I first read Lance Armstrong’s autobiography when I was in Grade 5, and even though I was not interested in cycling or knew anyone suffering from cancer, I was inspired by the man who was then the god of cycling. What seemed even more inspiring was how he dismissed the widespread accusations of him doping as actions of cynics who refused to believe that any cyclist (let alone a cancer survivor) could be so dominant.
All of this was a lie. Despite his book being title, It’s Not About the Bike, Armstrong confessed on Oprah that his record-breaking career was about doping as well.
Despite his revelations, the investigations into his career enforce the idea that he was no different to the rest of the peloton. Many of his peers doped in the same way that footballers dive or batsmen choose not to walk. Armstrong has become the punching bag for public outcry against doping, and he does not deserve all of it. Even the riders who testified against Armstrong received amnesty. They got off the hook, so that Armstrong, the bigger fish, could get caught.
Armstrong admitted to using Erythropoietin (EPO) to boost his performance. He didn’t have to try hard to conceal it because there was no test for EPO during his first few tours. He also took part in “blood doping”. However, injections of blood can only be detected within six hours and many stages of the Tour de France are longer than that. The Union Cycliste International (UCI) officials could have caught him (and many others) if they tested him during the off-season or if they didn’t make appointments to do drug tests.
The US Anti-Doping Agency’s (USADA) report, which ultimately sealed Armstrong’s fate, described his team’s doping program as “more extensive than any previously revealed in professional sports history.” But did Armstrong actually have to try that hard? UCI officials were probably so lenient because they knew that there would be no peloton if all dopers were banned.
In 2006, Spanish police found packets of blood belonging to fifty-six cyclists (including Armstrong’s fiercest rival, Jan Ulrich) whom Spanish Sports Doctor Eufemiano Fuentes helped to blood dope. But since doping was not illegal in Spain at the time, there were no convictions. A few of the riders were dropped by their teams due to the bad publicity this brought, but only five of them were banned despite there being hard evidence on fifty-one others. Dr Fuentes is currently on trial, but he is charged with endangering the health of cyclists, not cheating. If found guilty, he could face a professional ban of only two years. Armstrong’s “physician”, on the other hand, was slapped with a lifetime sports ban by the USADA.
Although Armstrong doped, so did most of his rivals – the playing field was level. As the most celebrated cyclist of his era, he was the only one to have a two-year investigation to uncover his doping practices Investigations on his rivals would uncover similar skeletons.
Armstrong was a product of his times and a martyr of his own success – it’s scandals like these are necessary to clean up the sport.