A friend recently asked me if I thought Lance Armstrong had doped. She’d read about the recent allegations against him of doping and cheating, and she wondered what I thought: was he a sinner or a saint?
By now, most people are convinced that Lance either doped or was clean. Sinner or saint, cheater or cheated: most people have already pretty much made up their minds. No room for gray, no in between, and not a lot of undecided voters.
I am a long-time fan of cycling. Right about the time Lance began his string of victories, I began to follow the Tour. Who would win, who would lose, and who would crack: bike racing was better than Shakespeare.
But a few years ago, sometime around the time of Lance’s comeback from retirement, I lost interest in the pro tour. It wasn’t because of yet another round of allegations and confirmations of doping in the peloton. I knew cycling had a long and sordid history of illegal drug use and performance enhancements.
It was just that I had gotten older, and with age came a certain kind of wisdom. The kind that told me life is short, racing is hard, and I was slowing down. Along with this wisdom came the realization that there were things I’d rather be doing instead of spending countless hours training, all so I could ride 0.47 mph faster. Things like hanging out with friends, going for a walk, or reading a good book. Slow riding, if you will, the first cousin of slow food.
For a moment, let’s assume that all of the top cyclists for the past 30 years were doping (an assumption that does not require much stretch of the imagination). If that were the case, then what would it mean to not dope?
For some riders, it would mean a lifetime of mediocrity, cycling’s version of Double A baseball. For others, it would mean always being one step away from the podium: good, not great. And for others, it would mean quitting the sport that they loved because why bother: the game’s rigged.
For most of the top cyclists over the past 30 (heck, 100) years, doping was the Faustian bargain they made in order to win. That’s changing, and hopefully there will come a time when we can feel confident that all of the best riders don’t dope or cheat. I’d like to believe we’ll get there some day. We’re just not there yet.
But back to my friend’s question: do I believe Lance doped? In a word: yes.
Assuming, for a moment, that he did dope, does it really even matter? After all, if everyone doped, why go after Lance? It’s a waste of money, a vendetta, nothing more than a witch-hunt, right?
I happen to believe that the truth heals, the truth shall set you free. That was the whole point of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in post-apartheid South Africa, that is the whole point in pursuing Lance. No one is above the law, no one is too big to fail. There’s no statute of limitations when it comes to the truth. In both things that matter, like life after apartheid, and things that don’t, like the world of professional racing.
Jonathan Simmons is a psychologist and an avid cyclist. His book “Here For The Ride” will be published later this year.