Friday, January 18, 2013

Now I can tell you what I knew about Lance Armstrong

When I first competed against Lance Armstrong we were both young cyclist aspiring to reach the pinnacle of our sport. We were surrounded by countless others with the same desires. It was clear to me that Lance would stand above nearly all others that came along. I saw it both in attitude and physiology. When we were at the US Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs Lance demonstrated not only his skills and determination but the characteristics of the person who would engage in the use of performance enhancement techniques.

There are two things that I am not going to do. I am not going to rationalize his behaviour and I am not going to persecute him for his actions. Those sitting outside the world of elite athletics may find it easy to draw lines in absolute terms. In the world we experienced though the absolutes don't exist. What is considered a performance enhancement itself is arbitrary. Some techniques that provided minimal enhancement may have been banned while more effective means were not. As Lance said, he passed the tests.

While the phrase “everyone was doing it” can be seen as a rationalization proffered by an offender, that does not negate the truth of the phrase. The culture of the sport, and other sports, is that there is a limited amount of financial resources to support a few promising prospects. To be one of those who is perceived as a promising prospect you must get noticed. The way to do that is to win races. Since it is only the winners of the top races who are tested there was no deterrent from using performance enhancements at local, regional and also national events except those top few like the Olympic Trials.

Every time we piled into hotel rooms there were performance enhancements around. Usually nothing more than cortizone, anti-inflammatories, pain medications, caffeine and anything else that could increase blood oxygen levels. As the stakes increased so did the level of enhancement. Although I wouldn't let a needle be stuck in me – having had to have one of the girls at the OTC hold my hand when blood was drawn – others did so with regularity. One of the most accepted enhancements was “blood doping” – extracting and discarding plasma from blood to increase the red blood cell percentage – because it was not drugs but simply manipulating the body's natural state much like taking protein supplements during body building.

With all that said I have never said that Lance took performance enhancements because I didn't see it. Thus I could only say intuitively that I “knew” that he was doing that. It was just common knowledge that those at the top made it there through some use of enhancements. That is not to say that there weren't riders who won races while clean. There could have been the exceptional few who had clean successes but in the culture of the sport it took enhancements to get noticed, to get the spot on a team that could provide the support, equipment and opportunities. As Lance said there was no fear of getting caught.

Before anyone stands on a moral high ground to condemn Lance, any other riders or the sport for succumbing to the pressures associated with having to achieve or engaging in a prohibited act for want of fear of repercussion I ask this; do you have clean hands? When you filed your Indiana tax return did you cheat? An enforcement officer from the Indiana Department of Revenue once told me that they don't even bother trying to combat the tax evasion that “99% of filers” engage in. That was no exaggeration. Department audits confirmed it as was later reported in the media.

While I turned pro and was nearly killed by a vehicle two months later Lance Armstrong went on to win the Tour de France seven times but has been stripped of those titles because he “cheated”. Lance Armstrong is still a Tour de France winner. He was intensely scrutinized because he was a seven time winner. That's the nature of the oversight authorities – to ensure that those who made it to the top got there cleanly. But what about everyone else? Strip Lance of his titles. But who do you replace him with? Who was cheated? Does cheating involve gaining an advantage that others don't have? In my estimation you will be down to names that are not even well known by those intimately involved in the sport before you find someone who can't be retroactively found to have cheated. But then even those riders may likely be doping just to stay in the sport, albeit at the lowest level where they may feel more pressure knowing that any performance decrease means they are out of the sport. Back in the 90's at that level you knew you wouldn't be tested.

Lance isn't a victim of persecution, the system or peer pressure. Lance was a victim of himself and he owns his actions. In the interview he even said people would say “Look at that arrogant prick”. Back in the 80's and 90's that was a phrase often used about him from insiders. But then, anyone who lives among a culture where win at all costs is the norm it takes a sophisticated character to not appear that way. His public persona certainly didn't match the personality of the man seen by those of us who knew him.

I don't apologize for the guy or offer excuses. Lance is, however, a Tour de France winner.

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