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.