Why I Don't Care That Lance Cheated
For anyone who actually knows my identity (which I'm pretty sure is about 98% of my regular readers), you will be well versed in my respect and admiration for Lance Armstrong. Did I suspect him of cheating back when he was winning all those tours? Absolutely not. How could I? Not only was he the most drug tested athlete in the history of drug testing or athletes, but he was also an inspiration to anyone that had dealt with anything like cancer. While I didn't have cancer, having an aggressively benign knee tumor (twice) amid a budding competitive cycling career in high school would be enough to discourage and/or depress any young athlete. So what did I do? I used Lance's story to help motivate me back onto the bike after both surgeries. If he could conquer a disease 20x worse than mine, I could overcome a knee tumor no problem. In the last couple of years, I have been asked by many of my friends and colleagues about my thoughts on whether Lance was clean. It seemed to me like circumstantial evidence was beginning to implicate him, but nothing definitive could link him to cheating. He still had never tested positive despite the hundreds of tests he took, both in season and out of season. Sure a team masseuse claimed she disposed of used needles for Lance but you could easily explain that as a disgruntled ex-employee trying to slam her boss (who hasn't wanted to do that at some point?) However, Flloyd Landis so clearly tested positive and then followed his indictment with a litany of the most bone-headed excuses for a 4x spike in testosterone above his baseline you could imagine (he had a shot of whiskey the night before? Are you kidding me?). Maybe riders at the upper end really do cheat more than we thought? Frankie Andreau started coming after Lance, but that could be easily explained away as Frankie having an ax to grind against a clearly superior American cyclist making 100x as much money through his successes (in the same way you could attribute Greg LeMond's consistent downplaying of Lance's talent and success as nothing more than cheating to LeMond being jealous of Lance stealing his spotlight as the greatest American cyclist ever). But then Tyler Hamilton folded and admitted he (and Lance) cheated (who knows if it was forced by prosecutors as a plea deal--for purposes of this story, it doesn't really matter). At that point, I felt the foundations of this personal hero start to crumble. This wasn't someone who was pissy about being overshadowed--he was one of Lance's most trusted domestiques and friends who went on to a rather successful career as a team leader for major European teams.
My friends, family, and colleagues who knew my link to Lance started to ask more frequently about my thoughts. The US government was going to launch an investigation into whether Lance broke the law by trafficking drugs as the leader of a government sponsored team, among other charges (The US Postal Service was the team sponsor for years). It wasn't looking good. One of my best friends, who knows more about sports than anyone I know, had claimed for a few years that there was simply no way Lance didn't cheat--even if he was genetically engineered to ride a bike faster and farther than any human before him (which he was), and even if the government doesn't bring a case against him, the shit will hit the fan and you'll know before the end that he was dirty. And while I didn't want to believe it, it began to look more and more prophetic as the years marched on.
I struggled with this eventuality for a few months. Could one of my personal heroes really unravel like this in front of our very eyes? I then came to the conclusion that, you know what? Not only don't I care, it really doesn't matter. This issue boils down to one thing in my book--did Lance have an unfair advantage that allowed him to win those races because of personal actions beyond inherent physiological ability? And the conclusion that I came to is no--no he did not.
Despite the completely unfair protocols of USADA (the body is in no way impartial and Lance's hearing was to be heard and decided by the director, Travis Tygart, who brought the charges in the first place. This would be like your prosecuting attorney also acting as the judge and jury...), the case made against Lance seems pretty overwhelming. There were over 200 pages of sworn depositions of basically every American he ever rode with implicating him. So yes, he was dirty. I think anyone with half a brain can come to that conclusion. He cheated. But the unique aspect of this situation is that I'm 100% convinced it did not give him an unfair advantage--it merely put him on the same playing field as every other rider in the field. Let me explain.
The UCI, the governing body for international cycling, has decided to strip Lance of his 7 tour victories and demanded repayment of his winnings. But interestingly, they are not going to name winners for those years. The field was so dirty and EVERY other rider that made the podium during those years has been authoritatively linked to doping, that they are content to simply have no winners during those years because the doping was systemic--ubiquitous. So my point is this: every other rider was cheating. We know this. So how was Lance gaining an edge over the other athletes in the field when he was simply doing the exact same thing as them? I'm not arguing for or against the merits of doping and whether or not athletes should be allowed to do so. All I'm saying is that Lance didn't gain an advantage by doing so. Other riders had to dope to become the athlete Lance was at his physiological baseline. Doping simply allowed Lance to put himself proportionally ahead of the other riders by the same amount his genetics and work ethic put him ahead of them at their respective clean baselines.
Am I disappointed in Lance? Sure. I wish he had been clean. I wish this storybook career arc had been pure and true. But what I have come to realize is that it really doesn't matter. He won those 7 Tours de France. Yes he doped, but so did everyone else--he simply didn't allow his competitors to gain an unfair advantage over him. I'm not saying that his motivation was purely defensive--I don't know what motivated him to dope. I'm just saying that the realities of the situation dictate that him cheating only leveled the playing field; it did not tilt it to his advantage. He should be banned from competing in UCI sanctioned events moving forward. He should (and has) been dropped by all of his sponsors. But he shouldn't be stripped of the TdF victories unless the UCI can definitively prove one of the other riders in that field was 100% clean and that they deserve to win. If the UCI can't do that, then you have to assume everyone was cheating. As such, Lance was simply the best athlete among a horde of dirty athletes. He still won. He should keep his titles.
The final chapter of this story for me is that ultimately, I don't care that he cheated. I know I should care, because cheating is wrong. I wish he hadn't of, but it doesn't really tarnish his legacy all that much. Did he have testicular, lung, and brain cancer? Yes. Did he beat all those cancers? Yes. Did he get back on the bike? Yes. Did he train harder than any other athlete in the world? Yes. Did he go on to win 7 Tours de France? Yes. Did he raise $400MM+ for cancer research through his LiveStrong foundation? Yes.
Did he inspire me at my lowest point to fight on and get back on the bike? Yes. Did he do that for millions of others at their lowest points? Yes.
That's what so many people in the media or these regulatory agencies don't understand; the story isn't simply that he won 7 TdF or that cheated in doing so, it's that despite whatever life throws at you, you can choose to live strong and fight back with everything you have. He inspired an entire generation of individuals to be more active, to take better care of themselves, and to fight tooth-and-nail against the trials and tribulations of cancer (or similar diseases).
That is Lance's legacy--overcoming seemingly insurmountable obstacles to become a beacon of hope to those without any. And that is why I don't care that he doped.