At what point do ends and means come into conflict with ones such as Lance Armstrong or his obsessive Ahab-like hunter, USADA? That question surfaced again this past week with the news that Lance Armstrong had decided to give up his legal fight against the United States Anti-Doping Agency (USADA) in light of USADA’s pending arbitration hearing against the seven-time Tour de France champion for his alleged use of performance-enhancing drugs. In each case, neither side has emerged as a champion.
The undeniable good that Mr. Armstrong has done for the cancer community with his Livestrong Foundation was built on the publicity generated by his seven consecutive Tour de France wins following his recovery from testicular cancer. It is arguable whether the fame, and therefore fortune, behind the Livestrong movement would have been possible without those victories. Yet notwithstanding USADA’s continued obsession to harpoon what had become its white whale, Mr. Armstrong’s capitulation last week could only be seen as an admission of guilt, no matter how he framed it.
But at the same time, the Armstrong-USADA fight beggars the question, has the goodwill and cancer funding generated by his TDF titles been a worthy enough end to justify the performance-enhancing means that Armstrong all but certainly used to attain them? Which, in this case, is the lesser of two evils, especially in a culture awash in denial and deception?
We know that the Tour de France organizers will not be announcing newly named winners of those tainted Tours, because it has long been accepted that the vast majority of competitors were no different in their doping than Mr. Armstrong. What, then, is left as a final consequence?
Just as the War on Drugs has proven to be as abject a failure in society at large – as has been the War on Poverty – are we finally approaching a tipping point in the war on performance enhancing drugs in sport? No matter the new levels of sophistication in drug detection, with the dawn of genetic modification on the horizon, how much longer can the powers that be hope to keep fair play on a drug-free, much less genetics-free, field when the “Just win, baby” culture keeps driving us toward the cliffs of submission?
Who is at fault? Lance is not the culprit here, certainly not the lone one. He was just another in the long line of cynics playing the game as he found it upon arrival. Neither is USADA CEO Travis Tygart the bad guy. We are. We want it both ways, citius, altius, fortius, but pure as the driven snow. We are addicted to sports. Addicted to their champions. Addicted to their records. And the first thing any addict needs to do is admit the addiction. Fair play is not within the realm of an addict.
Originally, fair play was a concept tied to amateurism which considered sports an activity enjoined and enjoyed for its own sake with proper consideration for fairness, ethics, respect, and a sense of fellowship with one’s competitors. Some of that ethic still lives, but overwhelmingly it has been abandoned for the hard-headed aspiration of success for its own sake, and competitors beware.
Today, fair play is little more than the attempt to maintain an equitable balance in competitive advantage. It is only when a select few have an unfair advantage that cheating is in evidence and becomes consequential. But if everyone is allowed to use whatever means necessary, then fair play has not, in fact, been compromised. That’s why Lance won those Tours, in one sense, fairly and squarely; the entire elite field was compromised. It is only by maintaining a policy which can never be attained that sport jeopardizes its public acceptance and continues on its path toward cynical disregard.
Lance Armstrong was the best cyclist of his era with or without drugs. What we have seen transpire is a public pissing contest between a supremely talented but arrogant athlete and a self-righteously driven public watch-dog. For Armstrong to obstinately claim he was the sole clean rider besting the top drug-takers when a Pyrenees of proof continued to mount was a category-climb even he could not overcome. That he was an arrogant prick who got under the skin of officials willing to enlist the testimony of anyone just as guilty as their target, was only the predicate for the witch hunt which eventually led to his nolo contendere actions. Perhaps if he had come clean and admitted that it is impossible to ask athletes to perform tasks that no un-enhanced body could achieve would have altered the outcome or diligence of the quest against him.
In the end, however, it is our own hypocrisy – the drug and financial gain culture pervades every aspect of modern life – that threatens to bring down much more than a single benighted rider. But we can’t even be honest enough with ourselves to admit it.