Since the news that Lance Armstrong will no longer fight USADA’s doping charges broke last night, many people have been asking about my take on the whole issue. Naturally, I felt it best to get a little distance from the news, sleep on it, think it over, and try to separate emotions from rational thoughts. As a philosopher and a historian, I find it best to consider the long view that will stand the test of time, look around for analogous cases, and reflect on the different issues at work. While it is clear that the Armstrong case is much like the daytime soap opera in that every time we think the show is over or a character is dead, we find the show really just takes another turn, we can say that Armstrong’s decision not to contest USADA’s charges pretty much says the writing is on the wall for his case.
What does it mean? First, Armstrong no longer is officially recognized as a seven time winner of the Tour de France (more on this point in a moment). That means Greg Lemond is now the only American to ever win a Tour de France. Also, in all likelihood, Armstrong will be asked (sued) to payback all of his earnings and potentially his endorsements over the years. Will Nike change the name to the Lance Armstrong building? We will see.
What it doesn’t mean, however, is that Lance should be convicted of doping. At first glance, this position might seem like a head-in-the-sand approach. If he violated the doping rules, then he cheated and should be punished, right? Indeed, since a USADA conviction is a doping conviction by definition, it is clear that he doped. Perhaps one could argue that not all people convicted of murder actually did the murder, but in Armstrong’s case, I don’t think this argument would convince many people. Rather, what I want to say is that according to the rules of his sport and the way that we play sport, Armstrong should not be punished for what he did.
This is for two reasons. First, even though Armstrong might not have been caught by doping controls while he competed, that only means the officiating was bad, not the athlete. This is not to say “it’s only cheating if you get caught” but rather it is acknowledging that officials often fail to enforce rules accurately. Consider the many instances where we quite certainly know that the wrong team or the wrong person won because a rule was broken. Perhaps one of the most famous and important example is Diego Maradona’s “Hand of God” handball to score a goal that would allow Argentina to win the 1986 World Cup. Now it is clear to all who see the photographic evidence (and Maradona’s own admission) that he broke the rules. So why are we not taking away Argentina’s victory and awarding the World Cup to West Germany? It is because in sports, we assume that the result stands. Once the anti-doping tests came back negative, the book should be closed. If we later have information (like we often do) that officials charged with enforcing the rules failed to do so, we do not go back and try to rewrite the event. Rather, we acknowledge the mistake by the officials (in this case, it is a serious indictment of the U.C.I. and cycling) and point out that sports, like life, are not always fair. Maradona’s goal should not have counted, but it did.
A second reason for not punishing Armstrong is that it is clear that the cycling officials, by and large, dropped the ball on the whole doping issue. The number of athletes who have admitted or where evidence indicates that they raced while doping calls into question the results from cycling for nearly three decades (1980s, 1990s, and 2000s). Even consider the simple problem of awarding the 2000 Tour de France yellow jersey? Can they find an athlete that they know didn’t dope? I don’t think so. Anyone they award it to has at least an equal cloud of suspicion because they were not tested for doping and the tests that were done proved unreliable. Given the era of doping that Armstrong raced in, it is absurd to hand out a doping ban to him while ignoring the many other violations that occurred right alongside him. What is more pressing is a serious investigation of the culture, including the fans, that created an environment where doping practices flourished despite violating the rules of the sport.
Indeed, this whole case reminds me of the case involving Jim Thorpe. Thorpe was perhaps the U.S.’s greatest athlete. Part Native American and part Caucasian, Thorpe proved himself an exceptional athlete in track and field, baseball, and football. In 1912, Thorpe won gold medals in the Pentathlon and Decathlon. Later, however, the American Olympic Committee turned Thrope in for violating the IOC’s amateurism policy. For those who don’t know, amateurism used to be the doping issue before World War II. Everyone accused people of violating amateurism while few were actually punished. At the same time, most athletes, including Thorpe, did violate the amateurism rules. In Thorpe’s case, his only mistake was using his real name to compete in minor league baseball unlike his peers who all used fake names. The end result was that Thorpe was stripped of his two Olympic medals (spoiler alert: he got them back). At the same time, many people violated amateurism rules. Such violations were only made possible by unscrupulous promoters who knowingly paid athletes and the fans that bought ticket in order to see best athletes rather than unpaid local amateurs. Many people had a hand in helping Thorpe violate the amateur rules and to point out Thorpe and not others is to ignore the real cause.
So what does Thorpe’s case reveal about Armstrong? When you have a corrupt system with many athletes flouting the rules, it is unjust to single out one athlete, no matter how high or low their profile is, while ignoring all of the rest. It is troublesome to hand out punishments for a few while allowing others to clearly get away with the same violation. In that vein, it was wrong to go after Thorpe and the IOC since admitted that stripping his medals was unfair. Unfortunately, they only reinstated him after he died. Going after Armstrong, while ignoring the whole sporting structure is as bad as going after Thorpe. Indeed, it is telling that neither of the silver medalists to Thorpe ever considered themselves the real winner of the event, even after the IOC stripped Thorpe’s medals. USADA’s pursuit of Armstrong reminds me much of the persecution of Thorpe. Making an example of him will not deter others and it ignores the larger systemic problem.
If we want to take away Armstrong’s victories, I doubt that anyone can honestly call themselves the winner of the Tour de France. Even if they completed dope-free, the chances that one or more of their teammates doped is too high. Does that mean we erase the 1999 through 2005 Tour’s as if the never happened? No. Rather we should leave Armstrong with his titles, point out the institutional flaws that permitted a culture of rule breaking, and work towards creating fair and enjoyable sport for all parties.