I am writing a blog about cycling, so I knew that I was going to have to write about Lance Armstrong for a couple of weeks now. I wanted to wait until most of the players had their say, and with the decision of the UCI to ban Armstrong for life, this seems like the time to write about the story.
First, I would like to give my opinion on Armstrong, because everyone who follows cycling has one. There are two general camps in the cycling world, the people who believe that Armstrong is clean, always has been and always will be. He is their hero, the man who beat cancer to win on the cycling world’s greatest stage. There is the opposite camp. There are the people who believe that he doped from the start and is nothing but a sham. He is the worst thing to ever happen to cycling and all of the sport’s problems with doping lay at his feet. To be entirely fair, there is a third camp. The one that does not follow cycling and only knows Armstrong as an athlete that founded Livestrong and became a star. Until recently, I would have fallen more in the third camp than the first two because I didn’t follow the sport. All I really knew is that Armstrong became famous; left his wife, dated a few stars, and then seemed to become something like a strange uncle. It was his “dating an Olsen Twin” phase. If I thought anything about him it was annoyance that he seemed to toss away his wife to be a famous. I once seriously debated if I should buy a pair of Livestrong Nike sneakers that were on clearance in my size. I wear size 14, so when you see Nikes on clearance it’s normally a good bet, but the image of Armstrong bothered me. It wasn’t the doping at that time, it was everything else. If pressed, I would have said I thought he was clean as I believed his claim to have never failed a drug test.
The last few weeks have been a whirlwind of cycling news, and not for good reasons. Armstrong is not the only rider whose image was tarnished or destroyed. There were eleven other riders whose names appear in the USADA’s findings on Armstrong. Eleven other people who admitted their own doping and claimed to have seen Armstrong dope, pressure them to dope, or gone to frightening lengths to avoid discovery. Some are retired, but at least one has lost his place on a top team due to the scandal. The news hasn’t focused on these riders, but to be fair, most people don’t know their names where Armstrong is a celebrity. Armstrong’s story is also more compelling because he has lost all of his Tour wins, any other record of his cycling, been banned for life, and lost all of his sponsors. He was the focus of the USADA. Bringing Armstrong down was their goal, not the other riders.
I believe that Armstrong’s punishment fits his transgressions. I want to be clear on that point, because once you move past Armstrong himself things get cloudy quickly. Any athlete that dopes and pressures his teammates to do the same deserves to be punished. Any athlete that goes to Armstrong’s level of doping and pressure needs to be removed for good. The question I have is what about his teammates, team doctors, team managers, and the rest of the supporting cast? There are people who are fighting the allegations, so I will withhold judgment on their situations, but Armstrong’s former teammates are another matter. They were not given immunity when they came forward, but their punishments have not been as severe, and in many cases have already been served. Perhaps Floyd Landis is an exception, though he was never banned for life, he just couldn’t get a place on a team after his own scandal. I do not want to diminish what other riders are going through, but they have not been banned for life, even if they have lost Tour wins or their position on a team.
It is time for cycling to move forward. There are so many questions that are raised from the USADA’s findings, and most of them are going to be difficult to deal with. What should happen to Armstrong’s former teammates? What about the others that came forward to talk about their place in the scandal while implicating him? Should they be allowed to compete again? Is there ever a sliding scale of guilt and punishment? What about the culture that led to the doping scandal?
There may be a corollary to Major League Baseball in cycling’s scandal. Both sports had rampant PED usage and a culture that didn’t treat it as cheating at the time. There were rules against doping and PEDs, but the system was easy to beat and teams were expecting results and not asking questions about how they were achieved. The analogy runs into trouble there though. In baseball managers turned a blind eye to questionable conduct as long as the home runs and dominate pitching kept happening. The USADA findings show that in cycling team managers and doctors were the ones administering the drugs. It would be like the entire major league roster of teams lining up for steroid injections. I believe that this is part of the reason that the UCI has decided to leave the seven Tour victories vacant. Almost every other cyclist that would have been in line to inherit a victory has also been involved in a doping scandal of their own. At what point do all of these individual doping scandals point to a larger problem? This many people can’t be cheating and someone in the governing body not know about it as its happening. There are already stories of Armstrong avoiding testing or positive test results disappearing after donations. Perhaps the real question should be if everyone was doing it, how did they get away with it for so long? Why did it take the USADA to catch one of the most pervasive doping programs when the UCI should have caught them seven other times, at least?
This is a sad story for the sport of cycling, and it will be worse if Armstrong continues to be the scapegoat for the UCI. There are only two ways to go from here. Demonize Armstrong and blame everything on him. Ban him for life and then close the books on the past scandals. Pretend that it is all over. Or, use Armstrong to start a new chapter in cleaning up the sport. Find out why cyclists were doping and not being caught. Standardize punishments and then follow the standards consistently. Move on from chasing the past and start focusing on the present and future of the sport.
I think that the USADA persecution of Armstrong went too far in some ways. Why were they continuing to chase a retired rider? I believe it was a witch hunt, but there was really a witch at the end of the hunt. I don’t know if that justifies it. I believe that Armstrong doped, and so did his teammates. I believe that some of the punishments fit the crimes, but not all. I believe it will all be a waste, the USADA findings, the rider’s confessions, the UCI decisions, all of it; if it is not used to change the culture of pro cycling. Only time will tell if it will change, but I hope it will.