Friday, 8 February 2013

How are the mighty fallen ..

A sports writer for Yahoo!NZ, writing under the pseudonym of The Man in the Stands,  joined the feeding frenzy around Lance Armstrong’s professional corpse. 

In a piece that, even by Yahoo!NZ standards, was remarkable for its emotive hyperbole, the writer expressed his disgust, shock, horror and revulsion at the - cowardly, cold-blooded, lying, deceiving, stealing, swindling, pilfering, cheating, con artist, ragbag, scumbag, monster. 

All that in a 440-word blog,

Unlike a lot of people who are queuing up to kick his corpse, I’ve never had a lot of time for Armstrong, but I refuse to join the likes of TMITS in baying for what they call 'justice' – but which, in truth, is vengeance. They want to see Armstrong suffer and they justify that by claiming that they feel sympathy for his 'victims' and outrage at his dishonesty. The truth is they’re full of anger, which prevents them from thinking and creates the potential for them to behave as badly as the object of their ire has done.
Armstrong’s offending is not unique; it’s not even unusual. He's the product of the confluence of massive corporate sponsorship of cycling (which started with American cyclist Greg LeMond) and European cycling organizations that wanted to break into the rich US market. 
Armstrong was in the first-class carriage of a fast moving gravy train but he wasn’t the driver and he didn’t own the locomotive. He was able to do what he did because his corporate sponsors and sports officials turned a blind eye to what was going on and they did so because his high-profile success was making them a load of money.
Nor is road cycling the only corporate-funded gravy train in professional sport and it’s far from being the richest. You have only to look at golf, tennis, football and basketball to see that Armstrong’s wealth and his attitudes are anything but unusual.
Armstrong’s an elite and extremely skilled athlete in a demanding and very dangerous team sport; the use of drugs, plus his organizational ability and obsessive competitive drive, made him a phenomenal athlete. 
Had he been content with equaling the tour wins record he may have got away with it, but celebrity and power are notorious corrupters and he came to believe his own ‘narrative’. He also hurt and angered enough people on the way up for his fall from grace to be emotional and very public. But, what made him behave badly is a quality common to all elite athletes - a single-minded determination to win. It is a small step from single-minded to ruthless.  
When Floyd Landis won Stage 17 of the 2006 Tour de France, anyone who knew cycling could tell he’d taken something and, given the way he was riding, that it was most likely to be testosterone. He went from riding like a stunned mullet the day before, to riding like a man possessed. That was incredibly dumb. 
Armstrong was clever and systematic in his use of banned substances and procedures, just like he was in his training and his team organization. The training systems and procedures Michele Ferrari developed (EPO use aside) and which Armstrong utilized, and Armstrong’s race tactics, are now part and parcel of how professional cycling works. And Armstrong built on the American revolution in team organization and application of technology that was started by Greg LeMond.
Did Armstrong force his team to use banned substances? In the sense that, to be of use to him they had to perform to his drug-enhanced level, that’s probably true. But, they did not have to stay with him and if they did so, it was because the rewards, in terms of money and professional profile, were great enough to stifle medical or ethical concerns. 

What of the claims that Armstrong ‘destroyed’ people? 

Tyler Hamilton is doing the reformed character bit with his best-selling confessional book and appearances on the after-dinner speaker circuit. 

The most high-profile accuser is Betsy Andreu who speaks often and emotively about Armstrong having tried to destroy her family. However, Frankie Andreu worked with Armstrong for years after he and Betsy say they heard him admit to using banned substances in 1996, and they all remained close friends. The split came after the Andreus didn’t get the rewards they expected, first a contract renewal and then a Directeur Sportif job.  

In an interview with Sports Illustrated recently, when Andreu was asked if she felt proud about her moral stance, she said “Yeah, I get that. But sometimes it feels like there's no profit in the truth, right? Would you rather have Lance's money right now, or my reputation?” 

Betsy Andreu may be as hooked on celebrity as Armstrong. She is also an absolutist and is as driven and obsessive as he is but is emotional and an ardent Catholic, while Armstrong hides his emotions and is an atheist. If he suddenly found God, perhaps America and Betsy Andreu would find it easier to forgive him.

Andreu said that she knew Floyd Landis’ Christian upbringing would lead him to confessing his sins but the path to that confession took a remarkably circuitous route via a book called "Positively False," solicitation of legal funds from his fans, and attacking Greg LeMond

In 2010 Landis filed a lawsuit against Armstrong and others to force repayment of the $30m+ in government sponsorship of the US Postal team. Landis (eventually) admitted to doping while riding for the team which he now claims ‘defrauded’ the US government, a fraud that he benefitted from, and he now stands to make $millions by suing Armstrong and his financial backers, for that fraud. If successful, the action will give Landis 15-25% of the $300m if the U.S. Department of Justice joins the suit and takes the lead role, or 25-30% if he pursues the case alone. This is a travesty of whistle blowing legislation but perhaps he’ll donate the proceeds to charity. 

If Landis, or any of the other post-hoc bean-spillers had serious moral scruples about doping they would have distanced themselves from Armstrong.  If Armstrong is personally to blame for what he did, so are they.  The only people who have a right to be aggrieved are the completely clean riders who might otherwise have won stages or tours, and the lower order of domestiques who could reasonably claim to have been pressured into doping.

Armstrong’s greatest mistake was to deny his offending past the point where the denials had any credibility. His nemesis, David Walsh, has been on anti-doping crusade for thirteen years and his pursuit of Armstrong became as obsessive as Armstrong’s pursuit of power and success. Walsh was right but there is a strong vein of moralism running through all this and it suits that narrative to cast Armstrong in the role of a ruthless Machiavellian mastermind. It also makes for great press and television and now the only way he can slide out from under it is to turn supergrass like Landis - or find God.

Professional sports people and those who back them always skirt the rule boundaries and the rewards, in terms of money and celebrity, are now so enormous that many take the risk of doping. 
The US Olympic cycling team used blood doping in 1984 and it may be endemic in many sports that have not yet had the scrutiny to which road cycling has been subjected. The reason doping became endemic in road cycling is partly due to the physical demands of the sport itself and partly the pressures imposed by corporate sponsorship.
Before we all drown in the sea of smug, sanctimonious twaddle that is pouring out of the media, let’s consider where the pressure to use performance-enhancing drugs comes from and where performance enhancement starts. It’s ok to use a hyperbaric chamber and to train at altitude but not to use EPO, which has the same effects. 

It can be argued that the prophylactic use of non-steroidal anti-inflammatories enhances performance in that it allows athletes to push their body beyond its normal limits in competition. NSAIDs can be bought over the counter and team doctors hand them out during events and matches, despite the fact that the drugs are a metabolic and circulatory time bomb and especially dangerous if the person taking them is dehydrated. Logically, NSAIDs should be banned in sporting competition just as they are banned in horse racing. 
I’m not excusing Armstrong but I think the greater fault lies with corporate sponsorship of sport and its branding mania. Commentators should reserve some of their hyperbole for Nike, Trek, Oakley, Shimano, the TV networks and all the other corporations that made $billions out of Armstrong and those that are making $billions out of other elite sportspeople.

I reserve my pity and concern for the workers in poorly regulated countries, who are paid a pittance to produce shoddy commodities that mythologized athletes are grossly overpaid to sell to a dumb or uncaring public. 

In that sense, we, the consumers of those products, are as much to blame as athletes who take shortcuts. If we really cared about ‘cheating’ we’d stop buying the products that encourage it.