Friday, January 18, 2013

Defending Lance Armstrong. . . Kind Of

Lance Armstrong dropped the "bombshell" that he was doping during all seven of his Tour de France wins in an interview with Oprah Winfrey.   The confession has grabbed all sorts of media attention, despite the fact everyone has already was pretty confident that Armstrong used performance enhancing drugs and growth hormones during his competitive years.  Armstrong may have denied he doped back in the summer, but it was rather hard to understand why he then backed out of his fight against the doping charges if he was really innocent.

I wasn't willing to say his backing down was irrefutable proof he was guilty, but I did find it impossible to relate to why an innocent person would allow himself to be stripped of his championships and have his reputation besmirched.  I would never stop a fight to save my hard work if I was innocent, unless I knew this fight was harming the well-being and relationship with my family.  But I still wasn't willing to say he was guilty based off his backing down.  But deep down, I basically saw it as an admission, despite his denial.

Then Armstrong offered up the real proof with his confession several months later in a taped interview that aired on January 17th.  It does seem rather odd that a guy who was still adamant of his innocence a few months ago was suddenly willing to spill the beans.  A cynic may believe it probably had to do with a hefty pay day coming from the world's most famous talk show host who needed huge ratings to help her struggling network.  But I'm not concerned about what finally motivated him.  The fact is he confessed, and there is already an entire storm ready to strike him down.

You have bookstores who want to put Armstrong's autobiography into the fiction section.  There are critics claiming Armstrong has not only shamed America, but has done something worse than boiling a puppy for Sunday dinner.  There is an outrage that makes it sound like Armstrong has been shooting babies out of a cannon while twirling a handlebar mustache and letting out an evil laugh.  But he hasn't done those things.  Or at least, I don't think he has.  I didn't watch the interview.

I didn't watch it, because it was obvious the moment it was announced that it would be a confession.  Sure a confession that looked like it would never come, but the guilt has already been assumed.  The confession definitely taints all those championships and his legacy, but that has already been tarnished for years.  There was likely a few diehard fans that still believed Armstrong was innocent, and they would have freshly broken hearts.  Everyone else should just be saying, "Yeah, I knew that already, Lance.  But I'm glad you finally came clean, unlike your racing career."

I don't think this suddenly makes Lance Armstrong's entire career fiction.  It also doesn't erase all his accomplishments.  He did it with illegal drugs and failed to become a legend the honest way and he definitely cheated, but he was still a remarkable athlete during his run.

It isn't like performance enhancing drugs are Popeye's spinach or some magical elixir that turns you into Superman.  Not any schmo can pop a pill and suddenly win world class sporting competitions.  I can't down a bottle of pills and inject myself up with some drugs, then suddenly become an athletic god.  I'd just be some fat slob who is now drugged up.  To win at the highest level, you still need actual skill and talent and athleticism.  He definitely cheated, but he also was an amazing athlete while cheating too.

He also isn't the first athlete to ever confess to taking performance enhancers and human growth hormones and anabolic steroids.  We've had several from Jose Canseco to Marion Jones to Hulk Hogan to several others.  It might hurt more because Armstrong was considered an American hero and had a great story, but he wasn't the first ever to try to dope to achieve greatness.

This isn't a justification, by the way.  Nor am I trying to condone his actions here.  I'm just saying the backlash is reaching hyperbolic levels, and making him out to be someone just a shade less nasty that Hitler or Stalin.  When it comes to disgraced athletes, I'd consider Armstrong nobler than  O. J. Simpson.

The outrage is probably coming from the fact that Armstrong has now ruined a great feel good story.  The narrative is spoiled and rotten now.  It was the perfect feel good Hollywood tale.  A good old American boy realizes his dream as the best in the world, but then is stricken with cancer and everything seems to fall apart; he is then able to recover from the horrid disease and goes on to prove he is still the best cyclist in the world.  It is inspirational and one of those truly magical tales.  But it just isn't as nice when you add in that he got all those wins by doping.  There is no happy ending with that hook, especially since if there is ever a film on his life, because this entire fiasco has to be the climax now rather than his heroic comeback.

And the comeback is still heroic, by the way.  He took drugs to help him win.  And yes, that is cheating -- we've established that.  But the man kicked fucking cancer in the balls and returned to an ultra-competitive occupation.  He never gave up.  He won the fight.  He still doesn't have cancer.  Just being able to say he is still alive is a major win, but the perseverance and dedication to return to his sport is even more amazing.  It isn't something most athletes could do even with performance enhancing drugs.  Because once again, the drugs aren't like the Sword of Grayskull where one minute your Adam then you become He-man.  Armstrong still needed to train and get back into competitive shape.  He had some assistance, but there was work involved.

