Saturday, August 25, 2012

A sad day for sport

Like many other people all over the world I was shocked to hear that Lance Armstrong is admitting defeat in his battle to prove that he has not breached the rules in relation to the use of drugs in cycling. I am not totally naive and so I would not be shocked to read that someone had definite proof that Lance Armstrong was using drugs. However, one feature of Lance's life to date is that he has been determined to continue battling even when the odds seems to be stacked against him and so it surprising that he is giving up on  this battle.

In his life, Lance has faced a long series of battles:
  • He was born to a teenage single-mother. Although he has great praise for the way his mother raised him, it can't have been a very easy life. His mother did have a few boyfriends and subsequently got married, but none of these proved to be a positive father figure for Lance.
  • When Lance initially took up cycling it was not a very well known sport in his native Texas and very few people were even aware that the Tour de France was taking place. This also meant that English speakers were not so common on the tour at that time and apparently not particularly welcomed by the representatives of the more established cycling nations.
  • Lance was struck with testicular cancer in his mid-20s. Initially the prognosis was not positive and the disease was expected to be fatal. However, he made a recovery and amazed everyone when eventually returned to the sport and performed even better than before.
  • As Lance became the most successful competitor ever in the Tour de France it was not surprising that many other competitors regarded him as the one to beat. Lance relished adversity and continued battling when many other people would have retired gracefully and enjoyed the fruits of his success.
Lance has been hounded for many years by allegations of drug use, mainly because people are reluctant to believe that someone could perform so strongly without artificial aids. This is similar to the way the Irish swimmer Michelle Smith de Bruin was treated. The evidence of her drug use was eventually quite strong, but initially the suspicions were only based upon her results. It is becoming ridiculous if athletes can't perform too well for fear of facing accusations.

I think that the time has come to examine the fundamentals of the rules about drug use in sport. In many ways the debate on drug use in sport is similar to the debate on professionalism a few years ago. At that time amateur sportsmen seemed noble, but with the benefit of hindsight it looks like an elitist system that gave an unfair advantage to upper class athletes who could afford to take time off work to train.

I know that the analogy is not perfect, because drug use is dangerous. No athlete will die because he/she gets paid too much, but as we have sadly found out, it is entirely possible for athletes to kill themselves by over indulging in performance enhancing drugs. However, the rules should be adapted to focus on athlete safety rather than on the complete elimination of performance enhancing drugs.

Lance has plenty of experience of dealing with dangerous drugs. As he stated in his excellent autobiography many of the chemotherapy drugs used to fight his testicular cancer were a much more dangerous than EPO (he commented on the fact that the nurses injecting the drugs into his vein wore protective gear to ensure that none of the drugs accidentally spashed onto their skin).

I know it is a radical idea, but we would have a fair playing field if athletes were allowed to use safe doses of certain performance enhancing drugs under carefully controlled conditions.


  1. I believe that the Lance Armstrong case is a little more complicated than you portrait it to be. There is a lot of speculation that the Tour de France organizers knew he was on this drug from the start, and they chose to ignore the use of it so that an American could open the sport of cycling to a whole new audience in America and the wide international community. By not stopping him at that point they permitted Lance to use this drug throughout the rest of his career leading to his seven titles, and at no point through the many years that he cycled professionally did they actually stop him. Now they have decided to go back on their earlier statements that he had no 'illegal' drugs taken. Other cyclists have openly said that there is a drug problem in the sport and that everyone is taking something, and the ones getting caught are just pushing it too far.

    Your last line about using the drugs safely for a level playing field would just promote drug use in amateur sports in an attitude of ' if they can I can' and us amateurs would not have the careful supervision that the pros have. Surely no drugs would create the level playing field that sport needs.

  2. You make a good point about the knock on effects on amateur sports. However, drug use is already well established in elite cycling, so I am not sure that it is possible to go back.