In a sad way, the recent saga of Lance Armstrong and the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency’s allegations that he used performance-enhancing drugs is the symbolic sports story of our times.
The script is as follows: Superstar Athlete is alleged to have cheated. Superstar Athlete proclaims innocence for years. Evidence is produced against Superstar Athlete which athlete alleges is manufactured, tampered with, or otherwise illicit in some form or fashion. Superstar Athlete threatens a lawsuit against the alleging party. More evidence comes out against Superstar Athlete, which Superstar Athlete then denies.
Whether it’s Armstrong, or Mark McGwire, or Sammy Sosa, or Barry Bonds, or Roger Clemens, or any number of track and field stars being accused, the story has played out more times in the last decade than I care to count.
For that matter, Armstrong’s story may be a symbolic story for our times – period. Look at all the things that triggered our 4 1/2 –year recession, for example, and consider the common thread: people trying to game the system to get ahead, while the people who are supposed to be minding the system look the other way because the short-term results are so good.
So before society gets on its high horse about athletes and morality, it needs to take a long look in the mirror first. People are people before they’re athletes, bankers, politicians, or anything else.
Put yourself in Armstrong’s shoes for a moment. It’s been alleged that just about everyone in cycling dopes. Not that I’m excusing Armstrong’s cheating (if he indeed did cheat — and it’s important to point out that perhaps we can’t be sure of that yet), but if his competitors were doping, he had little choice if he wanted to stay competitive. Of course (sticking with the footwear analogies) you could also put the shoe on the other foot and say that if Armstrong was cheating, nobody else had a shot without doing the same.
Regardless of where you stand on the morality scale in this case, a reasonable person can see how an athlete is stuck between a rock and a hard place if no one’s minding the store. In this case, the system may be more to blame than the athletes.
Let’s look back to another time in place to another scandal. About a century ago, baseball had a gambling problem that was more serious than its recent drug issue. Players were fixing games, and the Chicago White Sox threw the entire 1919 World Series. Things were so bad, many questioned whether baseball would survive.
Baseball’s owners knew they had to act swiftly and sternly, so they brought in a no-nonsense federal judge, Kenesaw Mountain Landis, to be commissioner and gave him full authority to clean up the situation. Before Landis had even served a year, he banned eight members of the White Sox from baseball for life – including two, Shoeless Joe Jackson and Buck Weaver, whom evidence strongly suggests may not have been involved.
Landis still takes criticism for banning Jackson and Weaver, and there are certainly fair points to be made there. But looking at the bigger picture, Landis accomplished exactly what baseball wanted him to: there wasn’t even a whisper about anyone fixing games thereafter.
Then, there’s the baseball commissioner who presided over the last decade, Bud Selig. Many people suggested that performance-enhancing drugs were pervasive in the sport, but Selig sat by for about a decade before doing much about it until it was so obvious and embarrassing that he had no choice. Baseball has a black eye from the scandal to this day – and some of the fans it lost probably aren’t coming back.
Those who run cycling and its events are in a similar spot, but there’s one big difference: Armstrong may be the one athlete in the world who’s bigger than his sport. Even great cyclists are generally anonymous, but Armstrong is one of the more recognizable athletes in the world. His recovery from cancer – and his subsequent work to fight it – made him one of the most well-known and revered ones as well.
That puts cycling in a tough position. It’s understandably hard to go after someone of Armstrong’s stature and popularity with both barrels blazing. It’s a lot easier to do what Selig did and hope that the fuss would just evaporate after many years of legal threats and lawyer posturing, and hope that people would slowly forget about the whole mess.
We love our sports heroes. We don’t like seeing them knocked off their pedestals. Even Bonds, who was obviously guilty (and may have been the biggest jerk of his generation in sports, to boot) still has his defenders to this day. It’ll be that much tougher in Armstrong’s case because he is so beloved by many.
But this is where cycling has to take the long-term view. The doping scandals have cast a shadow on both the guilty and innocent. Our pedestals are disappearing because we question whether there’s anyone worthy to put on them anymore.
Look back how things turned out for baseball in the 1920s. Jackson was one of the five best players in baseball when Landis banned him, and Ed Cicotte, also kicked out for life, may have been the game’s best pitcher at the time. But just one year after the World Series was thrown, some guy named Babe Ruth smashed a then-unheard-of 54 home runs, and baseball attendance rose 70 percent over the decade before.
That’s why cycling – or for that matter, any other sport – ultimately has no choice but to clean things up, even if that means it must break its biggest hero (and for that matter, everyone else involved). Otherwise, nobody will care even if a Babe Ruth comes around later — and if one does, cycling’s hard stance now can virtually assure that he’ll know better than to cheat.