Imagine working your ass off for years and getting recognized as the best employee in the company. Now imagine being fired the next day. You must be fired, they say, for cheating because no one could achieve so much, and the company doesn’t want anyone to feel bad about their lack of accomplishment.
Now you can imagine Lance Armstrong’s situation. For many, he’s one of the most heroic figures of the 21st century—a modern-day Saint George who both smote his own cancer and raised over a half-billion dollars to help others do the same. To a guy named Travis Tygart, however, Armstrong represents something far more cynical: that crab the rest of us desperately, furiously, do not want to let climb out of the mediocrity bucket.
The Armstrong affair isn’t a battle over drug use in sports, because there is no evidence of drug use in the first place. Tygart, the head of the US Anti-Doping Agency, is attacking exceptionalism. His plan? To strip Armstrong of his awards, his prize money, and his honor. The evidence to support his contentions? For perhaps the first time in history, it’s only the exceptional performance of the athlete himself.
If you’re too good, Tygart—a former mediocre athlete himself—seems to be saying, you must be cheating.
The International Cycling Union (UCI) governs drug testing for the Tour de France, which likely has the most thorough protocols and procedures in the (human) sports world. Athletes are tested during the race itself. They’re also tested during preparation—and blood and urine samples are saved for years after the race to continue testing as new methods of drug detection become available. Despite all this, Armstrong has continued to pass (NOTE: this doesn’t mean that Armstrong is not using PEDs, but it does mean, that by the exact same criteria used to judge all others, the playing field is level).
There’s one thing, however, against which I can’t defend Lance Armstrong. He certainly does, I believe, compete with an unfair advantage over other athletes. Is this EPO? Blood doping? The use of stimulants or steroids? No, because the other athletes are likely on the same synthetic cocktail. It’s something else—something hardwired into his DNA. It hasn’t yet been mentioned, anywhere in any of this, that Armstrong has been the subject of one of the most comprehensive longitudinal studies ever conducted on an athlete—a study that provides physical evidence as to why he doesn’t necessarily need drugs to compete at superhuman levels.
For over seven years, researcher Edward Coyle tracked physiological changes in Armstrong’s body—changes that allowed him to continually crush his competition despite their use of performance enhancing drugs (several competitors were punished for drug use over the years, despite failing to beat him in seven Tours). What did Coyle find? Armstrong, in fact, has one of the highest lactic acid thresholds ever recorded (maybe the highest)—a finding that helps explain his phenomenal work capacity.
You might be thinking this is unfair because Armstrong was simply born this way, but that’s the all too popular find-an-excuse-to-not-try play. What he accomplished took work. After beating stage III testicular cancer, he still had to develop the potential allowed by his genetics with daily rides lasting 3-6 hours.
And let’s not forget the man behind the medals. Lance Armstrong conquered 7 Tours and a battle with cancer. He started a charitable foundation from scratch to fund cancer research, extending his personal battle into a potential victory for everyone. Even the way Lance Armstrong lives life is exceptional.
Tygart, a man holding a position reserved, theoretically, for someone beyond reproach, can’t comprehend the notion that hard work creates success. Incapable of exceptionalism on his own, he’s chosen to take the leech route, attaching himself to the destruction of someone else’s name, sacrifice, and achievement. Federal judge Sam Sparks, involved on the legal side of Armstrong’s issues, seems to agree. “The USADA’s conduct,” Sparks says, “raises serious questions about whether its real interest in charging Armstrong is to combat doping, or if it is acting according to less noble motives.”
Here in 21st century America, where being exceptional is a criminal act, the American Dream no longer entails achievement. Rather, the idea is now to prevent others from achieving anything so we can all feel special. It’s like that line from the animated Pixar movie The Incredibles: Saying that everyone is special is the same thing as saying no one is.
AUTHOR’S NOTE AND UPDATE: I still stand by my premise when this article was originally written (before anyone knew concretely that Lance Armstrong was, in fact, lying), that it is inexcusable to condemn and prosecute someone when the best available evidence is the athlete’s performance. As the judge in the case seems to agree with me, I do not apologize for my stance that I need evidence before making conclusions.
After working with professional athletes across many sports, I am not naive about the use of performance enhancing drugs and their ubiquity in sports. But if any other athlete were prosecuted solely because they were so good, I hold to the same level of behaviour that we are mandated to uphold as part of our basic freedoms: We are innocent until proven guilty. In this instance, Armstrong gave us the proof of guilt after the fact.
Featured Image by: ctbehrens
- Coyle EF. Improved muscular efficiency displayed as Tour de France champion matures. J Appl Physiol. 2005 Jun;98(6):2191-6.