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Brandeis University's Community Newspaper — Waltham, Mass.

Lighten up on Lance: A different perspective on the Armstrong scandal

Published: November 30, 2012
Section: Opinions

Lance Armstrong is a member of a group of a few, elite people in the world who can be classified as “living legends.” In every way one can be, Armstrong is an accomplished, successful individual. He is perhaps the greatest athlete to ever live and is also a world-renowned philanthropist, CEO, author, father and husband. And let’s not forget, he did all this after undergoing years of therapy and surgery to defeat life-threatening testicular cancer, lung cancer and brain cancer. In perhaps the most drug-tainted sport in the world, Armstrong has recently been prosecuted for a crime of which the majority of competitors in his field are guilty.

With the support of international doping and cycling agencies such as the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA), the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency (USADA) accused Armstrong of participating in “the most sophisticated, professionalized and successful doping program that sport has ever seen,” accusing him of using erythropoietin (EPO), blood transfusions (blood doping), testosterone, human growth hormone (HGH), corticosteroids (eg. cortisone) and saline and plasma infusions to enhance his performance. CNN’s Michael Pearson has projected many people’s feelings, stating, “Armstrong was a disgraceful fraud of epic proportions.” Yet in saying this, one neglects the entirety of the situation: these doping procedures are relatively common practices for elite cyclists and especially for riders in the Tour de France.

But don’t get me wrong—performance-enhancing drug use is wrong. In an ideal world, no cyclist would use drugs. In reality, however, a multitude of elite cyclists have been accused of doping and many more presumably slip under the radar. Society must accept the reality of the situation and then understand that the crime Armstrong was convicted of is the norm for most of his other competitors. Scott Mercier, a professional cyclist and former member of U.S. Postal’s cycling team (Armstrong’s former team), testified that the coach of U.S. Postal distributed steroids to the team members with specific directions to use them during intensive workouts; it was a common procedure. In prosecuting Armstrong (and stripping his seven Tour de France medals, cutting many of his prominent sponsors such as Nike and forcing him to step down from his chairmanship at Livestrong) the USADA has represented itself as a regular playground bully. The USADA even went as far as banning him for life from the sport of cycling.

But if everyone does it, then why did Armstrong get caught and not the other athletes? The answer is simple—Armstrong is the most tested, scrutinized human being on the planet; a lab rat even among other professional athletes. Armstrong has given the USADA and other drug agencies more of his bodily fluids for drug testing than any other person in the world. And he has never, not once, tested positive (admittedly because he was able to outsmart the drug testers). The prosecution came about from the testimonies of over two dozen witnesses. Upon being informed of this, Nike discontinued its sponsorship with Armstrong because of “seemingly insurmountable evidence.” The evidence, although composed entirely of non-analytical data, was compelling enough to serve as proof for Armstrong’s drug scandal.

In a sport in which many of the competitors use drugs, Armstrong, using these same means, won it seven years in a row. Armstrong’s accomplishment was the equivalent to winning an Olympic gold medal seven years in a row: he was the best cyclist in the world for seven consecutive years. Not even Michael Phelps, the proclaimed greatest Olympian of all time, has come close to accomplishing such a feat. Perhaps Armstrong would not have been as successful without the use of drugs, but had the playing field been completely equal—had there been no cyclist who used drugs—I believe that Armstrong still would have won all seven titles.

It required years of probing, testing, and investigating to verify that Armstrong did in fact use drugs. If the USADA had the time and money to do that level of testing on the other elite cyclists, they would have found similar results. With great achievement, however, comes overwhelming scrutiny and suspicion: Armstrong became a lightning rod for drug accusations and investigations and each of his Tour de France titles only intensified the target on his head.

Will Armstrong’s defamation lead to a decrease in drug use in professional cycling? Probably not. Keep in mind, Armstrong never tested positive in any drug test; the evidence provided was purely secondary. Until the USADA and other drug agencies can formulate more effective methods for testing drug use, the Armstrong scandal will have few consequences for other cyclists.