Go away, Lance. Just go away.
Bicyling's most famous doper, Lance Armstrong, is going to appear on Oprah Winfrey's show on Jan. 17—and what he'll say is anybody's guess. Oprah is promising a "no holds barred" interview, according to the New York Times, but I am not ready to bet he's going to utter a mea culpa about his use of performance-enhancing drugs and blood transfusions to win seven consecutive Tour de France titles—a phenomenal accomplishment, until the doping scandal broke, anyway. (In the wake of a wave of unimpeachable sources providing details about Armstrong's doping, the United States Anti-Doping Agency stripped him of his seven titles.)
This is a guy who maintained for years that he was clean. He bullied people who said otherwise, going so far as to sue a British newspaper, the Sunday Times, over allegations that he doped. He won a libel settlement of about half a million dollars. The same newspaper is now suing him for $1.5 million.
When the doping scandal broke, I shrugged my shoulders and said everybody in professional bicycling doped, so Armstrong was merely staying competitive. Back in October, one of Armstrong's teammates, Levi Leipheimer, told the New York Times that professional cycling until recently was “a sport where some team managers and doctors coordinated and facilitated the use of banned substances and methods by their riders. A sport where the athletes at the highest level — perhaps without exception — used banned substances. A sport where doping was so accepted that riders from different teams — who were competitors on the road — coordinated their doping to keep up with other riders doing the same thing.” It's worth noting that the agency that runs the Tour de France has not declared new winners for the races Armstrong won because doping was so prevalent.
But a former Armstrong teammate, Jonathan Vaughters, points out that doping doesn't give everyone the same competitive edge. He told the New York Times that a race among doped cyclists did not reward the best athlete but the best doper, because some people get a much bigger boost in their performance than others from using the same doping techniques.
Vaughters said, "If you just opened it all up and you said, ‘Let’s legalize it and it’s all fair if they all do it,’ what you would have is you would have races that were being won by people who were most physiologically adapted to the drugs that were available to them. You would not have the best athlete, who trained the hardest, who had the best team, the best strategy on the day — that athlete would rarely win. It would normally be the person whose physiology just happened to adapt to whatever biotechnology had to offer at that period in time. So it’s absolutely untrue and it absolutely applies to the generation of racing that I went through.”
Vaughters also noted that the more elite cyclists would have access to better doctors, better performance-enhancing drugs, and better techniques for doping. In addition, "There are going to be some people who are going to be willing to take much greater risks with their bodies and their health than other people.”
Armstrong's supporters maintain that even though Armstrong's reputation is in tatters, the work he's done to fight cancer with his Livestrong foundation is impressive and admirable. USA Today reported the foundation has raised nearly $500 million and has helped more than 2.5 million people fight cancer. This is true. At one point, the yellow Livestrong bracelets were everywhere. USA Today reported: "Brian Rose, who was uninsured when he was diagnosed with advanced melanoma three years ago, says he owes his health to Livestrong. 'It's overwhelming trying to do it all on your own,' says Rose, 34, who notes that Livestrong's cancer navigation program helped him get health insurance. 'Having a resource like that is priceless.'
However—and this may sound cold—without the luster of his Tour de France titles, Armstrong would not have had enough star power to make Livestrong such an impressive foundation, one able to raise millions of dollars. Do the Livestrong ends justify the means? I'm ambivalent on that one.
One thing is sure, though: Armstrong wasn't just a liar all the years he maintained he was clean. He was a cheater. He was not an honorable man. And the sooner he disappears from the public's view, the better.