Why Doping Matters
“If they all were cheating, then it’s not cheating.”
It’s a strange argument. Ridiculous. Illogical. That the entire peloton is doped doesn’t change the rules of cycling, or sport. Claiming that “Lance Armstrong was just the best cheater” isn’t exactly a compliment. However, I understand making the argument. It’s the easiest way to wrap one’s mind around the idea that nearly every inspirational moment in the last 15, 20, 30 Tours de France (and other major bike races) has been synthetic. False. That there are no champions on the podium in Paris. Only cheaters.
“They are all doping, so there was no advantage.”
But I don’t believe the entire field was cheating. And even if they were, not all dope is created equal. If Floyd Landis and Tyler Hamilton are telling the truth, then we know now that doping is like training. To be done effectively, it needs to be precisely timed, carefully supervised, and exactly disciplined. Some Directeur Sportifs are better tacticians and motivators and strategists than others, just as some team doctors are better at masking, micro-dosing, and timing the injection of EPO. The game became a drug war. Lance Armstrong was right, It’s not about the bike. And he—or the Postal/Discovery team—was the best cheater. And that is somehow defensible?
Cheating will always exist in sports. But it doesn’t need to be rampant or systemic. It doesn’t need to be acceptable. The choice that Tyler Hamilton and Floyd Landis (and many others) faced—cheat or go home—isn’t a choice that is inevitable.
Padraig at Red Kite Prayer, writes:
Every time we reduce someone to “culprit” or “doper” what we are doing is labeling them “the bad guy.” By reducing them into a two-dimensional role, they become cardboard cutouts, symbols, for what we find offensive. Dressing a guy in a black hat automatically makes him the bad guy. That’s what makes old spaghetti westerns so laughable; you didn’t need to know anything more about the guy than the fact that he had the black hat on.
The reasons different riders dope are impossible to fully understand. But I think it’s important to try to understand. It’s important because professional cycling is being poisoned by a culture of corruption and deceit. And while the team doctors and managers might be orchestrating the deceit, the riders themselves are ultimately culpable. There is no honor in omerta. There is no courage in silence. And that’s why I admire the riders who are speaking in public about the rotten core of professional cycling. When riders reject that doping is simply a part of the cycling cutlure, then doping will stop being a part of the cycling culture. It sounds simple. But money and fame and influence are fantastically persuasive.
And who can’t relate to these riders, a little bit? Cycling immortality was being handed out in white paper bags. I can’t say that I’d have walked away from that, if given the chance.
But doping trickles down through the peloton and into the amateur ranks of cycling. That choice is being forced onto young riders earlier and earlier. The “next level” is always the next level. I can’t imagine the pressure that will be put on the 16 and 17 year olds that are winning Junior national titles today. What future do they face? What will be handed to them in white paper bags? Will they walk away from seven-figure paychecks and national fame?
And that’s why doping needs to be rooted out of the sport. Of all sports. It won’t ever happen completely. But if cycling continues to be laced with drugs, anything that those Juniors accomplish in 2017 or 2020 or 2030 will mean nothing. Clean or not.
And that is the heart of the Lance Armstrong conflict. We all cheered for him. I wore a yellow band. I believe that LiveStrong is a great influence and icon of hope for millions of people. But today those 7 yellow jerseys mean nothing. Absolutely nothing. And neither do Armstrong’s claims of innocence. I simply cannot give him the benefit of the doubt the way I did during his Tour streak. Barry Bonds might still have his name in the record books. Lance Armstrong will keep his jerseys. But to what end? What good is a yellow jersey if it represents deception and corruption?
Bill Strickland, a longtime Armstrong friend and defender, and the editor of Bicycling now believes Lance cheated. He summarizes the mixed emotions that his fans (and we were all fans at some point) are learning to deal with:
I thought I’d stop being a fan, hate him too much to appreciate him. That’s what we’re told, that we must either admire him or alternately despise and pity him. And I do: I admire him and despise him and pity him—for the years of lying as much as the cheating—and I’m enraged and morose, and I think he owes us something and he should just disappear, and I could keep going like this and some days have. Can you imagine that? A 46-year-old guy all twisted up because of the ugly way a cyclist did beautiful things on a bike?
I want to watch professional cycling and not have to ask myself if what I am seeing is real. I want to watch mountain time-trials and spring classics, and Grand Tours without the nagging insistence that everything I am seeing on the road is the product of elaborate doping instead of elaborate training. From Padraig at RKP again:
If we want to understand doping, we need to understand more than the biology behind the drugs. We need to know more than who they got the drugs from, more than their training regimen. We need to know, to understand the riders as people. We must understand what caused them to confront the choices that led to their doping. That means no black hats.
Is Tyler Hamilton lying? Is Floyd Landis? Frankie Andreu? I don’t think so. What would be the point? Instead, I think they are each looking for redemption. Looking for honor. They are rejecting omerta and the dope-centric culture of cycling. I think they each want to stop seeing the fakery that the gold medals, jerseys, and trophies represent. And I can appreciate that. It doesn’t mean that these men were not cheaters. No, they cheated. And they paid a price for those actions. But a penitent cheater deserves our forgiveness, if nothing more.
Cycling will survive. It’s absurd to think that an elite group of cheaters will undo the enjoyment of something that millions of people do each day. But as a fan of bike racing, and a bike racer myself, those lucky and talented enough to race in the iconic tours and classics (or even at the highest levels domestically) owe it to me to compete honestly. And when they don’t, they owe me honesty about the cheating.
The future of cycling is bright. I’ve seen the future of cycling. It’s manifested in a handful of local teenagers that are remarkably talented. What they might accomplish in the next 10 or 15 years could be spectacular. And when that happens, I don’t want to wonder if it’s real or not.