He definitely tarnished all that work.  He is now sentenced to a life known as a cheater and doper.  Those seven wins not only have been stripped, but the public will discount them in their eyes.  They don't mean anything to most anymore.  His comeback is likely considered a sham by most.  It shouldn't be, but it will be.  That is the biggest travesty and the real reason the doping is so frustrating.

The dirty little secret of sports is that the athletes that are caught doping aren't the only ones who actually used performance enhancers.  They are simply the ones that got caught, and that is it.  I am not claiming that all athletes us drugs.  I am sure many are clean.  Nowadays, maybe even the majority are clean.  They could be, and I'm not being sarcastic.  I don't know, because I'm not anything more than a guy who enjoys watching sports on TV.  I have no connection to obtain any real hard facts on the matter.

I do know from reading quite a few articles and journals on the subject, that drug testing isn't foolproof.  Every single test can be beat.  The Olympics and other regulations can claim that what they have is unbeatable, but there are several doctors and experts that dispute that fact.  Even the most state of the art tests cannot detect every single drug or at least, there are ways to avoid detection.  This makes me believe that there are likely athletes that have been strong users that have never been caught.  There were likely some Olympic athletes that won medals and fame, but no one knew they had a little help in the form of a needle or pill or whatever.  I am not pointing fingers at anyone.  I don't even know for sure if I am correct.  I'd hope I'm not, but I'm likely right.

Drug use has appeared to have decreased over the past decade.  I don't think Major League Baseball is anywhere near the level of drug use that it was in the late 90s.  I believe even sports like weightlifting and track & field have considerably cleaned up.  But I am not naive enough to believe drugs are totally out, even if no one is failing tests at the same level.

Remember that Armstrong didn't fail a test.  The accusation didn't come from any results.  He wasn't denying hard facts.  It was just strongly believed he was doping, but not from any hard data.  Which means there is a chance there were other cyclist during that time that were also doping but since they didn't win, never were put in the hotseat of needing a confession.  I'm sure Armstrong wasn't the only athlete in the world aware of how to beat tests. 

Armstrong claims many other competitors were doping.  There isn't any way to verify that without the other cyclist coming forward or someone deciding to do a whole investigation of the all the competitors.  It is likely he wasn't the only one enhanced in the race, and this doesn't just include his teammates but the other country's competitors.  There were also likely clean racers too, but there is a good chance Armstrong is right that he was competing against other users.

This doesn't mean Armstrong was in the right or any kind of justification of his actions.  He cheated.  But there were likely other cheaters too.  They just didn't have the talent to use their enhancement to win the championship.  Armstrong was better. 

Lance Armstrong isn't a role model.  I'm not going to tell Everett to follow his lead.  I am not going to claim that you need to use drugs to keep things a level playing field or that it is the best way to ensure victory.  Sports should be done clean.  It is the safe route towards your long term health.  It is the right message for our children.  Armstrong shouldn't have used drugs.  It sucks that he did.

But his drug use isn't why he isn't a role model.  The fact that everyone is flawed is why he shouldn't be a role model.  Anyone you put up on a pedestal is bound to let you down.  Everyone had their faults and demons.  No child should pattern their life entirely after someone else.  They need to follow their own path.

They can still get tips from others.  They can take elements from another person's life, and use it as a guide for their own.  And I still think Armstrong can be an inspiration.  The drug use shouldn't knock out all the good he did.

The man persevered and returned after a fight from cancer.  It is a message of not giving up and instead fighting towards your dreams.  He will always be a man who not only recovered from a horrid disease, but made it back to the top of the mountain.  He didn't do it the perfect way, but most people make a few mistakes on their journey.  Armstrong is flawed.  He still did things that are admirable and worth telling my son about.

I'll just make sure Everett knows there are a few things in the story that need to be avoided.  It isn't the perfect path.  I'll tell him that about everyone he decides to look up to.

I'm not saying Armstrong did the right thing.  But I am saying he did do some great things.  We shouldn't forget that.  He isn't the worst villain of the decade or even this past year.  He was stripped of his titles, and that is the right call.  It doesn't mean we need to forget what he accomplished.  It definitely doesn't make his story fiction or something that must be erased.

Lance Armstrong has an inspiring tale, even if it is flawed and it contains some demons.  

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