Lance Armstrong’s only sin was getting caught

A new BBC documentary on the rise and fall of Lance Armstrong, the former poster boy for sporting excellence who suffered a vertiginous fall from grace over revelations that his spectacular achievements as a racing cyclist were underpinned by extensive doping, reminds that there remains a vast gulf between knowledge and understanding in human affairs.

In this respect, the furore that was whipped up over his exposure as a ‘drugs cheat’ in 2012 reflected more the mass ignorance that surrounds the issue of drugs in sport than it did the integrity (or lack thereof) of Lance Armstrong. In other words the surprise was not that someone like Lance Armstrong was using performance enhancing drugs throughout his career, the surprise would have been if he had not.

The male hormone, testosterone, determines an individual’s natural level of strength, muscle mass and aggression. The natural level of testosterone produced by a male in his peak years of physical development — from 18–21 — is around 6 mg per day. When it comes to growth hormone, essential for muscular development, a healthy immune system, bone density, growth, and cell regeneration, an average male’s levels drop off around the age of 30 by 1–2 percent per year, and by age 40 a man is naturally producing half of what he was at age 20. It is this decrease in GH that drives the ageing process.

Athletes are not average people. The stress they place on their muscular and skeletal systems, the demands placed on their cardiovascular system, and the impact this has on their central nervous system, is monumental. The ability to do so on a regular basis and recover makes the use of performance enhancing drugs, such as synthetic testosterone in its various forms, or growth hormone, not just desirable but essential for those whose aim is to compete at the highest level.

When it comes to Lance Armstrong the Tour de France, which he won seven times, is an event that requires those competing to smash through natural human limits of endurance, speed, and power time after time. Consequently it was not surprising to learn that the use of drugs and blood doping was prevalent by its top competitors.

Just on the level of formal logic the stakes involved in professional sports — millions of dollars in prize money and endorsements for those at the top — fuels a win at all costs ethos, mirroring the emphasis on success prevalent in society at large and which sits at the apex of our cultural values.

Many serious athletes will view taking performance enhancing drugs as levelling the playing field, and within the closed world of competition, with its own values and understanding of what it takes to win, it is not considered a big deal. Indeed, as Armstrong himself stated during his interview with Oprah, taking PEDs was as natural to him as putting air on his tires or water in his water bottle.

Viewed in this light I believe it would be shocking to find elite athletes who don’t or have never used them rather than those who do or have. The challenge for those athletes who do is to remain one step ahead of advances in testing — though there are still sports, pro boxing for example, in which the testing regime remains lax.

Ultimately, Lance Armstrong’s only sin was in getting caught. His extraordinary success, magnified in his case by a successful battle with cancer, led to him becoming the prisoner of a public that demands its sporting heroes jump higher, run faster, punch harder, and cycle faster while conforming to a level of moral purity and rectitude rendered impossible in a culture in which success and human virtue are considered two sides of the same coin.

Lance Armstrong’s achievement in winning the Tour de France seven times still stands as a remarkable feat worthy of admiration and respect. More importantly, it is high time there was an honest conversation on the role of performance enhancing drugs in sport.


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