Armstrong Is Probably Guilty, But It Is Definitely Meaningless
So Lance Armstrong has given up his fight against the US Anti-Doping Agency regarding alleged use of performance enhancers during his seven-year run as the Tour de France champion. In his statement following his decision not to go to arbitration with the USADA Armstrong continued to proclaim his innocence, branded the investigation a witch hunt, invoked his hundreds of negative drug tests and insisted his decision to discontinue the battle was based solely on fatigue from years of fighting.
There are plenty of questions about what’s going on with the USADA. And while Armstrong has clearly made some powerful (as well as pathetic – I’m looking at you Floyd Landis and Tyler Hamilton) enemies over the years, he maintains some powerful supporters – namely the international and US cycling federations, who both backed Armstrong in his Federal lawsuit against USADA that was recently thrown out, although the judge in the case expressed some sympathy for Armstrong’s predicament.
Regardless the end result will be that the USADA will declare Armstrong guilty and it is likely that his Tour titles will be officially stripped, although no matter what you have read to this point that hasn’t happened yet. The USADA – regardless of what it says – lacks that authority. The International Cycling Union (UCI) will have to do that, and to this point UCI chief Pat McQuaid has backed Armstrong.
This whole long, sordid episode ends in two competing realities. The first is that Armstrong – despite his protests – likely is guilty. The second is that doesn’t matter if he is.
Look, I get that he’s never tested positive –the standard acclamation of the most fervent Armstrong supporters. He could test negative 500 more times and I wouldn’t care. To believe that Armstrong wasn’t involved in blood doping is to believe in the Tooth Fairy. Armstrong was the most unbeatable competitor in the world’s dirtiest sport over a seven year span. To accept that he wasn’t involved in the filth is to believe that Sammy Sosa could go from a skinny, speedy gap hitter to one of the greatest power hitters baseball has ever known merely by taking vitamins. It requires the same level of suspension of disbelief that was required to accept that Keanu Reeves was a nuclear physicist. Sorry, I can’t do it.
I just don’t care that he did. Cycling — especially road cycling to me – is different than baseball or even track. The route for the Tour and other major races changes every year. Nobody ever says, “(Insert cyclist name here) just completed the fastest Tour de France in history.” Why? Because the overall time isn’t linked to any significant historical marker. That’s a huge departure from baseball and track, where every player, every accomplishment is measured against not only those in that day’s game, but every other feat in the sport’s history. Sosa or Ben Johnson being dirty matters in the scheme of the greater history of the sports; not so with Armstrong.
The other reason is problematic for me as a parent. It centers on the “everybody was doing it” concept that I consistently tell my kids isn’t a good enough reason to so much as cross the street. But the reality is that everybody – or almost everybody – WAS doing it. So in the context of the seven Tours he won, Armstrong remains the greatest cyclist of both those races and of his era of domination. Among those “cheating” Armstrong was still the best trained, strongest cyclist with the best tactics. In a world where everybody was likely “cheating” Armstrong won his races in a way that amounts to fair and square.
But the well-documented Armstrong story goes far beyond the cycling. Whatever the USADA says, and whatever the UCI decides to do (and they will almost have to officially strip the titles), nobody can alter the Armstrong back story, nor should anybody try to. Armstrong’s personal defeat of a devastating cancer will always be real. The inspiration he’s provided to countless other cancer patients will always be of both great comfort and value to those his experience inspired through their own fights.
I’m no huge Armstrong fan (although I admittedly did get caught up in his Tour run). Other than his appearance in Dodgeball, he doesn’t come off as a very endearing figure and is usually described as kind of a jerk. But in the end, both on the bike and off, the question of did he or didn’t he – which will likely never truly be answered – doesn’t matter in the least.