Americans are good at a lot of things. We’ve defeated Nazis and ended a Holocaust. We’ve created a universe of technological advancements that have connected the world. We’ve discovered many of the vast secrets of space. We’ve created groundbreaking art and entertainment. You know the list.
We’re also experts at rapidly canonizing our heroes, and then, when we discover that our heroes are flawed human beings just like everyone us, we mercilessly slam them back down to Earth. Actually, the word “slam” understates what we do. We pulverize them, sometimes unfairly and always with vengeful brutality. It’s almost as if we build these ten-story-tall marble superhumans and then, when we’re finished, we’re suddenly embarrassed by the grandiosity of this thing we’ve sculpted and because of its enormity and visibility the flaws become exaggerated — so we ferociously smash it into a million pieces and absolve ourselves of responsibility and accountability. The internet and social media has served to amplify it all, given the fierce online competition to be the most hip, hilarious and cynical commentator ever.
Simply put: our American heroes are too often disposable. Such is the case with Lance Armstrong.
I hasten to once again underline that I have no personal stake in defending Lance Armstrong, other than a deep admiration for his sport — and my sport, for that matter, being an active bike rider. This column and my prior articles about Armstrong have had everything to do with fairness and justice, and I intend to make a new and slightly different case today on those fronts. Specifically, I’m back on this topic because of the news that Armstrong confessed to Oprah Winfrey that he did, in fact, use Performance Enhancing Drugs (PEDs) during the era of his seven Tour de France victories.
Yes, Lance Armstrong made two huge mistakes. 1) In the most general sense, Armstrong cheated while competing in a series of sporting events. And, 2) he repeatedly lied about it, oftentimes attacking anyone who questioned his athleticism and personal veracity.
And, yes, I’m disappointed by the truth that he used blood transfusions and the red-blood-cell booster EPO during his post-cancer career, and, perhaps, testosterone and human growth hormone prior to his cancer diagnosis. I’m further disappointed by the fact that so many writers, athletes and fans staked their personal reputations defending Armstrong’s obviously false proclamations of innocence.
But on both counts, I’m no more or less angered or disappointed by the hundreds if not thousands of other athletes who are equally as guilty, which is to say, it’d be really great, wouldn’t it, if athletes didn’t have to use PEDs. But while we elevate and subsequently destroy our heroes, we also demand that our celebrities and athletes be mythologically-exquisite specimens of physical flawlessness and, if they’re not, they’re ridiculed and discarded. Ask any actress who gains a few pounds, or any athlete who doesn’t perform well on Sunday. While you’re at it, ask various actors like Daniel Craig, Sean Penn (have you seen these photos?) and Hugh Jackman how they go from scrawny nothings for one role, then magically ripped for their next role — and at 45 or 50-plus years old. I have no hard proof because they’re never prodded about it in the press, but it’s not just paleo or crossfit workouts, I assure you.
So in a way, the sporting fandom is partly responsible for Lance Armstrong’s drug use. We demand action-figure bodies and action-movie performances by all of the above. Baseball, for example, was dying a slow death with attendance and TV ratings on life support. And then these Schwarzenegger-ripped Tokyo-crushing monsters began to thwack home run after home run, and Americans devoured every crack of the bat. Fast forward to last weekend: while everyone was tweeting the playoffs on Sunday, did anyone bother to wonder whether these 12-foot-tall gridiron warriors were jacked up on cocktails of everything from human-growth-hormone to mega-doses of painkillers? How, for instance, did Redskins quarterback RGIII walk onto the field ten days ago, much less play with a knee that was about to explode? I’m not accusing him of anything, but why aren’t the same questions being asked of football stars? And did anyone bother to wonder whether any of those athletes would be insane enough to confess if grilled by the press with the same ferocity as Armstrong has been grilled, and especially given the high stakes of being on a playoffs caliber team with the hopes and dreams of millions of football fans riding on their performance?
