Here we go: another doping scandal in cycling. But this time it involves a big name — Lance Armstrong. As in past doping scandals, the public debate about what lessons to draw from athletes’ dishonesty contains three main arguments. First, there’s anger toward Lance Armstrong, a villain who has betrayed the public and deserves every possible punishment. Second, nostalgia for the good old days when EPO (the performance enhancing drug erythropoietin) didn’t exist and cycling was a good, clean sport. And third, profound disappointment with the polluted sport of cycling. Subscribers to this view usually swap their cycling enthusiasm for a different sport, one still untainted by doping scandals.
At least two and half of these statements are wrong. Yes, Lance Armstrong is a villain in that he has broken the rules to win, he has cheated to gain an edge over his (possibly) clean contestants, he may have bribed the Union Cycliste Internationale, he has threatened teammates and other cyclists and, so far, he hasn’t shown any public sign of regret. But has he really betrayed the public, or was the public just reluctant to listen to those who have been accusing him of doping for years? It was much nicer to believe in Lance’s fairytale — in the man who beat cancer, mountains and all of his competitors — than to question his integrity and sportsmanship.
Cycling, and the Tour de France in particular, is the incarnation of the timeless desire to tear down barriers and expand frontiers. Lance Armstrong pursued this dream, but along the way he crossed some barriers that are not meant to be crossed. He was not the first to dope and he will not be the last. Since its inception in 1903, the Tour de France has produced many renowned cyclists who, whether they were found guilty or not, cheated. Doping as we know it hasn’t been around forever, but cheating has. In the early years, racers were known to take the train now and then rather than cycling through the whole route. They notched their opponents’ bicycle frames and paid spectators to hand other cyclists poisoned chicken. In the 1920s they took cocaine, in the ‘30s and ‘40s they took strychnine, and in the ‘50s and ‘60s they moved on to hormones and amphetamines.
Romantic ideas about the Tour’s early years are myths. When the first doping tests were introduced in 1966, the riders went on strike. In 1967 the British cyclist Tom Simpson collapsed and died on the slopes of Mont Ventoux. Alcohol and amphetamines were found in his blood. Neither the doping tests nor Simpson’s death, however, stopped cyclists from doping. In the ‘70s and ‘80s they doped with steroids and cortisone. In the ‘90s, EPO burst onto the scene. Since then, numerous scandals, like the Festina affair in 1998 and the Fuentes scandal in 2006, have come to light. And yet, somehow, people are still surprised to hear that Lance Armstrong was engaged in the same behavior.
So, should we write off the Tour de France and cycling as a whole as tainted and immoral? Not so fast. The doping situation in other sports may be just as bad. Take swimming, for instance, which is in some ways similar to cycling — it’s a high-profile sport aimed at personal speed. Although no huge scandals have come to light recently, there is no reason to believe this sport is any cleaner than cycling.
The controls are lax. During the 2008 Beijing Olympics swimming competitions there were more world records set than blood tests administered. During the London games this year, several very young swimmers left behind the rest of the field. Fifteen-year-old Lithuanian Ruta Meilutyte was evidently judged old enough to participate and win gold but not old enough to answer journalists’ questions afterward. In the last 50 meters of her record-setting 400-meter race, the Chinese 16-year-old Chinese Ye Shiwen swam faster than Ryan Lochte did in that segment. There are plenty of reasons to be suspicious, not just of swimming but of many other sports as well.
My strongest impression of the Lance Armstrong scandal is not of disillusionment or anger. The lesson we should take away is that we should never allow ourselves to be bullied by those who seem powerful. Throughout his career, Armstrong has tried to bring down those who rose up against him. Every time Filippo Simeoni, a convicted doper who has accused Armstrong of being a fellow client of his “doctor,” tried to break away from the peloton in the 2004 Tour de France, either Armstrong or one of his helpers went after him. In the same year, Armstrong sued two Sunday Times journalists for associating him with doping allegations. Armstrong tried everything to mute dissident voices, but in the end they succeeded.
We have to stop believing that popular sports will ever be free of cheating. We shouldn’t assume that someone is guilty of doping before the charges are proven, but it is also wrong to assume that no athletes dope. We have to accept that people break the rules, but we also have to keep fighting for justice and honesty in professional sports. Instead of ignoring the allegations or turning to a different sport in which doping and manipulation haven’t become public yet, we should keep watching cycling. If people stop watching, and the media stops covering races, it will only encourage the organizers of the Tour de France, the Olympic Games and other sporting events to stop making doping charges public in an effort to maintain their reputation and popularity. If these organizations realize that people stop watching as soon as they expose doping, they’ll simply turn the other cheek to cheating or keep the scandals under wraps.
Some people see Lance Armstrong’s scandal as one of the worst sports tragedies in recent memory. On the contrary, I think it’s one of the best things that has happened. Or, at least, it can be — if we draw the right conclusions and act accordingly.
Hardt is an English junior from Freiburg, Germany.