Saturday, August 25, 2012

A Lament for Lance

Your glory, O Israel, lies slain upon your high places!
How the mighty have fallen!
I Samuel 1:19

My best bicycle is a 1999 carbon fiber Trek, painted in the colors of the U.S. Postal team. The frame is basically identical to the one Lance Armstrong rode to victory in the 1999 Tour de France.

But now it turns out he didn’t really win that race, or any of the next six Tours. He didn’t give Jan Ullrich “the look” and then just ride away on Alpe de Huez. And I assume he also didn’t get third place in a thoroughly amazing comeback a couple of years ago.

The United States Anti-Doping Agency has witnesses who will testify that he took drugs, and Armstrong has decided not to fight those charges, so USADA has declared him guilty. And his incredible records will be erased.

I read an article by a non-cycling sportswriter about how fans might be willing to forgive Armstrong, but those who competed against him might not be as generous. Which sounds plausible, except that when you review the record of second and third place finishers in those seven Tours, you find that all but one has already been involved in some sort of doping allegation. Several of them have already served suspensions.

Word is that Tyler Hamilton and George Hincapie were both willing to testify that they saw Lance use banned substances. So the most tested athlete in the history of sports, who never failed a drug test, was doping. He is guilty. I don’t think there can be any real doubt about that now. But it’s also true that USADA’s pursuit of Armstrong has been a witch hunt from the beginning. Why were they still investigating him seven years after his last Tour victory?

When they begin reassigning the Tour victories from 1999 to 2005, will they investigate those “winners” as relentlessly as they have investigated Armstrong?

Zen question of the day: Who was the last Tour de France Champion to win without doping?

Contrary to the popular perception, I don’t believe that cycling is very different from other sports. The importance of endurance does lend itself to performance enhancing drugs, but one of the big reasons that more cyclists are caught is that the testing is more stringent. And for some reason folks seem to get more upset about PED’s in cycling and track, than in other sports. When he was playing for the Patriots, Rodney Harrison tested positive for human growth hormone, and no one cared. Nobody said, as writers have said of Armstrong, that his legacy was built on a lie.

I was amazed when Armstrong decided to come out of retirement and ride in the Tour again in 2009. Knowing how zealously the anti-doping agencies had pursued him, I thought they would surely find a way to catch him at something. And when they came up empty, I believed that he had to be clean.

Sports need to be monitored for drug use. It’s the only way to protect the athletes from themselves. And it’s important to try and keep a level playing field. But at some point it should be over. The athletes are tested. They pass or they fail, and the trophies are awarded. It’s over. Disqualifying someone thirteen years after the race is just crazy.

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