Opinion Columns & Blogs

Jonathan Mahler: Armstrong’s doping confession just the start

Lance Armstrong has confessed to doping during his cycling career. All of the faux moral posturing can now officially stop.

I’m not talking about Armstrong. I’m talking about the steady stream of former teammates, employees and even journalists who as recently as this week were still apparently awakening to the reality that a Stage 4-cancer survivor competing in the most grueling, steroid-soaked sport in the world was powered by more than just his God-given strength and will. I’m talking about those who expressed offense at the (equally obvious) revelation that Armstrong’s doping program was highly organized.

Now that our long era of shattered innocence is finally over, it’s time to move past the sanctimony and outrage and proceed with a more sensible conversation about drugs and sports.

We might begin a century ago, when, having just completed a long Alps climb, French rider Octave Lapize called the organizers of the Tour de France “damned murderers!” – the implication being that such a grueling competition would basically kill you. Against this backdrop, it’s easy to see how cycling became a laboratory for drugs that boosted riders’ ability to perform and (no less important) masked at least some of the pain associated with spending three weeks furiously pedaling a bike up a lot of big mountains.

As historian John Hoberman has documented, medically supervised drug use has been part of professional cycling since the middle of the 20th century. Amateur riders were expected to be clean; but pros, who rode for a living, could take whatever they could get their hands on. Moral judgments weren’t made. The only relevant questions were whether the drugs themselves were safe – or if they could dangerously desensitize the body to exhaustion. Also, whether they were equally available to all riders.

Nothing fundamental has changed since then, and cycling’s governing body, the International Cycling Union (UCI), is almost wholly to blame.

Like so many unaccountable international sports organizations, the UCI is little more than a catch basin for hustlers and opportunists who know exactly what’s going on inside their offshore enterprise zones and see no reason to stop it.

Of course, maybe we ought to rethink the very notion of integrity when it comes to drugs and sports. Performance enhancers of one form or another have been around forever, but not until the rise of anabolic steroids was there a doping crisis in sports.

Doping is also inevitable. As long as athletes can earn more money and glory by outperforming their competitors, we will never eliminate performance-enhancing drugs from sports. Which leads us to a universal truth about drug use, one that applies equally to elite athletes and homeless junkies: There’s no point in vilifying the user without also asking why he became one.

After ignoring the widespread use of such drugs for years, we started an expensive, no-holds-barred crusade for their prohibition, shaming users as moral degenerates and criminals.

Instead, let’s pause to consider the underlying reasons that steroids are so common in sports: Because we value winning above all else, and pay winners accordingly. Because we expect to see transcendent athletic performances with casual frequency. Because of the unrealistic physical demands of endurance sports. Because we have embraced performance-enhancing pharmaceuticals in virtually every other realm (the bedroom, the classroom, the battlefield and so on).

The world’s most famous doper is finally on record and presumably ready to cooperate with authorities. Let the outrage end – and the sensible conversation begin.