Lance Armstrong is a great champion. There is no question. The first time I met him in 1991, you could see that the kid had it all: ruthlessness, enormous power and a savage desire to win that was almost frightening in its intensity. All that, and he was always ready with a sound bite. Armstrong was the complete package. And two years later, at age 21, he became the youngest rider in modern history to become the world professional road champion.
We all know the rest of the story. After his bout with cancer in 1996, his recovery and subsequent metamorphosis into a lethal, streamlined Tour de France contender was stunning — as was the new laser-beam focus that earned him the nickname RoboCop in the peloton. The rest of the pros never had a chance.
So now that he has been stripped of his seven Tour de France wins and banned from cycling for the rest of his life by the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency (USADA), we have to ask: Did Lance Armstrong really win all those titles, beat all those other cyclists, endure the unimaginable hardships of long-distance competition just because he’s a cheater?
On a daily basis, professional athletes are pushed beyond previously imaginable limits. They are human science experiments. The image that the USADA paints of a pristine world of clean sport, tainted by a handful of rogue competitors and their mad-scientist pharmacological enablers, is pure fantasy. A pro’s job is to find the edge, and that edge comes through science — and often, through pushing that science to its limits. Very often those limits are a moving target.
In 1997, the Union Cycliste Internationale ruled to limit racing cyclists’ hematocrit level (the percentage of red blood cells vs. white, which is the fuel that drives endurance sport) to 50%. It was their first attempt at controlling the new science of blood manipulation, which was enabling racers to push themselves harder, longer. Of course, the only thing the new rule did was ensure that pro cyclists had to find a way to reach a hematocrit level of 49.9% exactly, or else quickly become irrelevant and lose their job. No one really had a choice. Every professional sport has a similar story: athletes must stay current with the latest science — and with the latest rules that proscribe its use — or disappear off the stage.
Where does science end and doping begin? Should swallowing a tiny thermometer in a dangerous (yet legal) high-heat technique that forces the body to flood itself with the performance-enhancing hormone EPO — an approach Armstrong pioneered during his comeback — be considered a dastardly attempt to cheat or the cutting edge of scientific progress? (More to the point, was this same technique powerful enough to prompt the spike in his 2009–10 blood profiles that the USADA is touting as its one bit of hard evidence against him?) Could the major scientific advancements in nutrition, recovery and aerodynamics that have allowed Britain’s Team Sky to become a cycling juggernaut in recent years someday be defined as doping?
Cycling is a 19th century sport that until very recently had little in the way of educated leadership. It is infamous for its primitive brutality. “Boxing meets horse racing” is my favorite description for it. Armstrong went to Europe in 1989 as a 19-year-old and spent the next 15 years conquering that pitiless world. He won his races by being smarter and tougher, training harder, enduring more pain and using science to its limits to improve his performance.
I found it terribly ironic that Armstrong was criticized by the USADA for his “win-at-all-costs mentality,” as that sentiment defines its own approach to his and other cases. Doping is fought through information and education — and yes, of course, enforcement. But scorched-earth tactics and trophy kills won’t fix the issue. The USADA and its cohort, the World Anti-Doping Agency, need to look at the realities of a professional athlete’s world. They must take a good, hard look at their own mission, their own tactics and their own draconian perspective on sport. This public execution of Lance Armstrong gives them a perfect place to begin.