Cycling barely enjoys a miniscule fraction of the popularity and finances of football and baseball, but the scrutiny is utterly disproportional. I love hearing from people who’ve never watched a bike race in their lives acting as if Armstrong personally damaged them in some deep and profound way, justifying their amazingly vocal online hatred towards him. The rancor is so over-the-top that suddenly cancer has become an hilarious subject for jokes. The man survived testicular cancer that spread to his lungs and brain, and, yes, one of his testicles was removed. Hilarious! Just because a guy used PEDs and lied about it somehow makes jokes about his life-saving cancer treatment acceptable? Jesus, we suck.
30 million American men suffer from erectile dysfunction and it’s reasonable to assume that a significant number of those men use sexual performance enhancing drugs and don’t tell anyone about it, least of all their partners. Americans chug-a-lug performance enhancing drugs all the time because they help us to survive. And a huge chunk of the population makes no distinction between illegal drugs like marijuana and legal drugs like beer, Oxycotin or Lipitor. Of course drug abuse is awful irrespective of the drug’s legal status, and the reason drug use is illegal in sports (theoretically illegal in too many top-shelf sports) is because athletes will practically kill themselves to win.
One study, in fact, known as the Goldman Dilemma, showed that more than half of Olympic-level athletes would gladly use a drug that would kill them within five years as long as it guaranteed them a gold medal. Astonishing.
I know it runs contrary to our compulsion for retribution against celebrities who make mistakes, but this Armstrong situation needs to be put into perspective. Lance Armstrong’s crime was to break the rules and then to cover-up his trespasses. He’s an athlete — a guy who rides bikes really fast and who participated in a sport that, at the time, was almost entirely populated by riders who were engaged in similar PED regimens. I firmly believe, by the way, that if there weren’t any cyclists using drugs from 1999 through 2005, Lance Armstrong still would’ve dominated those Tours. PEDs only offer a few percentage points of a boost — perhaps around three or four percent according to former rider Jonathan Vaughters. Take that razor-thin boost away from everyone and Armstrong still would’ve owned the yellow jersey for those seven years. Either way, Lance Armstrong’s punishment is more or less proportional to his crimes. But those crimes need to be kept tightly within context.
PEDs should absolutely remain illegal in sports. But until every sport is equally as diligent in exposing its cheaters; until sportsfans take partial responsibility for PEDs by demanding heightened excitement and flawlessness of their sporting icons; until sportsfans and the sporting press alike take a serious look at all athletes with the same scrutiny and incredulity and rage as they do at Armstrong, it’s time to cut this guy (and his sport) a break for the sake of fairness and honesty.
And the testicular cancer jokes have to stop, people. Grow up.
By Bob Cesca: Several weeks ago, I wrote about the most recent doping allegations against Lance Armstrong and detailed my ambivalence about performance-enhancing drugs (PEDs) in sports. To recap, while it’s competitively unfair, with wealthier teams/franchises/athletes getting better treatments thus giving them an unfair advantage, there are a wide variety of legal performance-enhancing mechanisms in sports, from supplements to state-of-the-art equipment and the like.
Today is the first rest day in the 2012 Tour de France following seven days of brutal crashes involving punctured lungs, lacerated kidneys, broken bones and battlefield injuries of all levels of severity. And no, my views on PEDs haven’t changed. Still frustratingly ambivalent. But the Tour is as spectacular as ever. Thrilling, excruciating and full of tradition and history (legendary former rider Marc Madiot’s cheering for French stage winner Thibaut Pinot — yes, it’s pronounced “Teebow” — was truly awesome to watch, and Phil Liggett, Paul Sherwen and Bob Roll continue to be the best commentators in all of sports.)
However, I’d like to revisit the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency’s new round of attacks against Armstrong.
First, news leaked out last week that the USADA has struck an immunity deal with current American Tour de France participants and former Armstrong teammates Levi Leipheimer, Jonathan Vaughters, George Hincapie, Christian Vande Velde and David Zabriskie who will evidently testify against Armstrong in exchange for a six month out-of-season suspension for doping themselves — basically, a slap on the wrist. The USADA released a non-denial denial in the wake of the leak. Because they’ve heretofore had spotless records on doping, if these guys do in fact testify, the news will create shockwaves through the sport, likely causing additional riders to come forward in related or separate cases.
