This week, the United States Anti-Doping Agency (USADA) released its evidence against cyclist Lance Armstrong, and one person’s testimony in the lengthy “Reasoned Decision” says it all. The report describes Armstrong’s reaction in 1995 after a poor team performance in the Italian classic Milan–San Remo: “people are using stuff” and “we are getting killed,” he allegedly told teammate George Hincapie. The 24-year-old wunderkind, despite being a world champion two years previously, had been bypassed by modern training techniques and was coming face to face with a life-changing decision: whether to embark on a sophisticated doping and training program to make it back to the top.
For some of his teammates, ones with strong families and educational backgrounds, the decision to retreat from the brutal realities of pro sport is not a difficult one. But for Lance, born to a 16-year-old single mother and having gambled his future on becoming a successful pro athlete, there was really little choice. The working conditions of his job demanded that he dope. And if Lance was going to go down that road, you can be certain that he was going to do it better than anyone else in the world.
Although things have changed drastically for the better in the past five years, no one ever raced in Europe without knowing that the sport was rife with doping. It had been part of the culture for generations, and only fairly recently was it even considered as a bad thing. A recent New York Times article, “Risky Rise of the Good-Grade Pill,” describes the use of amphetamines by academically competitive high school students. Their paths toward drug use and their justifications for it eerily mirror the initiations of young athletes into doping culture. In either instance, whether securing a spot in an Ivy League school or winning a big race, the results, not the means, are what counts. There is little feeling of guilt involved.
That is why the confessions of Lance’s former teammates and the “shocked, shocked” reactions of the varied cycling management figures ring hollow to my ears. For the racers to conveniently blame Lance, now turned to a Saddam Hussein–like figure, for leading them all down the path of moral destruction is nonsense. Every rider knew the score, made tons of money with him and had the thrill of being on the most powerful racing team in history. They could have simply packed their bags and gone home, as plenty have done in the past. Instead, their obviously scripted remorse, combined with the off-season timing of their reduced suspensions, only adds to the feeling of a p.r. spectacle.
It’s a waste of time and money to prosecute seasoned pros of any sport for past doping offenses. It is already too late, and the athletes are damaged goods, having been initiated into doping culture at a young age. The only way to change the culture is to focus on developing and, most important, educating and closely monitoring young riders in clean, healthy athletic habits. As, ironically, we’ve successfully done in cycling over the past five years. It takes time and does not garner scintillating headlines, but it’s the only way.