Lance Armstrong Tells the Truth About Drugs and the Spirit of Sport

Lance Armstrong lied about doping. He finally admitted using erythropoietin (EPO), testosterone and blood transfusions. Armstrong has since been criticized as one of the biggest liars in sports history. But Armstrong is no different than many other cyclists when it comes to the use of performance-enhancing drugs.

Thousands of professional cyclists have doped. And they too have lied about it. The sensationalized confession by Armstrong to Oprah Winfrey in a 2-1/2 hour interview was anything but extraordinary. It simply added one more steroid admission to the hundreds that have come before it.

Athletes dope. Always have. Always will. And they lie about it. This is practically a prerequisite for participation in elite sports.

Why were people surprised to hear the truth about Armstrong’s doping?

The explanation involves a far bigger deception than the one told by Armstrong. It is the lie perpetuated by anti-doping crusaders, by sports journalists, by fans and by the general public. It’s the notion that Armstrong’s doping was an aberration, an exception, an oddity in the world of sports. It is the romanticized vision of sports competition free of doping. Given that practically everyone is promoting this fairy-tale, it is no wonder that people believe it.

Many people are angry at Armstrong for his deception. Some of that anger is misplaced. They should also be upset by the lies told to them concerning the nature of sports competition. The idea of “clean sport” is a nice story. But it is fiction.

Ironically, before the Lance Armstrong scandal exploded into the public’s consciousness, Armstrong and the United States Anti-Doping Agency (USADA) were both promoting the same distorted vision of sport.

Armstrong, on the one hand, attacked anyone who suggested that drug use was rampant in cycling. He repeatedly pointed to the hundreds of drug tests that he passed with flying colors as proof that not only did he not dope but anti-doping testing was effective at keeping the sport “clean”.

USADA and related anti-doping agencies also promoted the idea that their drug-testing protocols were making a significant difference in sport.

Armstrong and USADA were both wrong. They were each telling their own respective version of the same lie.

Now, Armstrong is telling the truth.

Armstrong gave some honest insight into the world of elite sport but most viewers rejected it as symptomatic of some type of moral defect.

When Oprah ask Armstrong his feelings about doping, he admitted that he did not feel bad about, find it wrong or consider it cheating. This was incredibly honest. No doubt it was an unpopular response. And many would rather hear the same disingenuous answers given by many other “disgraced” athletes to explain their doping.

Armstrong: “I don’t want this issue of performance-enhancers to… again… to me that was… We’re going to pump up our tires. We’re going to put water in our bottles. And, oh yeah, that too was going to happen. That was it.”

Winfrey: “Was it a big deal to you? Did it feel wrong?”

Armstrong: “At the time? No.”

Winfrey: “It did not even feel wrong?”

Armstrong: “No. Scary.”

Winfrey: “Did you feel bad about it?”

Armstrong: “No. Even scarier.”

Winfrey: “Did you feel in any way that you were cheating?”

Armstrong: “No. Scariest.”

Winfrey: “YOU did not feel you were cheating taking banned drugs?”

Armstrong: “At the time, no.”

Winfrey: “At the time, no?”

Armstrong: “I looked up… I had this exercise because I kept hearing I’m a drug cheat, a cheat, a cheat, a cheater and I went and looked up the definition of cheat,” he added a moment later. “And the definition is to gain an advantage on a rival or foe that they don’t have. I didn’t view it that way. I viewed it as a level playing field.”

Armstrong may feel remorse about doping now. He, like most athletes, simply believed that doping was ‘no big deal’ while they were active in the sports subculture. It was part of their identity as an athlete. Doping is a normative behavior in elite sports. Once they’re somewhat removed, either by choice (retirement) or by force (doping suspension), they may feel compelled (socialized) to conform to the general public’s misinformed view of sport. They move from a culture where doping is the norm to one where it is (supposedly) not accepted.

Dr. Jay Coakley, Professor Emeritus at the University of Colorado in Colorado Springs, understands the doping culture of elite sports better than most people. Unfortunately, he is not consulted frequently enough by journalists. Coakley has critically examined the doping culture of elite sports. He uses what he calls “sociological imagination” to understand why athletes use steroids and performance-enhancing drugs. He examines how individual biographies interact with current social and cultural factors.

In a 2010 interview with the New York Times, Dr. Coakley explained that doping was not an issue of morality.

“Deciding to use performance-enhancing substances and methods has nothing to do with lack of morality,” Mr. Coakley said. “It has to do with normative structure of elite sport, and the athlete’s commitment to his identity as an athlete.”

Coakley’s textbook “Sports in Society: Issues and Controversies” described the “normative structure of elite sport” in greater detail:

“Research also suggests that substance use is not caused by defective socialization or a lack of moral character among athletes; in fact, it often occurs among the most dedicated, committed, and hard-working athletes in sports. At this point, it appears that most substance use and abuse is tied to an athlete’s uncritical acceptance of the norms of the sport ethic.”

“[A]thletes use performance-enhancing substances not because they lack character or are victims of evil or exploitative coaches, but because they uncritically accept and overconform to the norms of the sport ethic in an effort to remain in sports and be accepted as athletes. This is why tougher rules and increased testing have not been effective. Moral panics over drug use and oversimplified solutions will not stop athletes from using substances that they see as necessary to maintain their identities and continue experiencing the joy and excitement of playing elite sports.”

Of course, this is at odds with the popular characterizations of sport promoted by anti-doping crusaders. Unfortunately, their definition has been uncritically accepted by  most sports journalists. When it comes to the issue of doping in sports, journalists are much more likely to consult the United States Anti-Doping Agency (USADA) or the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) for “insight” into doping in sports.

Now, that USADA has exposed Armstrong’s doping denials as a lie, they have also exposed themselves and the utter failure of the anti-doping movement to ensure “clean” sports competition.

Lance Armstrong has been forced to tell the truth.

His truth is their truth.

So where is USADA’s confession?

After publishing the “Reasoned Decision” against Lance Armstrong, USADA is painfully aware that its vision of “clean sport” never existed at any time during the existence of the anti-doping agency. It is also faced with overwhelming evidence that drug testing has been a failure.

Will anti-doping crusaders face reality? Or will they use Armstrong as a scapegoat and return to the promotion of a sports fairy-tale?

Lance Armstrong admits using EPO, testosterone and blood transfusions. Photo credit: Millard Baker

Lance Armstrong admits using EPO, testosterone and blood transfusions. Photo credit: Millard Baker


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