By Timothy Dillon
Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons
It is sad that we can’t talk about this years Tour de France without mentioning Lance Armstrong. The Tour has a rich 100-year-old history. Unfortunately, Lance’s principle lie — that he won those races without the aid of performance enhancement drugs and procedures — has cast a shadow so large that Christopher Froome can’t even enjoy his victory free from scrutiny.
Quick open ended question: should athletes ever be given the benefit of the doubt? If you had been asked that question back in 2005, you would probably give a different answer than today. Back then, Lance was on top, and the preliminary, not to mention routine, tests had come back clean for the unstoppable cyclist. I point out the routine, because there is the assumption in professional sports that if an athlete could dope to excel, of course they would. Right?
Just looking at other sports, we see numerous examples of individuals trying to find an edge to get ahead of the competition. Ryan Braun was just suspended from Major League Baseball for the use of banned substances. Alex Rodriguez is under the same scrutiny now, even though that he admitted he used them back in 2003. Glory or greed, it doesn’t really matter. Practically speaking, they all want one thing. They want to win, and they were willing to do so at the cost of their integrity.
Right, so Lance cheated. Is there anything to add to this conversation? Can we really say anything that hasn’t been said before?
Full disclosure: I am a cycling fan. More than that, I am a bike commuter, and I pleasure ride on a regular basis — though a pleasure ride for me usually involves starring someone into a race over the Williamsburg Bridge. I have tweaked and tuned my bike to suit my needs, and I have done the same with my body. I try to eat right, make sure I’m fueling my muscles and always do my best to hydrate.
So, with that in mind, with all the cycling that I do, wouldn’t it make sense that I, someone who isn’t under the scrutiny, would do something so that I could keep up with my own life?
There is a very clear line in the sand, between what a cyclist can do and what a cyclist can’t do to improve his riding. He can choose his bike, his gear, his training schedule, the food he eats, the amount he sleeps, etc. A cyclist can’t alter his biology through any other means than the hard earned blood, sweat, and tears that comes with vigorous training.
Christopher Froome, a British national, was born in Kenya and spent much of his life in Africa. Froome trained to get to this point, and he did so on a bike, and not with the prick of a needle. He spent much of his time at higher altitudes, a natural process of making blood more oxygen efficient. Armstrong made his blood oxygen efficient by doping and using chemicals to help his body recover. So what can we learn from Armstrong, besides how to lose a legacy?
“The Tour de France? No. Impossible to win without doping. Because the tour is a test of endurance where oxygen is decisive,” Armstrong said to the French newspaper Le Monde before the start of this years tour. This may reveal just how far Armstrong hasn’t come, because in light of Froome’s victory the cycling world has realized that you don’t need to cheat in order to win the greatest bicycle race.
The disappointment brought on by the revelations of Armstrong’s cheating is one that hit close to home for me. Watching more than a few Tour de France races finish in Paris, routing for Armstrong and his team was a yearly tradition. It obviously hit close to home for Americans too, as they lost a hero. A cinderella story for the ages, Armstrong beat cancer, won seven victories on an international stage, and could arguably be the start of the wristband revolution we know today. That story is gone, but maybe it’s better not to have such high hopes for athletes.
A quote from Charles Barkley comes to mind, “I am not paid to be a role model.” Armstrong wasn’t being paid to be a role model, but believing in his own legend was easy enough. For right now, the benefit of the doubt isn’t good enough, and sadly for Froome and more winners to come, they will need to endure more than just brutal mountain climbs and long sprints to finish lines. They will have to live in the shadow of Armstrongs mistakes, for now.
What I have learned from Armstrong, besides that he is shameless, is that we cannot let fallen idols break our faith in the competitors to come. With Wiggins last year and Froome this year, Team Sky is the one to look to for the future wins. Armstrong IS a cautionary tale and one that will hopefully deter all future cyclists from taking the same path. If that doesn’t, than a world of fans tired of having their trust betrayed ought to do the trick.