During the recent history of doping in cycling, and in professional athletics in general, I've been trying to find a way to reconcile my genuine admiration for so many of the individual athletes involved against the backdrop of what their sports represent, and how doping affects those sports. In particular, my thoughts have centered on Lance Armstrong, cycling, and my own sport, triathlon.
I choose to remain a Lance Armstrong fan, and I want him to continue to publicly participate in sports for as long as he has the desire to do so.
Why? Simply because I like watching him do what he does so well.
And that's what professional sports are all about: Watching. They are a form of entertainment, where sponsors pay money to become affiliated with a sport in return for getting their name out there and building an association between the attributes of the brand and the attributes of the sport. That relationship bears its greatest fruit only when there is Winning, simply because the sponsors want to be associated with triumph and other "second-to-none" attributes. Those who win the most tend get the most money. It's true for athletes, teams, and companies.
I've come to realize that the biggest drug in sports isn't a pharmaceutical, it's money.
Money provides access to many performance-enhancing benefits. With money, you can give up your day job, hire a coach, train in exotic locations year-round, use the best equipment, get the best medical attention to maximize recovery and minimize down-time, all of which in turn lets you enter more races and win more of them, getting not only the purses, but also the ability to attract more sponsors and demand more money from them.
And, yes, money does provide access to cutting-edge performance-enhancing drugs. Many of us already rely on legal performance-enhancing drugs, chief among them being caffeine, second being prescribed steroids and beta agonists (vital to millions of amateur endurance athletes with exercise-induced asthma). The difference between legal and illegal performance-enhancing drugs isn't a sharp line. It isn't even a line at all, but rather a blurry mess filled with seemingly arbitrary decisions and regulations.
The main problem is that no specific drug is illegal until it becomes known, and until a reliable test for it has been devised. There is always a lag between creating a new drug and the test for it. If a new drug is developed in secret, is it automatically legal or illegal? It is now the case that it is automatically illegal, but it wasn't always that way.
Sports regulations always lag advances in technology. Of all athletic sports, perhaps cycling has benefited the most from technology. Early cycling used solid rubber tires, and was revolutionized by the introduction of pneumatic tires. Many wanted derailleur technology outlawed when it first appeared, back when bikes had at most two gears, and you had to flip your rear wheel to use the other one. The "Superman" riding position wasn't illegal until it was first used and was then promptly declared to be illegal. Aerobars were a gray area until they were specifically allowed in time trials, but nowhere else. The introduction of ultra-light-weight frames and unconventional geometries caused the UCI to impose a minimum weight requirement on bicycles along with the requirement for a triangular frame. Clip-in pedals and electronic shifting are other examples of recent cycling technologies.
It can't be a surprise, given that so much technology has been applied to equipment, that a similar level of technology wouldn't be applied to the athletes. Advances in training, coaching, and nutrition have come fast and furious, as have advances in medication. This should not be a surprise to anyone, especially to cycling fans.
Let's take a small detour and talk about Oscar Pistorious. His Ossur "Cheeta" running leg is most certainly a wonderful technological innovation, one that was outlawed from Olympic competition until this year. What few realize is that Oscar was granted an individual exemption: His leg is still barred by current Olympic rules. I believe the event organizers knew Oscar had no real shot at a medal, and wanted to test the waters before committing to a rule change.
How is a mechanical performance-enhancing technology different from a pharmaceutical one? What if it turns out that Usain Bolt had his leg bones removed and replaced with carbon fiber?
I am completely unable to make a judgement in this area. It's just too messy, both factually and philosophically. Are we going to start outlawing specific genes at some point? I believe sport has to find better ways to exist in a world that includes technological advances that are at least temporarily undetectable.
There is one sport that has faced the doping issue head-on: Amateur Weightlifting. It has three categories: No Limits (no drug testing), Some Drugs, and Natural/Raw. Athletes choose the category in which they wish to compete. You can switch to a higher-drug category any time you want, but going drug-free takes time and testing. Record holders in the Natural/Raw category are literally half the size and lift half as much as those in the No Limits category, but are treated no less as champions.
But what about professional sports? I doubt any sane company would intentionally sponsor anything other than Natural athletes. No national sport would ever permit anything else. Yet they still impose insane pressures to Win. To me, this is a no-win situation for the athletes, who must win to survive. If one athlete crosses the line and gets away with it, it is hard to see how the entire sport won't go in that direction. Recent history is filled with abundant proof that this has indeed happened multiple times, and on a large scale.
Do I want professional sports to become "clean"? Absolutely! But I also refuse to blame only the athletes for the failures of an entire sports system, from sponsors to media to fans.
I also don't want to see athletes forced to squirm under interrogation, like Bill Clinton asking for a very specific definition of "sex" (one that would hopefully be limited to intercourse). While a "mea culpa" from Lance would soothe feelings, I see no real reason why it should be expected from him. I see no way it can really help anything one way or the other. So I refuse to ask him for one.
I do not know how professional sports can best cope with and remedy the situation going forward. Professional sports is primarily an entertainment business, and we don't outlaw actors who take drugs, do we? Quite the opposite: Don't even get me started on reality TV shows like "Celebrity Rehab" (but not for the reasons you may think).
One thing I do know is that professional sports must make a clean break with its past in order to change going forward, and that includes a change of personnel at all levels, including sponsors, organizers, staff and, yes, athletes. So excluding Lance from cycling may be necessary, independent of his innocence or guilt.
That said, I do know what I choose to think about the athletes whose careers have been affected: I will not blame individual athletes for pursuing and achieving what their sport, sponsors and fans have demanded of them. This is not amnesty: Turnover is needed. But what should come next for these athletes?
I want Lance, and all athletes affected by this upheaval, to be free to compete in other sports. While cycling may be closed to him (a messy decision I would not revisit), I would very much like to see him be permitted to participate at all levels of his original championship sport: Triathlon.