As a society we fundamentally value those who persevere in the face of adversity with unparalleled guile and strength. Think of people revered today: Usain Bolt, Steve Jobs, Hilary Mantel, Emmeline Pankhurst and Albert Einstein. They all had to push past some sort of boundary to become renowned in their field, and each thus achieved success in their own right; whether it was a world record, a Man Booker prize or a ground-breaking mathematics theory.
So, it makes sense that Lance Armstrong would be seen as the embodiment of the American dream and that he would take the world by storm with a never-ending list of cycling wins – including seven Tour de France titles. Take his domination in the sport and couple it with his cancer survival story (and the Livestrong charity that followed), and it should come as no surprise that he was embraced by the world. And if his success was unbelievable, then his fall was even more inconceivable.
At the time of his (in)famous Oprah Winfrey interview, there were media outbursts, there are news-grabbing headlines and there were far, far too many rumours. Reams of people ripped off their yellow Livestrong wristbands that were as ubiquitous amongst the public as drugs were in cycling. Everybody was shocked and all they knew was that Armstrong had cheated the public of their dream. The masses had relied on him, with posters above their office desk, to make incredible feats seem achievable for people with mundane lives like them. To lose that credulity cut them deep, and no-one was interested to hear the whole story. This was because it was so easy to condemn Armstrong. To point the finger and say that he was the evil, malicious ring-leader who shoved EPO into people’s veins. Problem solved, turn your back in shame at the lie you had so carelessly bought into. But of course, it is never as simple as that. Nothing ever is.
To realise the intricacies of cycling at that time and Armstrong’s career, it is crucial to realise just how systemic drug use was. Everyone was on it. Everyone. The most impactful part of a book that I read on Armstrong (Cycle of Lies, Juliet Macur) is when Armstrong had been accused of cheating. That he had cheated the world of their dream and the other cyclists of a fair competition. Armstrong subsequently looked up the word “cheating” and saw that it meant getting an ‘unfair advantage’ over other competitors. He shook his head; he couldn’t believe his legal sentence. Doping wasn’t unfair, and it certainly wasn’t an advantage. As drugs become more prolific in the sport, it became more a leveler than anything else. People didn’t inject themselves with brightly coloured liquids to guarantee victory; it was to ensure that they could just keep up.
This is where opinion comes in. To simplify the process, consider that you were a professional endurance runner. Imagine that there is a pair of shoes that can make any runner instantly 20% faster. The authorities are looking for the shoes, yet struggle to identify them despite the fact that all your competitors are wearing them. Without them, you are getting left behind because suddenly the whole field is miles ahead. What do you do? Do you sit in the dust, crying? Or do you pick yourself up, find yourself the shoes and know that the next time you toe the line, the best runner will win, because now everyone is faster, it makes no difference?
Because when everyone has drugs, there is no advantage.
It makes sense that Armstrong still considers himself the winner of the 7 Tour de France titles he originally won, even after he was officially stripped of them. Who else could they have actually gone to instead? Who wasn’t cheating? This isn’t like one outlier in the Olympic Games, where medals are re-awarded years later.
Of course, his attitude towards his teammates and the media was at times horrendous and outrageous. Often, the way he acted was absolutely horrific and no-one can condone that kind of behaviour. But that is not the point; the point is whether in a culture of doping, are there any real victims? Once it is omnipresent (and by the sound of it, it was) then doesn’t it just become another tool, like a streamline swimsuit in swimming or a type of aero-dynamic helmet in cycling? Another thing to make you faster?
A debate has existed in this vain for a long time. As we reach the limits of what humans are physically capable of, the question arises of whether drugs should become legal in sport, so that records can be crushed once more, and excitement injected into sport again. This was even discussed on the renowned BBC podcast “A Running Joke, with Rutherford and Fry”. But the problem with drugs is that unlike creating a lighter hockey stick, these substances alter the human body in ways which are unnatural to the extreme, and therefore highly dangerous. Athletes are the most motivated and competitive people on Earth; they already do shocking things to their body to win, so doping would pose no health-related qualms for them. And with all the sports competitions now being televised, athletes are quickly becoming accessible role-models and icons. Children should not in the future be looking up to steroid filled sprinters, wanting to be artificially muscular like them, if you see what I mean. And with the athlete’s health in mind, too, there is no way that the IOC could condone doping, given how risky and experimental it can be.
So, once the cycle of doping had started, it was difficult not to be sucked in as a pro. It’s easy to understand how it turned into another piece of tech, to be used alongside careful nutrition and training. But the UCI needed a figurehead, someone to take down publicly to prove to the rest of the world that doping could not continue. It is unfair that Armstrong was targeted when many of his contemporaries basically got amnesty. There was no uniform punishment, and when you are the one suffering the most from a policy, naturally it’s going to hurt.
But the most important thing is that cycling is clean again. (Supposedly just look at recent allegations around Froome.) Armstrong’s forceful condemnation did indeed allow a new generation of cyclists to enter the sport without the fear of being pressured into blood transfusions and backroom injections. And that cannot be a bad thing.