Here are some facts and personal, social, and moral opinions triggered by the Lance Armstrong affair, and drawn from my own fifty years of participation in sports, including ten years at the international level in track and field.
*In the 1960’s and early 70s, things like drug doping, blood boosting, and performance enhancement were morally discouraged by most young athletes, but not explicitly banned or illegal. They were not even a topic of discussion. Taking money for competing in an amateur sport was considered a worse offence.
*When I was competing in track and field at age 18, my coach insisted, “drink a cup of tea” with breakfast, because caffeine was known to improve reaction times. We thought we were a lot smarter than athletes who didn’t drink their pre-meet tea. Caffeine was banned decades later.
*In the five years leading up to the 1968 Olympics, anabolic steroids – especially one marketed as “Danabol” -- were just entering athletic consciousness. Most of us had no idea what steroids were. But we learned that top international European athletes had been using Danabol for a decade. In most European nations it could be purchased over the counter without prescription. It was used by old people to build muscle strength for fighting osteoporosis. After a while, you were considered pretty ignorant, or just not interested in winning, if you weren’t trying steroids – especially for sprinting, throwing, and jumping events – any event where explosive power was wanted. The distance guys and gals were more interested in blood doping, living in low-oxygen tents to simulate altitude, and the like.
*It was not unusual at a major track meet to see some great athlete poking through a bag of drugs for something to help win. There was no shame. They weren’t hiding much, because very little was formally banned. I remember at a meet in Los Angeles in 1966 watching a decathlon athlete who went on to win a medal at the Mexico Olympics self-inject liquid steroids straight into his thigh muscles. He wasn’t hiding it. Any shame he feels today is retroactive.
* Long before Lance came along the East Germans were considered the doping masters of the athletic world. My wife competed in track against some East German women in the early 1970’s. She knew something was strange when she glanced at her six-foot competitors and saw their male-like shoulders and body hair where women don’t usually have it.
*I have a close friend who raced as a Junior cyclist (under 18) in Canada in 1978, and he told me, “Billy, the coaches gave us uppers to race, and downers to sleep!”
*When Canada’s Ben Johnson was caught doping at the Seoul Olympics in 1988, many of us scratched our heads: Doesn’t everyone know they’re all doping? It seemed pathetic that bumbling, inarticulate Ben took the fall for the whole sport. Johnson’s coach was Charlie Francis. I knew Charlie when he ran for Stanford twenty-two years prior. I am certain he was doping himself back then because he bragged about it, and he went from being a so-so sprinter to world class, in no time.
*Canada’s “Dubin Commission” released its report on Drug use in 1990, and most athletes were astonished, not at the report, but at the public naiveté as to the decades of doping that had preceded it, unnoticed.
* Point is that Lance Armstrong came into that “no-drugs-no-medals” world. It is pretty certain that almost every great rider against whom he had to compete was already using some kind of performance enhancement. Lance knew there was no chance without it. So he crossed the moral Rubicon.
* What are we to conclude of a great cyclist who dopes to win the Tour de France seven times against other great cyclists who dope? Mostly that he was a better cyclist -- a very great cyclist -- and a smarter doper than his competitors, too (as a close friend once said of the Tour, and other like events, “They’re chemistry races”).
* To speak plainly, Lance never had to face the choice of doping to win against a field of innocents. Never. He had to face the choice of doping to level the playing field. He had to choose to leave behind a primary moral reality (do not cheat) and enter a world governed by a secondary moral reality (we are all cheating, so it’s okay if you do, too). So he did. In a world where there are only cheaters, there is only one morality that matters: “shut up and keep lying.” And keep snoopers from the primary world out of your secondary world. He and many others did that for a long time. He was tested endlessly and never caught. And he won. And how! Who will ever forget “the Ulrich look” when he dared his toughest competitor to accelerate with him and drop the field? Ulrich couldn’t go. He just hung his head as Lance took off in a dramatic burst of pure cycling power. Lance was a sporting hero who gave us many such memorable moments for a lot of years. But what happened next says a lot about him, and a lot about his once-admiring audience -- ourselves.
* The central moral issue – about the cheater as well as his fans -- is not the drugs. It’s the fact that everyone is lying. The doper lies to himself. And the fans lie to themselves. They lie because although they say they care about drug use, they are not sincere. They want sports excitement, not a morality play. The cynical ones figure everyone is doing drugs anyway, so may the best man win. Just keep it out of my face. In other words, sports fans manage to suppress their own moral qualms about drugs, just like their heroes have done. They simply relegate their suspicions to the back-burner of fan-consciousness. It’s like cosmic background radiation. You know it’s there, but you can’t see it, so you don’t care. Until the hero is caught and you are called out along with him. Then it’s, like, hero-betrayal and moral inconvenience. How dare you force us to say we really care about the truth? We just wanted to see an amazing 100 meter race, an unbelievable touchdown, a victory climbing Alp D’Huez. And now we have to throw you under the bus and go find another hero.
*That’s why it was such a dull show that Lance and Oprah mounted. Soft, faux-sincere questions, trying to get the big Dr. Phil melt-down confession. No chance. A few emotions were evinced. But mostly steely-eyed, calculating, lawsuit-avoiding answers. It was an international Morality Play.
In medieval times, in order to keep the masses on the straight and narrow, there were travelling theatre groups that would go town to town with their wagons of players (now we have TV). Their plays were always allegorical, and the characters had names like Hero, Virtue, Sin, Charity, Innocence, Justice, Repentance, Love, and so on. They would act out major themes intended to teach the people a higher truth. The other night, Lance was the fallen Hero, Sin was already finished and offstage, Oprah was cast as Justice, the witnesses were either Innocence, or Repentance. The audience sat as Virtue. It was a performance by all.
* What is to be done? Fifty years ago the greatest evil in sport was to lie that you were doing it for the love of the sport, when in fact you were taking money. Many athletes got banned for life for taking money. The problem with all professional sport – and this was always the main moral distinction between the amateur athlete and the pro -- is that there is no way to know if a pro athlete really, truly, deeply loves the sport enough to do it for its own sake, or if he is doing it just for the money. I suspect it’s the money. I don’t think Ben Johnson, or Lance Armstrong, or Michael Jordan, or Tiger Woods – any pr athletes -- would play their sports the way they do for a minute without the millions. So we have the money lie, and the doping lie. A lot of athletes live with both lies.
I once heard a libertarian philosopher’s solution to the lying problem: let them do what they want. For every sport, offer two categories: Category A, you must be drug-free and be doing the sport only because you love it. No money can change hands. Category B, you can be paid whatever you can command, and put into your body whatever you wish. All will be out in the open. You can watch whatever category you want. Personally, I would watch the drug-free, unpaid athletes any day against the rich guys in the chemistry races with the needles in their legs.
It’s not the drugs that are the problem. It’s the lying. Because anyone who refused to lie would never have taken the drugs.