Ugh. I had been trying to avoid this subject as much as possible since the media coverage first started gathering steam many months ago. I decided late last week after hearing about another story in the sordid affair that it might be a good idea for me to get it out of my system. First, I had to figure out exactly what had been bothering me (and still does) about it.
Recently, Lance Armstrong gave an extended and exclusive interview to Oprah Winfrey, where he finally admitted to many of the doping charges of which he had been accused. I did not watch the interview, as I just did not want to sit there yelling at the TV the entire time. Besides, from what I heard about it, he still held back from admitting to other things, and, just as he had tried to say about Floyd Landis’ accusations earlier, why should I believe anything he says after admission of a cover-up of such magnitude?
I have searched and analyzed my own feelings about the situation, and come to the conclusion that there are two main issues that bother me. I am a cyclist. I do not race, in any sense, but I do like to push my endurance and I greatly enjoy going places on my bike(s). I also love the elegance in the design, engineering, and capabilities associated with such a human powered vehicle. This is why, I think, that I am drawn to watch professional cycling. I’ll never be as strong or fanatical as those guys, nor do I want to be, but I do like seeing what they go through on their bicycles, and, as a geography geek as well, I enjoy seeing the places the races are held. (I would also love to see women’s professional cycling covered at parity with men’s, but that’s a rant for another time.)
Doping issues taint the entire sport, and, Lance Armstrong aside, in the last decade or two there have been plenty. And as part of the Armstrong situation, accusations have been made of the existence of a conspiracy involving people in the UCI, the organization responsible for the professional tour. Many years ago, I gave up following professional baseball, and pretty much every other professional team sport, because I no longer wanted to support the greedy, ego-driven jerks, to be blunt, involved in the sport. The baseball strike of 1994, which led to the cancellation of that year’s World Series, in which it looked to me like both the players and the owners were being ridiculous, was a last straw. I still love the game of baseball, but it takes a lot for me to care about the major leagues. Were I still a hockey fan (gave up following the NHL around the same time I stopped caring about the other pro sports leagues), the long lockout would probably have driven me away from that as well, despite the return to play earlier this month. I am angry at professional cycling, because, having given up on those other sports, it was the one thing in which I can participate, at least at a recreational level.
Armstrong is being made an example, and, after giving that some thought, I’m actually okay with that, especially if any of the accusations of his threats and intimidation are true. It does make me wonder, though, for whom can I root when I’m watching the races now? There are cyclists who have admitted to and/or had been caught doping in the past, like David Millar, Jonathan Vaughters, Levi Leipheimer, etc., who claim now to be clean. In fact, Vaughters’ entire Garmin team is full of former dopers and professes a completely clean philosophy. If they have turned over a new leaf, great for them. Are they telling the truth now? How do we know? Bradley Wiggins has spoken out against doping, rather vehemently. Did he and his Team Sky organization dominate last year’s Tour de France while clean? How do we know?
How do we know?
This brings me to the other main issue I have about the whole Lance Armstrong situation. After his amazing return from testicular cancer that had metastasized even to his brain (and now I have to ask how stupid someone could be to risk putting dangerous drugs like EPO into one’s body after recovering completely from cancer), I read his autobiography, It’s Not About the Bike. I saw how he won the TdF for the first time in 1999, and repeated over the next six years. I became a fan. Even a defender, when he repeatedly emphasized he was the “most tested athlete on the planet.” There was more to watch in cycling during his dominance than him, certainly, but it was fun watching him. What bothers me, though, is a bit of cognitive dissonance. In general, I am a cynic. I believe I am so in a healthy way, but I try always to look at things critically. Pull them apart to make sure I am seeing what is really there. And I bought the Lance Armstrong bill of goods like a sheep. The whole package. In hindsight, that bothers me. Probably more than it should, considering how many others did as well.
My copy of his autobiography is going in the next pile of media destined to be sold to Half Price Books, though I wonder (but don’t really care) how much I will get for it. I am wondering if I should part with the tour overview books I have for each of the years in which he won, or the DVD sets of the same, in some semi-emotional fit of iconoclasm. I probably won’t do all of that. As for watching the races, I probably still will, when I can. At least the highlights. But someone else will probably confess or be caught doping again soon, and I am curious of whom that will be then.