My carpool buddy, colleague, and regular verbal sparring partner Steve Bitker asked me on the way to work this morning what I thought about the Lance Armstrong matter. And the best I could do by way of answer was to say, "it's complicated".
It's complicated for a lot of reasons. Armstrong himself is complicated: a prickly, combative bundle of Texas bravado who survived cancer and then brought the Euro-centric sport of cycling to heel. Armstrong won those 7 Tour de France titles as the undisputed boss of the peloton. Whether he was doping or not, nobody could dispute the sheer force of will and power of personality that Armstrong brought to his sport.
But (and with full knowledge that I'm cribbing the title of his autobiography), it's not just about the bike with Lance Armstrong. He sees himself as something more than a rider. A crusader, a conscience, a mentor, a s***-disturber--pick one or more. The Lance Armstrong Foundation is a major player on the cancer front. While other world-class athletes retire to celebrityhood, Armstrong has created something meaningful that I suspect will barely feel a blip from this development.
It's complicated because the whole anti-doping campaign is a bit murky. Most people agree that sports should be a place for fairness, but beyond that, things get a little tricky. Is it fair that some athletes are allowed to use medications that clearly improve their own ability to perform (asthma drugs, painkillers, ADHD medications, etc.)? What about things like hyperbaric chambers? And on and on we go, splitting hairs finer and finer.
And then there's the actual process. The US Anti-Doping Agency has the curious power to end someone's career (the "lifetime ban" being levied on Armstrong means he can't compete, coach, or play any official role in any sport that follows the World Anti-Doping Code). Yet USADA can't bring criminal charges (recall that a Justice Department investigation of Armstrong was dropped) and doesn't operate under the same rules we use in our criminal courts.
Armstrong attacks the process as "unconstitutional" (here's his statement); others have complained that our anti-doping rules require the accused to prove his innocence (as opposed to forcing the accuser to prove guilt). Most of us would assume that before someone is banned from his sport for life, there'd at least be a positive test result entered as evidence. But it turns out that's not necessary under USADA's rules. And make no mistake: the rules are not exactly simple. Olympic gold medal-winner Hope Solo was slapped on the wrist this year after she took something a doctor prescribed for menstrual problems.
At the end of the day, nobody proved anything here. USADA can't say it nailed Armstrong. Armstrong can't say he cleared his name. Essentially, he's telling the world, "I'm bigger than this. Do whatever you like." It does seem at odds with his image for the pugnacious Armstrong to walk away from a fight. Some will see that as evidence of his guilt; others buy his claim that the process is flawed and he had no hope of a fair hearing.
So back to Steve's question: what do I think? I think Armstrong remains a mythic figure. I know he dominated a sport riddled with drug use. I can't say for sure, but it wouldn't surprise me if he doped too. I am certain that his persona is way bigger than cycling; folks who couldn't find the Alpe d'Huez if you spotted them the proper French département are wearing Livestrong bracelets today. And this part is tricky, because forecasting history is very dangerous business, but I think that many years from now, Armstrong will be known more for his exploits on the roads of France and his tireless work on the cancer battle lines than for whatever USADA writes in its press release announcing its decision. That's what I think about Lance Armstrong.