Lance Armstrong: The needle and the damage done
Lance Armstrong's legacy may be to rip world cycling apart as he continues to ignore doping allegations made by former US Postal teammates and staff (Image: AFP)
There’s been a lot of commentary and opinionating lately about Lance Armstrong, the plucky pedal-pusher. He’s been called a liar, a cheat, a criminal, a shameless drug-guzzling charlatan, and in all senses a gold-plated knob-end.
But let’s step back from the anger and abuse for a second and really consider the facts.
Has Armstrong really done something so wrong? Yes he has.
But when you drill right down, are his “crimes” really so great?
Well, yes they are. But really, wouldn’t any one of us do the same if given the chance? No, we wouldn’t.
But some of us might, right?
Doesn’t that make us complicit in his misdeeds? No, it doesn’t – that’d be stupid. But the point is, let he who is without track marks cast the first stone. Which means, I guess, most of us. So we’re pretty entitled to slag him off as much as we like. But does that mean we should? Yes, it does.
However, it does have to be said that when it comes to doping in cycling, Armstrong is hardly Robinson Crusoe, unless Robinson Crusoe were a book about a man who washes up on a desert island inhabited by about fifty thousand other men exactly like him.
The fact is that cycling, by all appearances, is a dirty, dirty sport, and one can’t help feeling that if anyone is winning races without the fruits of cutting-edge medical science coursing through their veins, it can only be because either they are some sort of hideous genetic mutation, or because everyone else in the race took a wrong turn into the woods and was eaten by a mountain lion.
And given it’s so prevalent, given that everyone seems to be doing it, and has been for years, and given that every time the good guys come up with another test to detect doping, the bad guys come up with a new way to dope, why do they bother at all?
After all, if everyone is using drugs, the playing field is more or less level.
As level as it would be if nobody was using drugs.
The only un-level playing field is one on which some are on drugs and some aren’t, and seeing as it’d be a lot easier to get those few clean cyclists onto drugs than to get all the dirty ones off them, it seems a no-brainer: open up the sluices and syringes for all.
That way everyone is starting from the same point.
Of course not everybody will have access to the same level of doping expertise, but that will just become another colourful part of the sport, a point of competition, like car design and pit crews in motor-racing.
And the races won’t change. They’ll still be elite athletes pushing themselves to the limit in a fight for glory. There’ll still be the drama of the race, the courage of the riders, the tension of the finish.
They’ll just be that little bit better at it.
Of course you can say “it’s not natural”, but if you’ve looked at an Olympic cyclists thighs lately, you’ll know that “natural” got off the bus quite a few stops ago. Running 100 metres in under 10 seconds isn’t natural.
An AFL footballer’s skinfolds aren’t natural. Shane Watson’s hair isn’t natural. Let’s not get too hung up on what’s natural and what’s not in the world of sport, particularly because the whole idea of professional sport isn’t especially natural itself.
So, why don’t we do it? Open slather, do as you will, and let the best man/laboratory win?
It’s very simple: it doesn’t feel right.
The essence of sport is how it makes us feel. A love of sport is not a logical thing. It’s all about emotion, joy and pain, euphoria and devastation.
I hate night grand finals. There’s no real logical reason not to hold the grand final at night, but it doesn’t feel right. Somewhere inside me, I am certain that playing a grand final in the evening is wrong. It doesn’t feel right to have Meatloaf singing at one, either.
Much of what bugs us about the modernity of sport is that it doesn’t feel like the sport we remember. It’s not that we have proper arguments against it, it just doesn’t sit well with us.
But we can get used to a lot and still keep our love of the game. Night grand finals, dancers at cricket matches, video umpires, players switching clubs as casually as they switch toothbrushes. We fight our unease, and we accept the new reality, and we move on, defeating the feeling that something’s been lost.
But making drugs an acceptable part of competition?
Making the team pharmacist a pivotal player in the organisation’s success? Putting together a training regime of an hour on the weights, an hour in the pool, and then five minutes re-injecting your own blood into your veins?
No, I don’t think we can have that. It might level the playing field, but it would destroy any feeling we had that we were watching a sport.
And we’d still rather watch a sport where we know a lot of guys are cheating, than watch a sport where we don’t think it’s a sport anymore.
It just can’t be done.
Sorry Lance. I thought maybe we could mark you down as a pioneer of a brave new world, but on reflection, you’re going to have to stay a cheat.
Go away now.
Ben Pobjie is a writer and comedian writing weekly on The Age, New Matilda and The Roar, whose promising rugby career was tragically cut short the day he stopped playing rugby and had a pizza instead. The most he has ever cried was the day Balmain lost the 1989 grand final. Today he enjoys the frolics of Wallabies, Swans, baggy greens, and Storms. Ben is also the author of the books Surveying the Wreckage, Superchef, and his latest, The Book of Bloke, available from Momentum Books.