I’ve never been all that conflicted about doping in sports.
This probably makes me an amoral, if not evil, American to some.
As I have watched Tour de France cyclists pedal high into the Alps over the years, I have thought to myself more than once: “If they’re not taking something, they’re crazy.”
Before there were anabolic steroids, riders downed all kinds of substances to gain a competitive boost, if not an advantage. Including strychnine.
But later this week, these historical realities will be drowned out by a new round of outrage that one of America’s greatest sporting heroes was a “cheater.”
As I write this, Lance Armstrong is taping his interview with Oprah Winfrey, supposedly confessing to doping months after America’s taxpayer-funded anti-doping agency dropped its load of documents, and as has he continued years of denials. Until now.
While the interview with the queen of America’s confessional culture won’t air until Thursday, there’s already plenty of media pontification that figures to go over the top later in the week.
Former Armstrong defender Buzz Bissinger “came clean” in his Monday column in The Daily Beast, alleging he was duped.
I also anticipate the interview will include plenty of “contrived contrition” — the speculation is Armstrong is doing this to earn U.S. Anti-Doping Agency reinstatement to compete in sanctioned Ironman competitions — but I’m not buying that Bissinger or anyone who feels betrayed by him was “played.”
As I have been blogging here for some time, so many cycling fans, Americans and yes, media representatives, have chosen to look the other way, failed to understand the history of the sport or exist in a state of denial about what’s been known in the cycling community for decades.
Bissinger, Rick Reilly and others played themselves, easily taken by a great American storyline: Ambitious young athlete battles cancer, wins seven Tour de France titles in a sport dominated by Europeans, serves as an inspiration to other cancer patients and young athletes, etc., etc.
The purity of this storyline, we now fret, was just too good to be true. That Armstrong is alleged to have bullied, threatened and intimidated others makes this fresh reality even uglier. It’s easy to complain about being lied to now.
But it is precisely because of our Puritanical culture — where the redemptive forum furnished by Oprah Winfrey culminates the spectacle of a desperate, fallen celebrity begging for another chance, if not forgiveness — that we have arrived at this point.
When Congress criminalized anabolic steroids in the wake of the Ben Johnson revelations and opened another wasteful front on the War on Drugs, demonizing the use of these substances became particularly necessary for those pushing for “clean” sports. But as I noted regarding the Baseball Hall of Fame voting last week, some of the giant figures of the game’s Golden Age were less-than-secret pill-poppers, a fact conveniently ignored by absolutists who couldn’t summon a vote for Barry Bonds, Roger Clemens and others.
This stance of zero tolerance has increased over the past 20 or so years, as the Lords of Baseball have been shamed into enforcing anti-doping measures. Last week’s announcement about HGH testing came of their own accord. Whether this is a PR move or something more substantive is a topic for another post, as is the depth of the fever pitch over Armstrong’s doping.
The latter says something about our society beyond feeling “duped” by Armstrong. I suspect it’s our inability, or unwillingness, to have a healthy, adult conversation about steroids that isn’t as black-and-white as the anti-doping zealots, and their true believers in the press, want us to believe.
Now Armstrong is going to be the perpetual butt of jokes, and blamed for bringing down a sport he once helped give unprecedented stature. I don’t mean to be flip about any of this; he’s in a hell of a lot of serious legal and financial trouble (Dave Zirin rounds this up very well) from which he may never fully recover. It would be too easy to say that if we didn’t make steroids use to be such a reprehensible crime (which it isn’t even in its strict legal sense now) none of this would have happened. There would have been nothing to lie, or bully others, about.
But as long as influential journalists remain fully taken by tales of ethically pure athletes, driven only by the love of competition, the desire to extinguish the culture of “dirty” athletes and their dastardly deeds will never be quenched.
The most insufferable, self-righteous examplar of this, Irish journalist David Walsh, is milking Armstrong’s comedown especially hard. He’s been the media’s Elliott Ness figure all along, and gives himself much of the credit for what’s come to pass. Walsh (more on him tomorrow) and his editors couldn’t resist reprinting one of his triumphal it’s really all about me columns over the weekend, as he positions himself to profit — literally — from the media schadenfreude over Lance Armstrong that isn’t going away anytime soon.