Next, Armstrong lost a lawsuit yesterday in which he tried to block the USADA’s investigation. He can re-file, but it probably won’t work. The USADA proceedings are too far along and too commonplace for a judge to make an exception in Armstrong’s case.
All of that said, the USADA investigation is absolutely a double-jeopardy witch hunt against Armstrong.
Whatever he did or didn’t do, and whatever PEDs he took or didn’t take, he passed every drug test he was ever administered by a variety of cycling officials.
Hundreds of them. And that should be it. Game over.
If the governing agencies and anti-doping units didn’t catch him contemporaneously, it’s their own fault. But it’s unfair for Armstrong to be repeatedly re-indicted like this. Again, he passed the tests already. By the rules established when he was an active pro rider, he was clean and free of PEDs. If they happened to have caught him doping at the Ironman Triathlon this October, then, by all means, throw the book at him. But re-litigating the drug tests from 13+ years ago is absolutely an injustice. (By the way, the USADA has banned Armstrong from participating in the Ironman this year because of this investigation.)
Engaging in a valiant, noble effort to ensure that sports are clean and on the level is one thing, but getting fanatical about a partially retired athlete and the drug tests he took more than a decade ago is ridiculous.
And you know what? I really don’t like Armstrong. I admire his accomplishments on a bicycle, of course, and I admire what he’s done for cancer victims, but like a lot of celebrities, I think he’s a self-absorbed prick with no sense of humor (he continues to inexplicably block me on Twitter after I wrote a piece for The Huffington Post in which I defended him against the 2010 doping accusations from Floyd Landis). I believe that he used PEDs like every other cyclist has, but it doesn’t matter. Unlike other cyclists, he miraculously passed the drug tests, and so, by rights, case closed. Armstrong slipped between the raindrops.
He might be spitting in the faces of anti-doping officials with his arrogantly vocal denials, but that’s not a legal justification for putting him on trial every Summer for infractions for which he’s already been exonerated in countless drug tests — not to mention the abandoned Novitsky investigation earlier this year. The on-going denials from Armstrong in the face of incredulous officials and fans only makes Armstrong a dick — it shouldn’t make him guilty after hundreds of previous rulings of innocence.
This week at The Daily Banter, we looked at Mitt Romney's bold plan to tax the poor, and looked at a disturbing reason why Republicans believe in doing this. We asked why the GOP Presidential candidate wants to cut jobs for Fireman, teachers and the police, and unfortunately spend much of the week attacking Salon.com's Glenn Greenwald: Ben Cohen's piece here, Bob Cesca's here, and Chez Pazienza's here. Outside of politics, Chez Pazienza discussed the perplexing return disastrous former NBC boss Jeff Zucker to the television big leagues, and Bob Cesca wrote a fascinating piece about Lance Armstrong's suspension for alleged drug use.
By Bob Cesca: Every year around this time, you can count on seeing several things. High temperatures, fireworks stands and new doping allegations against Lance Armstrong. Seriously, it happens every year. This time, the United States Anti-Doping Agency (USADA), a semi-governmental body, has suspended Armstrong from both cycling and triathlon competitions and has begun an investigation into his alleged drug use between 1996 and 2005, as well as 2009 and 2010.
The Tour de France begins in a couple of weeks and usually during the Tour, or immediately preceding it, someone or something announces that they have incontrovertible evidence that Lance Armstrong used performance enhancing drugs (PEDs) during his tenure as the Greatest Athlete in the World.
For many years, I really believed that. Lance Armstrong was the Greatest Athlete in the World.
