ON MAKING ASSUMPTIONS, WHO’S CLEAN, WHO’S NOT

Watching Bill Burr‘s hysterical bit on the Conan O’Brien show four years ago when he dissected Oprah‘s big reveal interview with Lance Armstrong – during which the disgraced Tour de France cyclist finally copped to the drug use that everyone had suspected for years – it dawned on me, if Lance was always assumed to be guilty though he passed every drug test, why hasn’t the public made the same assumption about the biggest names in athletics?  Or maybe they have.

I’m not suggesting anything,  just wondering out loud how the public mind works.  (Really,  this is just an excuse to post  Bill Burr’s take on Oprah and Lance, which is funny and insightful at the same time, no easy task.)

So let’s look at the situation with athletics, especially in light of German ARD TV‘s recent investigation alleging the IOC covered up positive Jamaican test results from the 2008 Olympics in Beijing where the sprint juggernaut won eleven medals.

First, both cycling and athletics have been awash in performance-enhancing drugs (PEDs) for years, to the gills.  And while people all around them get popped, the top guy who produces historic performances continues to sail along testing clean while whooping all the dirty boys.

That was the glory for Lance, right, how the one clean guy who had overcome cancer was able to beat all the drugged up guys. Isn’t that Usain Bolt, minus the cancer?  Or is the difference in public outlook simply a matter of personality? Continue reading

BEHIND ANOTHER SET OF BARS

BEHIND BARS?

I received a reply to my latest post TIME FOR TRUTH & RECONCILIATION from a fellow traveler, John Dehart, who suggested that criminal penalties and prison time should be instituted for doping violations in light of the recent fall from grace of Lance Armstrong, the now former seven-time Tour de France cycling champion.

“The present system is a joke,” wrote DeHart, “and a real insult to the hard working clean athletes.”

You are correct, John.  It is an insult, but also a fraud, an intentional deception made for personal gain.  The topic is both interesting and redolent given the amount of money involved in many of the sports where drugs are an on-going issue.

In the case of Armstrong, Tour de France director Christian Prudhomme wants the $3.85 million returned that the Tour paid to Armstrong for his seven wins.   What’s more, insurance company SCA Promotions said it, too, will seek to reclaim $7.5 million it paid to Armstrong after a 2006 arbitration proceeding went against them stemming from its initial refusal to pay Armstrong a U.S. Postal Service team bonus after his sixth Tour win. At the time, SCA was skeptical of Armstrong’s performance, but proof of his doping was not as clear, concise and overwhelming as the current USADA report revealed.

Since performance enhancing drugs became a serious issue in the 1960s, it is beyond obvious that sporting sanctions and public humiliation alone have not been successful in dissuading athletes or their representatives from cheating.  What we are talking about here is making cost-benefit analyses, and for decades the users have weighed the penalties against the rewards for not getting caught, and decided overwhelmingly, “Yep, it’s worth it”.  Even today, we see athletes hit with two-year sanctions which, taken early or late enough in a career,  or in the middle of an Olympic cycle, allows for a minor down time for additional training before their return to competition as if no-harm, no-foul. Continue reading

TIME FOR TRUTH & RECONCILIATION?

With yesterday’s decision by cycling’s federation to bow to USADA’s comprehensive report of massive doping violations and conspiracy, UCI has stripped American cyclist Lance Armstrong of his seven Tour de France titles (1999-2005).   Now USADA is calling for an amnesty program similar to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) in post-apartheid South Africa which would allow any cyclist to come clean about his use of performance enhancing drugs so that the sport might somehow pull out of its current death spiral.

“It is important to remember that while today is a historic day for clean sport, it does not mean clean sport is guaranteed for tomorrow,” read part of a USADA-released statement.

The South African TRC was a court-like body where victims of human rights violations came to give witness about their experiences, while perpetrators of violence and rights violators could also give testimony and request amnesty from both civil and criminal prosecution.   The TRC was credited, along with president and former political prisoner Nelson Mandela, for helping South Africa make the political and social transition beyond apartheid peaceful.

The cynic in me senses that the impetus for instituting a cycling amnesty program will likely be based less on USADA’s findings enumerating Armstrong’s guilt, or cycling’s refusal to self-correct, but in reaction to the Dutch company Rabobank’s decision to end its 17-year sponsorship of professional cycling.  As Watergate so truly reminded us nearly 40 years ago, follow the money.

