcisstic.  Yet, at the same time, he raised $500 million for cancer research.  He clearly loves his children.  I am annoyed with the Livestrong card as much as anyone.  But, it made me wonder.  What is more valuable:  guy who tries to contribute to the fight against cancer but happens to be a total asshole, or a guy who really does nothing with his life, helps no one in any way but is polite and doesn’t lie? 

For me personally, I do not feel like I have standing to answer that question.   That is a value judgment.  I would be “judgmental” if I tried.  So, why do so many people feel like they have standing to judge Lance?  Who could say with 100% certainty that they would have done anything different?  Think about it.  Let’s suppose that you are lucky enough to be genetically gifted.  You have high red blood count naturally, long femurs, etc.  You have an incentive to train hard because your genetic gifts give you a higher chance of winning or placing well. You train and train and go from Cat 5 to Cat 1 and professional by age 21.  Once in the professional peloton, you are introduced to doping, like everyone else. You win and win and win.  You are on TV, make an obscene amount of money and more and more and more.  More opportunity. More success.  More money. Sex. Rock and Roll.   Who can honestly say that they would not have become arrogant, self-centered and narcisstic.  

I understand it.  I hope I would have made different decisions but I admit that maybe I would not.  You can say it is insane or narcissistic but it is entirely possible that it is human.  I am not genetically gifted so there would never be a chance that I would face the decisions that Lance faced.  Thank goodness for that !

The last charge in the Inquisition is that Lance ruined other people’s lives.  I have no idea if that is true.   He clearly called people liars who said he doped.  He was involved in defamation lawsuits in England with David Walsh and the SCA/Tailwind lawsuit in America.  Lance won both and his lawyers no doubt cross examined witnesses zealously.  I do not know if the lives of the witnesses were destroyed.  The barely articulate Betsy Andreau’s beef after the interview was that Lance still denied that he told a doctor that he had taken performance-enhancing drugs.  Ms. Andreau’s logic is hard to follow considering his blanket admission on national television. Candidly, I think she is playing semantics, upset that a man, who at the time he was alleged to have made these statements was dying of a cancer, did not remember the event the way she remembered it.  What does it matter?

I am not sure what other lives were ruined. Floyd Landis and Tyler Hamilton sealed their own fates, Floyd in particular.  Eamma OReilly is another story.  She clearly knew something, tried to get the word out and was crushed.  

Tyler Hamilton described Lance’s emotion on the Oprah show as genuine.  He said that he knew immediately that he was a broken man and that it was the first time he had ever seen Lance Armstrong shed a tear.  Yet, arm chair pundits characterize his emotion as “fake.”  I guess if you lie about doping that means you lie about your emotions even if none of us have ever meet Lance. 

For me, I do not think it is my job to judge Lance.  I do feel like I can opine about the cycling organizations that created this fiasco. Yes, I said “created.”  Cycling is an international sport with deep roots in Belgium, France, Italy and Spain.  Doping creeped into cycling because organizers required humans to race their bikes over distances and elevations that are not human.   Fans required more.  Organizers game them more and the cyclists had to dig deeper and deeper and looked for ways to cope.  I suspect that organizers and race officials recognized this and allowed it because it helped the races become longer, faster and more exciting.

Then, it got out of hand.  The entire pack started to race the whole of the Tour de France at average speeds over 25 mph.  Pantani’s attack on Alpe d’Huez was awesome but, well, far fetched.  When the Postal Service arrived, the organization and methodic shredding caught the Europeans off guard.  Knocked on their heels by the Capitalistic approach to doping, the cat was out.   No one wanted to take the blame.  No one could admit that the governing bodies were so lame.   It would show what a joke the organizations really were.   Professional cycling, after all, is the larges amateur sports league in the world.  

And, so, the fans were duped.   Again.  Made to believe that Lance Armstrong is to blame.  We deserve it because we are so stupid.  Too stupid to see that professional cycling is corrupt.  Unwilling to place blame on even ourselves for our lust for more and more.  We truly want it to be like all of the other sports, sports in which engineered humans sacrifice life expectancy for fame, glory and freakish strength.   Fine with us unless the athlete is caught.  Then, apparently, we think he or she is insane.  

For me, there needs to be a reboot.  For me to follow professional cycling, the organizers, governing bodies and anti-doping agencies must decide what they will tolerate.  Do they want popular, American style sports where drugs, sex and rock and roll takes precedence over honesty.  If so, I will quietly ride my bike and race it on occasion.   If that is the future, there is no need to worry about what individual athletes do or do not do because I will not even know who they are.  If it is to be an honest sport, then it must be led honestly.  Notice I said "led".  That means that pro cycling needs to stop trying to blame Lance and eject all athletes and managers who were ever connected with doping.  All of them.  No quarter.  No amnesty.  There are plenty of riders who are more than happy to race professionally clean.  Without the juice, the sprints may be a little slower but all is relative.  

So, what is it going to be?