[My Armstrong column from earlier in the week, re-posted in full.]
Every year around this time, you can count on seeing several things. High temperatures, fireworks stands and new doping allegations against Lance Armstrong. Seriously, it happens every year. This time, the United States Anti-Doping Agency (USADA), a semi-governmental body, has suspended Armstrong from both cycling and triathlon competitions and has begun an investigation into his alleged drug use between 1996 and 2005, as well as 2009 and 2010.
The Tour de France begins in a couple of weeks and usually during the Tour, or immediately preceding it, someone or something announces that they have incontrovertible evidence that Lance Armstrong used performance enhancing drugs (PEDs) during his tenure as the Greatest Athlete in the World.
For many years, I really believed that. Lance Armstrong was the Greatest Athlete in the World.
It might not seem like it to casual spectators or anyone who hasn’t watched a three-week bike race in France or Italy, but professional cycling is beyond what most humans can endure and therefore it’s arguably the most difficult professional sport. Cyclists are routinely killed during races. They travel at speeds close to that of motor vehicles for 150 to 200 miles per race. They ride in blazing heat, heart-stopping cold and snow, mud that coats their bodies from head to toe and often at altitudes that asphyxiate their respiratory systems.
During blazing hot European Summers, they race in “Grand Tours” like the Tour de France which last for 20 days. Imagine running a marathon every day for 20 days in a row on routes that include the thin air of the high Alps and Pyrenees. That’s the routine for Euro-professionals from the lowest no-name team helper to superstars like Armstrong. And the paycheck for a professional cyclist who wins a stage in the most challenging sporting event in the world, the Tour de France, is a ridiculously small fraction of what football and baseball players earn during an easy training camp day. But admission to watch a cycling race featuring the world’s most elite athletes is free. It’s a true “people’s sport” and that’s one of the many reasons why I love it.
Cycling, especially during the Grand Tours of Spain, Italy and France, is almost impossible to survive, much less win, without something to keep the human body from expiring. In the old days, riders drank beer or ate goat testicles to keep pedaling and to give them an edge over their competition.
The first winner of the Tour de France, Maurice Garin, was disqualified in the second edition of the Tour because he allegedly hopped a train in order to complete the hilariously difficult circuit of France. Other champions like Jacques Anquetil, the first cyclist to win the Tour five times, once said, “Leave me in peace; everybody takes dope.” The relatively quaint drugs of choice back then were cocaine and amphetamines, among others. Before Anquetil, Fausto Coppi, the first superstar of cycling, when asked whether riders took drugs to survive and win, replied, “Yes, and those who claim otherwise, it’s not worth talking to them about cycling.” Even today, and completely within the bounds of legality, bike riders use supplements that prevent lactic acid build-up; they use enough caffeine to kill a small village of Italian espresso addicts; and they use space-age equipment that weighs a fraction of what cyclists used just 20 years ago. All legal. What’s the difference between gulping down several very legal Five-Hour Energy drinks or riding a state of the art carbon-fiber bike and illegally transfusing your own red-blood-cell rich blood back into your body halfway through the Tour, as Lance has been accused of doing?
An argument can be made that the precedent of inhuman difficulty in cycling has mandated the use of drugs in order to survive the ordeal. By the time professional riders make their way through just half of the Tour, most of them have literally reached the point of anemia. After several years of intense training, professional bike riders bones become brittle resulting in shattered clavicles, and many resemble emaciated prisoners of war.
To observe this sport is to observe humans pushing their minds and bodies to the very limits of endurance, pain and survival — and so the metaphors to life itself are numerous. Lance Armstrong’s struggle took place in both spheres: on and off the bike.
More than any other competitor in the history of the sport, and regardless of the testicular cancer that ravaged one of his testicles and embedded itself in both his lungs and brain, Lance Armstrong’s body is designed for riding a bike faster and harder than anyone else. His heart is literally larger than most people his size, his resting heart rate is less than half a normal human’s, his blood-oxygen level is remarkably high, his ability to process lactic acid is greater than most people and his personality offers these miraculous talents the all-important gift of ambition and motivation.
So why would he need drugs?
Who knows the exact psychosis at play here, but if he, in fact, used a variety of PEDs running the spectrum of illegality — it wasn’t so much about basic survival, as with other riders. It was all about crushing the competition. And considering his heroic return from cancer, an American superstar in the Euro-centric world of cycling became a compellingly dramatic narrative and a way for cycling to captivate more sportsfans irrespective of whether they were newbies to the sport or long-time cycling enthusiasts. In other words, Armstrong’s story is probably the greatest thing to happen to cycling. Ever. And with that came untold riches and notoriety, not to mention his role as an inspirational hero to millions of cancer victims, regardless of their interest in Lance’s sport.
