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By Matthew Handley
‘This is my body, and I can do whatever I want to it. I can push it. Study it. Tweak it. Listen to it. Everybody wants to know what I’m on. What am I on? I’m on my bike busting my ass six hours a day. What are you on?’ Lance Armstrong 2005
‘There comes a point in every man’s life when he has to say, ‘Enough is enough.’ For me, that time is now’ Lance Armstrong, 2012
The contrast in these quotes from the 7-time Tour de France winner is stark. For someone whom, after being diagnosed with testicular cancer in 1996, fought back to become one of the greatest athletes in history, to concede defeat to anything is startling.
To refuse to fight charges of doping any more, levelled at him by the US anti-doping agency (USADA) in June 2012 and pursued ferociously since, is truly shocking. Not only one of the most decorated individual athletes in history, but also one of the good guys of sport, stands accused of having his legacy shattered, and has just rolled over.
Armstrong’s cessation of contestation is coupled with an unrelenting plea of innocence, but suggests that he has grown weary of the ‘nonsense’ accusations. But to meet one nonsense with another is not an actual argument; USADA enacts exacting standards before being able to pass guilty verdicts and strip titles. Moreover, it’s not in the interest of any body associated with sports to fling around accusations against powerful and successful competitors if they are frivolous; to do so diminishes both the integrity of the sport and of the body making the claim. The insistence of USADA implies that these accusations have substance, an implication given more credence by Armstrong’s announcement. A refusal to fight charges certainly implies guilt, but whilst Armstrong is able to cast a certain level of doubt upon the integrity of the proceedings, he may be able to hang on to his legacy; even if titles are stripped from him, in the eyes of some, he may still be able to lay claim to greatness. But what will his legacy at large be?
USADA claims he has used banned substances for over 15 years, including the blood-booster erythropoietin (EPO), steroid and blood transfusions. Let’s be clear on the efficacy of these methods; they’re not Mario Kart power-ups, which could make one of us into an Olympic gold-medallist. Nonetheless, by increasing the flow of red blood cells in the bloodstream, more oxygen can be transferred to muscles, which increases athletes’ endurance; and in a contest in which fine margins can make the difference, this confers a non-trivial advantage upon the guilty party when compared to a ‘clean’ athlete. It is cheating of the most odious kind. In the same way that attempting to select friendly officials for matches probably didn’t alone give Juventus the titles they were stripped of in the fallout of the Calciopolli scandal, but nonetheless was a grave act which damaged the integrity of the competition in the short and medium term and necessitated serious punishment, Lance Armstrong should have all of the titles he won during the accused period removed from him. It is the only way in which cycling can emerge from this unpleasant episode with any semblance of dignity and respectability remaining. And stringent doping tests and an incredible attitude of scepticism must remain whilst the spectre of doping continues to haunt the sport.
Bradley Wiggins, this year’s Tour de France winner and all-round legend, responded angrily to a French journalist suggesting that some might claim Team Sky’s dominance on the tour’s seventh stage might be down to drug-taking, calling such questioners ‘fucking wankers’ who sought to ‘justif[y] their own bone-idleness because they can’t ever imagine applying themselves to do anything in their lives’. Coming off the back of an incredibly tough race, one can understand Wiggins’ exasperation; but an unconditional acceptance of apparent brilliance opens the room for sport’s guard to drop. At the point at which that happens, genuine sporting excellence risks being substituted and eclipsed by cunning and sophistication of technology. As such, for the time being, Wiggins, Bolt, and Ye Shiwen, should have to spend a couple of hours extra in the locker room after their astounding triumphs. Whilst it may be a nuisance to them, it’s the only way we can continue to guarantee that sport serves to recognise feats of mind and matter, and not of medicine.