Saying It’s So: Lance Armstrong and Doping

If we are going to point the finger at Lance for doping, we need to take a hard look at sporting bureaucrats first

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.

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12 Responses to Saying It’s So: Lance Armstrong and Doping

  1. Great take on this. I especially love the “sleep on it” approach. It’s too bad we are becoming a society where truth and accuracy is sacrificed for the sake of being timely and relevant. I think this cheapening of truth is what eventually allows us to seek “justice” or “fairness” by re-writing the history books in sport. Even when the offense is a purely moral one (such as in he case of Penn State), I still am uncomfortable with the re-write of history which with we seem all too comfortable.

    • John Gleaves says:

      Bobby-

      Did you see my post on Rewriting History through Sport? I think that we are seeing similar things regarding the rewriting of sport. I, too, am uncomfortable when we try to rewrite our history to make ourselves feel better afterwards.

  2. Thomas M. Hunt says:

    Very insightful article. A particularly apt analogy regard Thorpe – and one that hadn’t occurred to me. I look forward to following the blog!

    • John Gleaves says:

      Tommy-

      Biggest complement ever: “and one that hadn’t occurred to me.” Thanks for reading and giving me a big head.

  3. Thomas M. Hunt says:

    Actually, to say it hadn’t occurred to me makes me sound smarter than I am. Really John – I’m impressed and it made me think in a new way.

  4. MV2 says:

    I think Lances results should be vacated and left that way. The fact that Lance won seven tours doping is common knowledge among pros. If not held accountable it will show the system can be gamed. After Lance we had several paradox years where to win a Grand tour you had to dope, but if you doped and won you got caught. Thanks to improved testing and the resolve of many brave riders Cycling is far cleaner today. In fact although not all are clean, rides now think a Grand Tour can be won clean. The biological passport limits doping to micro-dosing which is not a substantial enough improvement for many stars these day to risk so doping has become the Providence of mostly second trier riders. But doping ebbs and flows with new drug and techniques and improved testing. In the times that testing is lagging the successful prosecution of the sports biggest star will go a long way to make a potential doper think twice. Lance should pay no less a price then Floyd and Tyler. On the other hand if Lance were to evade accountability I fear it will send all the wrong messages to future generations. Concerning the other riders that recently came forward for the good of the sport like Riis and JV I think they should be granted amnesty. Others that voluntarily came clean should be given a suspended sentence.

  5. Brink Kuchenbrod says:

    This is flimsy.

    1) Maradona’s cheat was a spontaneous deception and luck helped him get away with it. Armstrong’s cheat was calculated and exploited knowledge of how to deceive the testers. I see nothing analogous here.

    2)Cycling publishes a list of banned substances and tests for them as best they can. What else can cycling do? Here’s an analogy: If everyone on a highway is speeding, but you’re the only one who gets pulled over, do you later go to traffic court expecting leniency because law enforcement is inadequate, even though the law is explicit. Judges laugh at this line of reasoning.

    3)We gave up on trying to define amateur athletics and Thorpe got screwed over before we realized how silly it was to try to draw a line between amateur and professional. However, we have a very firm definition of clean cycling and I’m sure that our system of publishing lists of banned substances and testing for them will stand the test of time. Where is the analogy here?

    Today I watched my son read a headline in the newspaper, “Armstrong’s legacy stands tarnished, vacated” I don’t know who the winners are anymore, nobody does, but I know who the losers are and I know that hardball is the only way to try to fix it. With all due respect, quit apologizing for Lance Armstrong and move forward to something better.

    • John Gleaves says:

      Brink-

      Great to hear from you. I think you raised some good points. You are correct to point out the difference between Maradona and Armstrong but couldn’t you say that both violated the rules regardless of intent? It might change the moral guilt for each (lessening Maradona’s and raising Armstrong’s). Yet the point I was simply making was about rewriting results. Would you argue that Pete Rose’s results should be vacated because he was gambling on the outcome of the games he played in?

      I also think that the speeding analogy is a good one. But consider if the law was applied unevenly rather than consistently so that only high profile celebrities were pulled over while ignoring everyone else? I agree that one couldn’t defend themselves using your argument but many people have successfully argued that laws applied inconsistently are invalid. That is why the IRS doesn’t only audit the wealthy and that the difference between mandatory minimums for crack cocaine vs powder cocaine is unjust.

      Last, the amateur point only further proves the problem with Lance’s case. Thorpe had clear rules; whether you think they were silly or not doesn’t matter. The rules that he violated could not have been clearer. At the same time, the definition of doping is unclear. Just think back to the very recent efforts to ban altitude tents as doping. Also, unless you just define doping as anything that WADA says it is (which doesn’t explain why caffeine keeps changing its status) we can’t say the definition is clean.

      Also, consider this quote from Jaques Anquetil. In 1967 Anquetil stated: “I dope myself. Everyone [that is, everyone who is a competitive cyclist] dopes himself. Those who claim they don’t are liars. For 50 years bike racers have been taking stimulants. Obviously, we can do without them in a race, but then we will pedal 15 miles an hour [instead of 25]. Since we are constantly asked to go faster and make even greater efforts, we are obliged to take stimulants.” Should Anquetil give back his Tour victories? The rules were equally (un)clear? for him.

      Thanks for taking the time to read and give some intelligent comments on my post. I appreciate it.

  6. JW says:

    I enjoyed your piece. But I don’t think that the Maradonna “hand of God” goal or in fact any missed offense by a soccer ref which effects the result of a game, is a good analogy. Soccer players don’t go out at the start of 90 minutes with the planned intention to commit an offence that the ref might not see. While it does happen all the time because the refs are human and have to make split second decisions without the aid of video replays, this type of “mistake” is random and unplanned. Armstrong’s doping was clearly planned, carefully executed to avoid the testing that was being done and indeed involved substances and methods which at the time could not be detected. The ability to test retroactively for banned substances is a major deterrent going forward and will hopefully reduce the use of “new”, currently untested for drugs.

  7. Taylor Thurston says:

    Dr. Gleaves, I thoroughly enjoyed this article and have reported it on Facebook for all my cyclist and sport friends to enjoy. I will definetly be tuning in to the rest of the blog.

  8. MB says:

    Big difference between Maradonna and Armstrong – Maradonna isn’t trying to pretend he didn’t use his hand to score the goal. Neither was Anquetil pretending he raced clean.

    Armstrong is still maintaining he didn’t take any drugs, and threw lawyers at anyone who dared suggest anything to the contrary.

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