Thursday night’s stunning news that Lance Armstrong is giving up his fight (per ESPN.com) against the U.S. Anti Doping Agency once again illustrates the difficulty of being a sports fan in the age of high-tech doping.
As a lifelong sports fan, I know one of the attractions to it has been the mostly binary nature of sports. You win or you lose, in most cases. There are few blurry lines, few gray areas in which to get lost.
But the prevalence of performance-enhancing drugs in so many sports has, if not actually changed that binary reality, at least made the perception of it much more unclear.
Some of the best and brightest athletes of a generation have had their legacies tarnished, their reputations pillaged and their fans left to wonder if the feats they so admired were even real.
Armstrong’s story was so very compelling, so very moving. This was a man who left a cancer treatment facility in 1997 and less than two years later basked in the glory of winning one of the toughest tests of endurance sport has to offer when he won the 1999 Tour de France (per Washington Post via Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, July 26, 1999, page 49 of 93).
Armstrong went on to win the Tour de France six more times in succession, capturing a record seven titles in cycling’s most grueling test—the most ever.
Beyond that, Armstrong launched The Lance Armstrong Foundation, most well-known for the seemingly ubiquitous yellow wrist bands with the “Livestrong” inscription. The foundation claims to have raised nearly $500 million to assist cancer patients and research efforts since it was founded in 1997 (per MarketWire.com press release of Aug. 23, 2012).
The USADA acted quickly after Armstrong announced Thursday that he would no longer fight the charges of doping, announcing it will strip Armstrong of his seven Tour de France titles and impose a lifetime ban.
Armstrong could also be subject to being stripped of the bronze medal he won at the Sydney Olympics in 2000 and of titles he won at other events. Beyond that, he may also be liable to repay any cash earnings from those victories.
In a black-and-white view, Armstrong admitted he was guilty. Innocent people continue to fight against those who wrongly accuse them, right?
One of the prevailing lessons of sports is that there are winners and there are losers, and those who choose to concede are the worst kind of losers because they are quitters. That previous sentence shows the inherent flaws behind applying the binary, win-or-lose mentality to real-world situations.
There is no scoreboard in life. You can’t glance up at the Jumbotron for affirmation that you’re either ahead or behind.
While the USADA is treating Armstrong’s decision as a tacit admission that he’s guilty of the charges the agency has been pursuing, it really isn’t that simple.
Do I believe Armstrong doped? Without any positive testing results, any answer is purely speculative and there are, to date, no positive test results that have ever been recorded against Armstrong.
But at the same time, in a sport where the list of doping cases is so extensive the website BikeMontt.com has a 48-page PDF available for download that details those cases through June 2011, it stretches credulity to think that someone not participating in doping could so utterly dominate those athletes who were.
It’s the uncomfortable gray area I referenced earlier. Deductive reasoning pits itself against the binary, win-lose, mindset of sports and many fans are left with a wide-ranging array of emotions that cover a spectrum from anger to dejection, from disbelief to disillusionment.
I know I, as a lifelong sports fan, still desperately want to believe that the competitions I observe are legitimate, that in the end the best athlete or group of athletes wins. But talk of blood doping and steroids and undetectable designer drugs chips away at that belief, bit by bit.
It is this rising cynicism that creates an environment under which a national sports journalist such as Skip Bayless can raise the notion that Derek Jeter may be using some chemical enhancement (per New York Daily News) with no more evidence than the fact Jeter is enjoying one of the best years of his career at age 38.
These are the times in which we live as sports fans in the 21st century. But before we pine away for the good old days of sports, it’s important to keep some perspective.
As long as there has been money, pride or ego involved, there has always been some cheating in sports. To deny this basic fact is to deny the dark side of human nature altogether, an exercise that is naïve at best.
Sports fans may want to look at the sports they follow so passionately as a binary, win-or-lose proposition but the undeniable fact is that it has never been that simple.
Regardless of how much we wish it was so.