It was a typical evening scene in our house. My husband and I were chatting about current events lite—weather, gas prices, potential carpet colors—while my youngest son was ensconced in a project at the kitchen table, paying us little to no attention. That is, until the conversation turned to Tyler Hamilton’s newly released book, The Secret Race, and Lance Armstrong’s demise. From his seat at the table my son suddenly engaged into our discussion.
“You mean, Lance Armstrong doped?” He said it with complete surprise, and with a pleading, confused “please say it isn’t so” look. My husband and I exchanged a brief, somewhat guilty glance. The poor dear.
We hadn’t been hiding anything from him. It has been all over the news and even on the cover of the Newsweek that was lying around for a few weeks waiting to be recycled. Doping isn’t a new topic to our kids, as we talk sports more than the average family, and about cycling more than the average sports fans. We loop Tour de France coverage morning to night on our TV each July, and routinely see clips of this or that intense-looking man in tight Lycra who has been banned from competition. Doping is not something we hide from them, nor did we hide the accusations circulating around Armstrong for years. Still, somehow, my son never even considered that someone of Armstrong’s legendary stature could fall.
“Yeah,” I said, apologetically. “He doped.” It seemed far simpler than saying, “He ceased denying it.”
I felt sad that my son had to absorb this news so abruptly, with such finality. And I felt guilty because I’d given myself years to warm up to the disappointment. By the time the axe finally fell, I was long over shock, and well into recovery.
But I felt his pain. Years ago I absolutely rejected the possibility that Armstrong doped. How could someone who had survived the vagaries of cancer and cancer treatment, knowingly engage his body in such sketchy chemical warfare? When Greg LeMond went on record with suspicions I assumed he was defending his legacy as America’s greatest cyclist. Jealousy! Sour grapes! As for the rest of his accusers? They were a bunch of cynics.
When the ever more damning accusations persisted, I was in plain denial. His accomplishments were so huge, his comeback so brave, that I didn’t want it to be spoiled by a scandal. I wanted him to exist as the survivor, the living reminder and inspiration that you really can overcome anything.
My denial devolved into a prayer-like bargain. Just give us this one hall pass, I thought. Crack down on the rest of the lot and clean up cycling, but let this one superhero remain.
As the prospect of the Armstrong hunt being called off became less plausible, I eased myself into the possibility that this could really happen. He could really be busted. At the same time my kids were getting older, getting more involved and invested in sports, facing bigger decisions about their ethics, their conduct, their lifestyle. My perspective started to shift.
Maybe this did have to happen. Maybe the biggest name going down in flames really was necessary. Because if someone of superhuman stature and celebrity, at the heart of a massive economic engine, backed by an army of high-powered stakeholders could get busted, then anyone could get busted. It would prove, without a doubt, that there was no place to hide.
When I read Jonathan Vaughters piece “How to get Doping out of Sports” http://www.nytimes.com/2012/08/12/opinion/sunday/how-to-get-doping-out-of-sports.html?_r=1&pagewanted=all it all came together. The former cyclist described the path in elite cycling, of getting almost to the top: “then, just short of finally living your childhood dream, you are told, either straight out or implicitly, by some coaches, mentors, even the boss, that you aren’t going to make it, unless you cheat.” And cheat he did, not because he wanted a better chance, but because he wanted the same chance as everyone else. Vaughters contends that the only way to keep a sport clean is by planting a message with youth. “They must know, without doubt, that they will have a fair chance by racing clean. And for them to do that, the rules must be enforced, and the painful effort to make that happen must be unending and ruthless.”
Ruthless. Tearing down a hero seemed ruthless, but I now see that it was absolutely necessary. Taking away Armstrong’s Tour titles hardly imparts justice. After all, will they really retroactively mount a full-scale investigation into each competitor down the list until they find the first clean finisher, and then give him the title? Unlikely. Tour victories in that era will still warrant an asterisk.
Stripping medals and titles is symbolic, but the ace in the hole for the future is a commitment to vigorous standards of fair play. So what if you can get away with it today? You can be busted a year, or ten years from now. And you can lose everything. If not an intrinsic sense of fairness, then at least that very real threat holds the power to keep athletes honest.
My son isn’t overly invested in Lance Armstrong specifically. He reserves his hero worship for other athletes, as revealed in his next question:
“Do ski racers dope?” He asked it tentatively, suddenly vulnerable to our answer.
I wanted to assure him that they don’t, but I couldn’t. Certainly there is less advantage to gain from doping in Alpine skiing, where the ideal athlete possesses a mutt-like amalgam of strength, balance, agility, anaerobic and aerobic capacity. And technical mastery influences performance vastly more than the final degrees of absolute strength. Still, considering my track record of naiveté, I hedged with vagueness.
“They get tested all the time, and I’ve never heard of it.”
I can say that with conviction, and also that I never considered doping, but I am not about to pass judgment on anyone who did. Would I have done it? If I had gotten so close to my dream and all my trusted coaches, teammates, sponsors and even doctors had said I had to do this to make that last jump I’d like to think I would have made the right decision. But perhaps the choice would not have been black and white. Perhaps I would have balked at injecting something into my veins, but would have feigned ignorance while stirring something in to my water bottle, or taking an extra something with breakfast. Fortunately I was never faced with the choice.
I do know that despite my early lamentations and apocalyptic fears, Lance Armstrong’s fall may have done more for the long-term benefit of his sport and of young athletes than all of his other accomplishments. I’m still sorry it ever happened. Sorry for Armstrong, sorry for cycling and sorry for all the people whose lives were torn apart in one-way or another.
But I’m glad that it panned out in a way that was so public, so mind-boggling, that lasting good will come of it. I hope my kids grow up with a moral compass that will steer them away from ever having to struggle with the choice between cheating and playing fair. But in case they waver, I’m glad they know they’ll never get away with it.