Normally, Americans pay attention to cycling in July, when the Tour de France rolls through the countryside. For seven years, that meant tuning in to watch Lance Armstrong ascend the podium.
Friends asked me, back then, if I thought he doped. Of course I thought he doped, but I thought that all of the top cyclists doped at the time. They’d been doping since the first Tour—with alcohol, cocaine, amphetamines, and strychnine—and they’d been doping when Lance won. Not all of them, but of the top cyclists, the ones we watched on TV: yes, I was convinced they’d doped.
So if they all doped, what’s the problem? those same friends wondered. Well, besides the fact that doping has been linked to cancer and sudden death from heart attacks, doping is cheating (even if Lance thinks it’s not), the antithesis of what sports is supposed to be about. And when some cyclists dope, the ones who decide not to dope don’t have a chance of winning. So Lance’s decision to use wasn’t only about Lance: it was about all of the cyclists who didn’t use. They never had a chance to race, let alone win.
Some want to demonize Lance, to lay the blame for cycling’s problems squarely at his feet. And Lance does a good job of making their case, for he behaved in ways that were bullying and destructive, crushing anyone who dared challenge the myth of the Phoenix on two-wheels. As he himself said, he behaved like a jerk.
I’m no Lance apologist. I hope that he fully accounts for his acts, and is in turn, held accountable for those same acts.
But I also look at doping as a systemic problem, for even someone as powerful as Lance could not have done what he did for as long as he did if the whole sport were not designed to allow him to do so. Lance may claim that his doping program was conservative and simple, but the truth is that it was sophisticated and aggressive, if the U.S. Anti-doping report is to believed.
There are rumblings that Lance may name names. Ah, the delicious irony of the person who presented himself as above it all calling out others, as if he were the victim instead of a major player. And still, I hope that he does name names, for whatever reason he may do so.
I hope that Lance comes clean and truly owns his behavior and finds a way to make amends. For his sake, and for the sake of the sport that I love. Maybe that way, one day I can finally tell my friends that my sport is clean.
Jonathan Simmons is a psychologist and an avid cyclist. His book, “Here For the Ride” will be published next month.