Wednesday, 23 January 2013

Lance

I've been thinking it over, and I have decided I have nothing nice to say about Lance Armstrong. I once believed his story; the one about coming back from cancer and winning the tour. It is a true story, after all. But facts, alas, remain boring facts and say nothing about we should what to do with the information.

For instance, if I told you someone died, this would not in itself a shock, for we all know people die every day. More information is needed. How old were they? Did they have heart trouble or inoperable cancer? If I told you they were murdered, this would now grab your attention. If I said they were someone I knew, this would certainly lead to a lot of questions, and would certainly result in you stopping in your footsteps. Therefore details matter.

If I told you I won a bike race, then I'd be congratulated. If I told you I won it by using a car, or a shortcut, against toddlers, or there was no finish line, this new information would eliminate all respect for my story. More specifically, you'd be correct in stating I was not even in the bike race if I was driving. Such a simple and obvious fault. Likewise if a race takes place over a circuit (as in running or skiing), cutting a shortcut for yourself is not only frowned upon, if discovered leads to an absolute disqualification. There is no mention of your racing time, no mention of how fast you went before you cut around the course. No, just a DSQ listed beside your name.

I got a DSQ once, in grade 10 in XC skiing. I was at OFSAA, and accidentally took a wrong turn thanks to a confused official, who thought I was not in the race, pointing for me to turn a sharp left. I obeyed, and ended up taking a longer -not shorter- route to the finish, another official noticed and had my name scratched. I was pretty sad finding out that I had not even been counted in the final results. Otherwise I had a decent race going on in me that day. But according to the strict rules, I had not followed procedure.

I have heard it said it is impossible to make a global definition of a game. If you say a game is for fun, then I can show you war games that are no fun. If you say a game involves at least two players, I can point to all manner of video games and Solitaire. If a game must be won or lost, I show you Spin the Bottle. But there is one thing they all have in common: there is always an agreed-upon set of rules. In the "game" of war, even here there is the implicit rule after enough people are killed someone must forfeit. Terrorism does not quite obey this rule, but I would argue terrorism by definition is when sides have not agreed upon the rules, and the "sides" themselves are poorly defined and therefore is not a game (unlike, say, Waterloo).

I digress, with reason. Point is the use of drugs in sports is not morally wrong, in itself. If everyone agrees up front that one should win at all costs, then so be it, for that particular sport. Let the Tour de France, or some track or field event, become DeathRace 2000. Do anything to win, or whatever to yourself (We seem to frown on hurting/killing others to get ahead in sport, so I guess that option is still out unless counting boxing or tackling in football). Once cyclists or runners, etc agree they are willing to enhance on any self-inflicted level, then perhaps doping is an option. At least that's the excuse you hear more than any other, that "everyone else is doing it". If rampant cheating is truly the case, why should we not agree that drugs are available for all, in full view of spectators? Post-race interviews could involve bragging about their cocktails. I'd like to watch someone dope in real time. This why I love the documentary "Bigger, Stronger, Faster", as it in fact does show people doping in full view, and with candid honesty. I guess since these drugs are illegal they are less candid. But hell, there is no shortage of people candid about smoking pot, an also-illegal substance.

I also understand there is no reason to believe taking EPO or testosterone will cause your body irreparable harm. It's irrelevant to argue the hard done by doping. I'm not interested in citing studies but acknowledging those who take enhancement drugs are only adding single-digit percent gains to their performances. They are not necessarily losing life years from these dosages, though perhaps by pushing their bodies to new heights the odd heart attack is more frequent. Otherwise there is a small gain, just enough. Just like the argument of the illegality of doping, the danger of doping is a red herring. Neither reason is the real reason why drug users don't talk about it; they keep silent because they know they're not playing by the rules, hence upsetting the definition of the game.

Consider this also: why are there no athletes performing on their own, showing what can be done with unlimited drugs? I'd like to see someone make a youtube video of themselves doping to high heaven, then running a 9.5s 100m dash. The reason you don't see rogue athletes is because although drugs instilling a sense of goofy confidence, the do less than being part of an organized training system. Most sports don't let you play if you're candid about drugs. Some exceptions I know of are powerlifting, baseball, and football, where the players do play at all costs, and the fans have more or less decided the "sport" is a freak show operation, an occasion to drink beer and think "better you than me". After watching the pros at work, a real sport -or game for that matter- is one that makes you want to go out and play it yourself.

Lance helped turn the TDF into a "better you than me" kind of sport. Toughness, which can be admirable, had been replaced by pure basic stimulus-response. Worse yet, I took this quote from Lance's book It's not about the bike to illustrate how completely dishonest he was in the game of racing:

In a series of raids on team cars, French police found trunkloads of EPO and anabolic steroids. Team members and officials were thrown in French jails, everyone was under suspicion, and the cyclists were furious at the tactics used by authorities. Of the 21 teams that began the race, only 14 finished. One team was expelled and the other six quit in protest. Doping is an unfortunate fact of life in cycling, or any other endurance sport for that matter. Inevitably, some teams and riders feel it's like nuclear weapons–that they have to do it to stay competitive within the peloton. I never felt that way, and certainly after chemo the idea of putting anything foreign in my body was especially repulsive. Overall, I had extremely mixed feelings about the 1998 Tour: I sympathized with the riders caught in the firestorm, some of whom I knew well, but I also felt the Tour would be a more fair event from then on. 

To quote a New Yorker article by Michael Specter, "speaking of apologies: sorry France, you were right all along. The guy’s a creep".

I like to think of every sport as a separate country. Each chooses the rules to follow. Some sports involve more cheating than others. What always surprises me is how little drug use is found in swimming. You would expect swimming to be tainted with steroids but instead I find swimmers the most technically minded people in the world. Read Swimming Fastest to see a level of science not found in many sports. Distance runners have been pretty good about obeying the rules, but sprinters less so. Oddly enough sprint cycling appears cleaner than endurance kind. To me, at least, this means each sport can be individually faulted. And to effect a cure the sport must be ruthless in changing its image, both bottom-up and top-down. Example: When I ran XC for McGill, casually we (the guys) agreed -after hearing about doping in CIS football- that if anyone on our team showed evidence of cheating, we'd call them out and ostracize them for good. It never had to happen, but I would have done it.

In that vein, Lance needs to disappear for good. Casting him to oblivion is the only thing that would matter to him, and would be a way to restart the potential of cycling to be interesting (The sport can be interesting, but only if the victories matter). Were Lance a fellow athlete, I would call him out (and consider changing sports). Were he a family member I would not come to his funeral. Hopefully, in the future, his will be an unmarked grave.

Sports is interesting like many things are interesting because we hope to learn something from them. If sports is about watching people get hurt and enjoying the feeling, we have a problem. It has to be more than about pushing through the pain. Smart sports planning is listening to the pain, and treating it like valuable information. Sports is about symbolism, and seeing the best personalities shine through under the hardest circumstances. Sports is a of things; winning is only interesting if it's both beautiful AND meaningful (for instance if Ussain Bolt runs an amazing 100m against a field of women, it may be pretty to watch by hardly meaningful as a "victory"). Sport: so simple, yet so easy to fuck up.

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