Last week, in an interview with Oprah, Lance Armstrong admitted what everybody already knew: that he took performance-enhancing drugs during his cycling career. Last year, the head of USADA (United States Anti-Doping Association) stated that under Armstrong’s direction the U.S. Postal Cycling Team “ran the most sophisticated, professionalized and successful doping program that sport has ever seen.” In October, Armstrong was stripped of his seven Tour de France titles and banned for life from elite competition in Olympic sports.
According to the Wall Street Journal, his motivation for talking with Oprah may have more to do with returning to competition than with a heartfelt need to set things right. While it is difficult to say why people do this or that, it is also true, as Claudius reminds us in Hamlet, that confessing a crime that resulted in wrongful gains without some sort of restitution is no confession at all. Whatever his reason for talking to Oprah, his words will be weighed in the scale of public opinion, and forgiveness will be granted or judgment meted out.
For people who follow professional cycling, however, Armstrong’s use of performance-enhancing drugs is just the latest doping scandal to hit the sport. In 1998, there was l’affaire Festina, which revealed systematic doping in Festina and many other cycling teams. (Ironically, Armstrong’s first Tour win in 1999 was heralded as a new beginning for the sport. Why would a man, it was asked at the time, who had just recovered from cancer risk his life by taking performance-enhancing drugs?) Then, in 2006, there was Operación Puerto in which a number of cyclists were implicated, including the perennial Tour de France runner up, Jan Ulrich. In the past ten years, almost every star cyclist has either tested positive for banned substances or been implicated in some form of doping.
This is enough to make cycling aficionados the most pessimistic of all sporting fans, and it is not uncommon to hear exasperated faithful suggest that the sport’s ruling body simply allow the use of all performance-enhancing drugs. Other sports turn a blind eye to doping and make a lot of money by offering an entertaining event with a simple narrative. The narrative is often some version of this: The “human spirit” can accomplish great things, overcome all limitations, all odds, even the limitations of the body itself, with a little luck and a lot of hard work.
Cycling, however, regularly shoots itself in the foot (or leg)—first, by having doping controls regularly (though not always) administered by an outside agency, and second, by allowing those results to be leaked in newspapers like L’Equipe. (L’Equipe is owned by the same company that owns the Tour de France, which, as many readers may know, was started in 1903 for the sole purpose of selling papers.) Cycling, in other words, regularly reminds us that the narrative is not always so simple, even if it does this largely through incompetence and in-fighting (few modern sporting organizations are as corrupt as the International Cycling Union).
Oddly, I have come to appreciate this aspect of the sport. I love cycling. I remember watching the Tour de France in its entirety in 2000. What other sport combines beautiful vistas of the French country side, brief histories of quaint townships and eighteenth-century castles, and the suspense of a mountaintop finish, not to mention the danger, sometimes deadly, of narrow descents and finishing sprints? It is one of the most beautiful modern sports, but my viewing experience is regularly tarnished by the specter of doping that inevitably haunts every major tour. Cyclists I have loved watching, such as Ivan Basso, are banned for doping and never return, perhaps unsurprisingly, to their former level of greatness.
In short, cycling reminds us that all aspects of human nature and all human endeavors are tainted by sin. I don’t take pleasure in this, but given the choice between delusion and reality, however ugly that reality might be, reality is always preferable.
Micah Mattix is assistant professor of literature at Houston Baptist University.
“USADA releases massive evidence vs. Lance Armstrong,” USA Today
“Lance Armstrong stripped of all 7 Tour de France titles, banned for life,” FOX News
“Behind Lance Armstrong’s Decision to Talk,” Wall Street Journal
“List of doping cases in cycling,” Wikipedia
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