It might not seem like it to casual spectators or anyone who hasn’t watched a three-week bike race in France or Italy, but professional cycling is beyond what most humans can endure and therefore it’s arguably the most difficult professional sport. Cyclists are routinely killed during races. They travel at speeds close to that of motor vehicles for 150 to 200 miles per race. They ride in blazing heat, heart-stopping cold and snow, mud that coats their bodies from head to toe and often at altitudes that asphyxiate their respiratory systems.
During blazing hot European Summers, they race in “Grand Tours” like the Tour de France which last for 20 days. Imagine running a marathon every day for 20 days in a row on routes that include the thin air of the high Alps and Pyrenees. That’s the routine for Euro-professionals from the lowest no-name team helper to superstars like Armstrong. And the paycheck for a professional cyclist who wins a stage in the most challenging sporting event in the world, the Tour de France, is a ridiculously small fraction of what football and baseball players earn during an easy training camp day. But admission to watch a cycling race featuring the world’s most elite athletes is free. It’s a true “people’s sport” and that’s one of the many reasons why I love it.
Cycling, especially during the Grand Tours of Spain, Italy and France, is almost impossible to survive, much less win, without something to keep the human body from expiring. In the old days, riders drank beer or ate goat testicles to keep pedaling and to give them an edge over their competition.
The first winner of the Tour de France, Maurice Garin, was disqualified in the second edition of the Tour because he allegedly hopped a train in order to complete the hilariously difficult circuit of France. Other champions like Jacques Anquetil, the first cyclist to win the Tour five times, once said, “Leave me in peace; everybody takes dope.” The relatively quaint drugs of choice back then were cocaine and amphetamines, among others. Before Anquetil, Fausto Coppi, the first superstar of cycling, when asked whether riders took drugs to survive and win, replied, “Yes, and those who claim otherwise, it’s not worth talking to them about cycling.” Even today, and completely within the bounds of legality, bike riders use supplements that prevent lactic acid build-up; they use enough caffeine to kill a small village of Italian espresso addicts; and they use space-age equipment that weighs a fraction of what cyclists used just 20 years ago. All legal. What’s the difference between gulping down several very legal Five-Hour Energy drinks or riding a state of the art carbon-fiber bike and illegally transfusing your own red-blood-cell rich blood back into your body halfway through the Tour, as Lance has been accused of doing?
An argument can be made that the precedent of inhuman difficulty in cycling has mandated the use of drugs in order to survive the ordeal. By the time professional riders make their way through just half of the Tour, most of them have literally reached the point of anemia. After several years of intense training, professional bike riders bones become brittle resulting in shattered clavicles, and many resemble emaciated prisoners of war.
To observe this sport is to observe humans pushing their minds and bodies to the very limits of endurance, pain and survival — and so the metaphors to life itself are numerous. Lance Armstrong’s struggle took place in both spheres: on and off the bike.
More than any other competitor in the history of the sport, and regardless of the testicular cancer that ravaged one of his testicles and embedded itself in both his lungs and brain, Lance Armstrong’s body is designed for riding a bike faster and harder than anyone else. His heart is literally larger than most people his size, his resting heart rate is less than half a normal human’s, his blood-oxygen level is remarkably high, his ability to process lactic acid is greater than most people and his personality offers these miraculous talents the all-important gift of ambition and motivation.
So why would he need drugs?
Who knows the exact psychosis at play here, but if he, in fact, used a variety of PEDs running the spectrum of illegality — it wasn’t so much about basic survival, as with other riders. It was all about crushing the competition. And considering his heroic return from cancer, an American superstar in the Euro-centric world of cycling became a compellingly dramatic narrative and a way for cycling to captivate more sportsfans irrespective of whether they were newbies to the sport or long-time cycling enthusiasts. In other words, Armstrong’s story is probably the greatest thing to happen to cycling. Ever. And with that came untold riches and notoriety, not to mention his role as an inspirational hero to millions of cancer victims, regardless of their interest in Lance’s sport.