“We are no longer convinced that the international professional world of cycling can make this a clean and fair sport,” said Rabobank board member Bert Bruggink in a statement. “We are not confident that this will change for the better in the foreseeable future.

“The USADA report was the final straw,” he added later in a press conference televised live in the Netherlands. “The international sport of cycling is not only sick, the sickness goes up to the highest levels.”

Rabobank had been committed to the sport of cycling to the tune of €15 million a year in sponsorship.  And that’s just one of 22 teams which participated in the 2012 Tour. Compare that level of sponsorship with Virgin’s reported commitment of £17 million to the London Marathon between 2010 and 2014 – that’s £17 million total for five years, not £17 million per year.  Or, Samsung’s reported $2 million yearly investment in the Diamond League, the premier athletics tour in the world.  Samsung signed a new three-year extension this past January.

The sport of athletics battled internally for years before stepping gingerly out of its amateur past into a quasi-professional status in the 1980s.  But like Catholic girls of old, they never went all the way, and the sport has been on the margins of professionalism ever since.  The sport was further compromised after Canada’s Ben Johnson was stripped of his 1988 Olympic 100-meter gold medal in Seoul, Korea after failing a drug test.

With its constant drip, drip, drip of drug violations becoming the headline story for the sport rather than competition, one could say that athletics has never truly reached the heights achieved in the Cold War era when the sport sublimated the binary Free World and Communist World antipathy.

Even today with Jamaica’s Usain Bolt as its headliner, athletics is not viewed as truly professional by the general public, nor seen as worthy of financial backing on par with other world sports.  Bolt is, by far, the highest paid track athlete in the world, yet comes in as only the 63rd highest paid athlete on the globe. No other track athlete even nibbles at the edges of the list.

These are the long-term consequences of an ostrich-like stance.  One wonders if cycling will ever fully pull its head free in time to recover.

 

END

LANCE IN DESCENT

Resigned

Massive brewer Anheuser-Busch joined massive shoe company Nike today in dropping sponsorship of cyclist and cancer fund-raising champion Lance Armstrong after USADA’s Pyrenees of evidence linking the seven-time Tour de France champion to serial performance enhancing drug use became public.  Though heavily suspected and accused for years, Armstrong’s fierce denials and fantastic cancer fund-raising had erected just enough of a firewall to maintain his corporate relationships.  Until now.

But corporate America has never been accused of spinal conformity when it comes to support for its pitchmen.  Like a fifteen year-old kid applying for his first job being told, “You have no experience”, often it takes one intrepid backer to get you off the schneid. In this case, one rejecter to open the flood gates of dismissal and discharge.

Of course, Armstrong has no one but himself to blame, though he remains defiantly jut-jawed.  Despite the avalanche of evidence against him, so powerful has his 70 million yellow Livestrong bracelet program been that he still has champions willing to cleave the sins of the cyclist from the redemption of his philanthropy.  And what, exactly, is the lesson to the young ones there?  Are ends and means really to be separated so easily?

Armstrong isn’t the first, nor will he be the last, to take image-piercing rounds from a corporate/ media firing squad.  An entire baseball generation, most notably Barry Bonds, Sammy Sosa and Mark McGuire, has been a casualty.

In months following Tiger Woods’ admission of serial infidelity in November 2009, several companies re-evaluated their relationships with the 14-time major golf champion.  Though the most bankable athlete in the world, Tiger lost everyone from Accenture to AT&T, Gatorade and General Motors. Blade maker Gillette suspended advertising featuring the once unsullied Woods. Tag Heuer dropped Tiger from their ad campaign in the immediate aftermath of the scandal, and ended their relationship for good when their deal expired in 2011. However, in contrast to their abandonment of Armstrong, Nike continued to support Tiger.

Lesser celebs have also been sent off on a metaphoric ice flow in the wake of a social disgrace.  On January 16, 1988, Jimmy “The Greek” Snyder was fired from his 12-year CBS NFL football assignment after commenting to a local TV reporter at a Washington D.C. eatery that African Americans were superior athletes due to the breeding policies of slave owners before the Civil War.

Teaching moments are not the main concern of corporate titans.  As Morty Seinfield said, “Cheap fabric, and dim lighting, that’s how you move merchandise.” Continue reading

THE ENDS AND MEANS OF LANCE

Lance says, “Enough”

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? Continue reading