Ultimately, he didn’t really take any substance that most other cyclists of the 1990s and 2000s were using. Those decades were ripe with a drug called Erythropoietin (EPO). Normally prescribed for patients with anemia, cyclists use it to boost their red blood cell count and therefore their ability to transfer oxygen to their muscles. Tour winners like Bjarne Riis (1996) used so much EPO that his blood was practically as thick as syrup, which, of course, could have caused him to stroke out, had he not been in peak condition to physically pump that spooge through his veins.
In Lance’s case, however, any alleged EPO use was on top of physical talents that made him invincible. Plus, he had the financial support to potentially both evade the testing processes as well as to receive the most effective and precise treatments possible. Like the income inequality that’s being debated in politics, there’s income inequality in sports, too. The teams and athletes with the largest wallets get the best equipment and, potentially in Armstrong’s case, the best PEDs delivered in ways that are undetectable by anti-doping officials. This is brutally unfair and unsportsmanlike to say the least.
That said, as a cycling fan, I’m actually kind of ambivalent about all of this — as I’m sure other sportsfans are about baseball, football or Olympic events. On one hand, I want there to be a lightning rod hero like Lance Armstrong in the sport, attracting new fans and more money to support the future of the races I love to watch every Summer. I want those dramatic Lance victories I’ve watched over and over again to be genuine and authentic. I want the sport to be pure and drug-free. I want every athlete to compete on his or her own physical merits and without chemical enhancements. I want to feel like if I trained hard enough I might be able to hang onto the wheel of a professional for a couple of miles before my less-talented body gives out. I want the sport to be pure and popular.
But, on the other hand, sometimes those two things are mutually exclusive — “pure” and “popular.” Maybe sports — any sport — can’t be both pure and popular. Maybe the level of competition in cycling, football and baseball has exceeded human capabilities. Maybe it’s the drugs — human growth hormone, EPO, steroids — that have made modern sports compelling and exciting to the point of no return. Maybe the egg can’t go back inside the performance-enhanced shell. Baseball was dying a slow death before the players beefed up and began hitting record numbers of home runs. Maybe if you take the drugs out of cycling or baseball, spectators will walk away from the lack of pulse-pounding homers, breakaways and unlikely heroes overcoming unbelievable odds. I don’t want that. I love cycling too much to see it fade away. At the same time, I hate the inequality of doping. The richest teams get the best drugs and can evade testing more easily, leaving the less wealthy players at a perpetual disadvantage. It’s unfair and wrong. It’s cheating. So what do we do as sports fans, whether our favorite athlete is Lance Armstrong or Barry Bonds?
A polling outfit once asked elite Olympic athletes whether they’d take a drug that would kill them within five years but would assure them a gold medal. 85 percent of those athletes replied “yes.” 85 percent would die for a gold medal. As a mere mortal, it’s difficult to comprehend such a view of life and physical ambition. To a lesser extent, however, I know of rock stars whose best work was created under the influence of drugs. I know guys who have no problem supplementing their “low testosterone” or their ability to sustain a solid erection using drugs that are advertised on MSNBC. And, of course, Lance Armstrong and others need breakthrough cancer drugs and treatments in order to survive. If sports are a metaphor for life, drugs might seem to fit into that relationship.
George Carlin once suggested that literally everything comes from nature — even plastic milk cartons. Everything comes from some pre-existing element in the universe and is therefore natural. Perhaps the universe was always supposed to include plastic milk cartons, Carlin said. Likewise, perhaps dramatic and competitive sports (and, yeah, even golf) were always supposed to include chemical enhancements. So maybe the only way around the mystery and legal wranglings and even jail terms, athletes and sporting officials should just come clean and admit that all athletes are enhanced — be they with carbon fiber, coffee, Advil, EPO or whatever. Until then, there will always be a lingering doubt and an irritating lack of trust about the authenticity of our most beloved athletes. But if you’re like me, when the most exciting moments are playing out on television, the drug factor is almost entirely forgotten in the fog of excitement. Sports are innocent enough and inconsequential enough to allow for the suspension of disbelief and a wee bit of healthy delusion in an overly serious world. I really love those moments and, like a drug user, I’m hungry for more.