Ultimately, he didn’t really take any substance that most other cyclists of the 1990s and 2000s were using. Those decades were ripe with a drug called Erythropoietin (EPO). Normally prescribed for patients with anemia, cyclists use it to boost their red blood cell count and therefore their ability to transfer oxygen to their muscles. Tour winners like Bjarne Riis (1996) used so much EPO that his blood was practically as thick as syrup, which, of course, could have caused him to stroke out, had he not been in peak condition to physically pump that spooge through his veins.
In Lance’s case, however, any alleged EPO use was on top of physical talents that made him invincible. Plus, he had the financial support to potentially both evade the testing processes as well as to receive the most effective and precise treatments possible. Like the income inequality that’s being debated in politics, there’s income inequality in sports, too. The teams and athletes with the largest wallets get the best equipment and, potentially in Armstrong’s case, the best PEDs delivered in ways that are undetectable by anti-doping officials. This is brutally unfair and unsportsmanlike to say the least.
That said, as a cycling fan, I’m actually kind of ambivalent about all of this — as I’m sure other sportsfans are about baseball, football or Olympic events. On one hand, I want there to be a lightning rod hero like Lance Armstrong in the sport, attracting new fans and more money to support the future of the races I love to watch every Summer. I want those dramatic Lance victories I’ve watched over and over again to be genuine and authentic. I want the sport to be pure and drug-free. I want every athlete to compete on his or her own physical merits and without chemical enhancements. I want to feel like if I trained hard enough I might be able to hang onto the wheel of a professional for a couple of miles before my less-talented body gives out. I want the sport to be pure and popular.
But, on the other hand, sometimes those two things are mutually exclusive — “pure” and “popular.” Maybe sports — any sport — can’t be both pure and popular. Maybe the level of competition in cycling, football and baseball has exceeded human capabilities. Maybe it’s the drugs — human growth hormone, EPO, steroids — that have made modern sports compelling and exciting to the point of no return. Maybe the egg can’t go back inside the performance-enhanced shell. Baseball was dying a slow death before the players beefed up and began hitting record numbers of home runs. Maybe if you take the drugs out of cycling or baseball, spectators will walk away from the lack of pulse-pounding homers, breakaways and unlikely heroes overcoming unbelievable odds. I don’t want that. I love cycling too much to see it fade away. At the same time, I hate the inequality of doping. The richest teams get the best drugs and can evade testing more easily, leaving the less wealthy players at a perpetual disadvantage. It’s unfair and wrong. It’s cheating. So what do we do as sports fans, whether our favorite athlete is Lance Armstrong or Barry Bonds?
A polling outfit once asked elite Olympic athletes whether they’d take a drug that would kill them within five years but would assure them a gold medal. 85 percent of those athletes replied “yes.” 85 percent would die for a gold medal. As a mere mortal, it’s difficult to comprehend such a view of life and physical ambition. To a lesser extent, however, I know of rock stars whose best work was created under the influence of drugs. I know guys who have no problem supplementing their “low testosterone” or their ability to sustain a solid erection using drugs that are advertised on MSNBC. And, of course, Lance Armstrong and others need breakthrough cancer drugs and treatments in order to survive. If sports are a metaphor for life, drugs might seem to fit into that relationship.
George Carlin once suggested that literally everything comes from nature — even plastic milk cartons. Everything comes from some pre-existing element in the universe and is therefore natural. Perhaps the universe was always supposed to include plastic milk cartons, Carlin said. Likewise, perhaps dramatic and competitive sports (and, yeah, even golf) were always supposed to include chemical enhancements. So maybe the only way around the mystery and legal wranglings and even jail terms, athletes and sporting officials should just come clean and admit that all athletes are enhanced — be they with carbon fiber, coffee, Advil, EPO or whatever. Until then, there will always be a lingering doubt and an irritating lack of trust about the authenticity of our most beloved athletes. But if you’re like me, when the most exciting moments are playing out on television, the drug factor is almost entirely forgotten in the fog of excitement. Sports are innocent enough and inconsequential enough to allow for the suspension of disbelief and a wee bit of healthy delusion in an overly serious world. I really love those moments and, like a drug user, I’m hungry for more.