I've been waiting to write something about the Lance Armstrong situation. I'm not sure why, really, but it finally dawned on me while reading this excellent article by Molly Ball, in the Atlantic Monthly. In the piece, Ball interviews her father, an amateur cyclist when he was younger, as they are watching the Armstrong/Oprah interview. Here are some of the exchanges:
…. But back to the question about drugs—you've sort of led me to believe you didn't entirely disapprove of them.
Had I had Lance Armstrong's body, and had I had the possibilities he had—that is to say, if I were able to somehow magically find myself in the pro peloton—I have no confidence that I would have refused the blandishments to which he eventually succumbed. Besides, as you know, you're talking to a father who's a vitamin freak.
Right, you believe in better living through chemistry.
Keep in mind that our lives are fundamentally different in part because of the understanding of the human body that modern science has made available to us. A good deal of the technology that's outlawed in sport and the subject of great scorn is the same technology that allows us to save AIDS patients from wasting, that allows us to bring many, many disabilities and disease states back from the brink to something like full functioning. I myself have been taking supplemental testosterone for medical reasons for 15 years, with no ill effects. These things are powerful weapons that mankind has developed for good.
…. You said to me once, and I've never forgotten it, “The perfection of the human form is a worthy goal, and if a few teenage boys' reproductive systems have to be sacrificed to that end, so be it.”
[laughing] I said that?
We were talking about steroids, I think. So were you just being outrageous, or is there a part of you that feels that way?
part of me that feels that way. Not perhaps with that particular example, but in the larger sense. Had somebody, at one moment in my life, offered me some sort of a Faustian choice—would you like to win the Tour de France or would you like, I don't know, to prove great [mathematical] theorems—I wouldn't have hesitated. I would have chosen to win the Tour. I cared so much about it. Maybe it would have been a foolish mistake, but there's no doubt I would have chosen it.
All in all, a reasoned, thoughtful take on a conflicted and difficult situation. Well worth the read. And then, there is Lupica:
…. It was new and noteworthy only because one of the great phonies and great frauds in the history of sports was finally saying this himself, not saying he was clean when he wasn’t, not attacking the real truth tellers, not suing anybody who tried to cross him, not calling his accusers crazy and calling them whores.
“The story was perfect for so long,” Armstrong said to Oprah Winfrey, who had chances all night long to come after him hard and didn’t, just seemed happy to have him sitting there and answering her questions. “The mythic perfect story and it wasn’t true.”
Later on, maybe half an hour in, Armstrong stated the obvious, to go along with the obvious admissions about his drug taking.
“I’m not the most believable guy in the world right now,” he said, and somehow, in this distracted way, acted as if he saw that as being some sort of temporary thing, instead of a lifetime sentence, along with the real lifetime sentence that will come in the aftermath of these admissions, the one where nobody thinks that guy is fascinating or important ever again.
See, for Mike Lupica, athletes are heroes (like Stan Musial, who Lupica could hardly write more glowingly about if he had cured cancer), or they are liars and cheats. Athletes who are coached, prodded, pushed and manipulated into giving everything they have, over and over, from high school and even earlier, these athletes have to remember to never, ever do anything that might not be deemed acceptable by Lupica and Verducci and the rest of these children savers.
Here's what Professor Ball has to say about the culture of drug use in cycling, amateur cycling, back in the '70's:
…. one day there would be some racer that you knew or had raced with or had trained with and you would drop him off the back—he couldn't get out of his own way. And two days later you couldn't hold his wheel—this was just not the same rider, not the same human being. And this was just at the lowest level of amateur riding.
So under those circumstances you're very soon forced to deal with that. You're not going to be competitive with that if all you've got are the legs God gave you. I have no confidence that I would not have started taking that stuff in that situation, no confidence.
At the professional levels of sport, the pressure to win at all costs, is immeasurable. Watching the NFL's Championship Sunday, I was struck by how casually the media covered the injuries some of the football players were either playing through, or were going through right in front of us. Ray Lewis, another athlete who is being painted as a “leader” a “man's man” an “inspiration to all” was shown on TV about as much as Tom Brady, maybe even more. Everyone knows about the unfortunate circumstance's that led to Lewis being charged in a double homicide. That's been swept away as his inspiring comeback from a devastating injury has found him leading his team to the Super Bowl.
What medical miracles have made this happen? What drugs were legally prescribed by his doctors that enabled him to recover from a torn muscle in such rapid fashion?
I have worked in construction for almost 35 years. I live in constant pain. I've already had surgery on my right elbow,
I am going to have surgery on my left in a couple of months. I am getting HGH injections in my right shoulder, the left is next. I have just begun a topical cream regimen of steroids, oral DHEA, and a variety of supplements and vitamins, all in an effort to keep working. To provide for my family. In a way, I have done whatever it takes, I have lived a “win at all costs” life. There were times where I knew I was damaging my body in unfixable ways, all the days that I took pain killers, the multiple times I asked my doctors to give me corti-steroidal injections so I could finish the job. I'll be paying the price for those choices for the rest of my life. I knew it at the time, and I know it now.
Were I a football player, baseball player, or a professional cyclist, my “job” would require me to win. To keep my “job” I would have to produce, I would have to be at least as good as the worst player in my field. And I can guarantee you that I would have been availing myself of every medical advance known at the time. It is absurd to me to suggest that I would have had to consider whether somebody else approved of my life-altering decisions.
Who is Mike Lupica to tell me that I cannot avail myself of the same medical and scientific advances in physical health that some carpenter in California can?
Why have we decided that allowing athletes to get the most out of their bodies is wrong, while every other person in the country is allowed –allowed?– encouraged daily to do so?
We are living in a world of amazing advances in health, breakthroughs are being made all the time, all designed to make your life better. Longer lasting youthful bodies, better sex, better strength, stronger muscles, bones, eyesight….
For everyone but our athletes. Athletes have to do it with what they were born with, that's that. Well, not really. If they do it in a way that Mike Lupica approves of, then it's all OK. Curt Schilling can lead the Red Sox to a World Series title on the strength of painkilling injections, but A-Rod can't get muscle strengthening steroid injections, because that's different. Mariano Rivera can have his ACL rebuilt with a ligament from a cadaver so that he can pitch again, but Mark McGwire can't use steroids to help his muscles and ligaments and tendons repair themselves and grow stronger so that he can hit again, because that's different.
And don't talk to me about getting stronger or bigger from a needle. Not a single athlete indicted by these crusaders as a cheat got result one without a level of hard work, dedication and sacrifice that you or I would find unimaginable. So fine, Lance wasn't only on his bike. But you can bet your ass he was on his bike.
Slippery slope? It's a cliff. The position is untenable. Fifty years from now, we're going to laugh at Mike Lupica's assertions that these athletes should be vilified. Science will eventually win out, and athletes will avail themselves of all the benefits of modern medicine, their careers will be lengthened, the record books will be rewritten.
Because realize this; what Lupica and the rest of the children savers are saying is that these athletes only get to be as great as their natural state will allow. That is his message, distilled down to it's essence. Be only as great as you are with what God gave you. If that means you are finished at 29 or 30 years old (like Sandy Koufax or Dale Murphy) because your body cannot handle the rigors of your sport any longer, so be it. If you are unable to stay on the field due to brittle ligaments and tendons (like Mark McGwire), too bad. If you can't recover from injuries fast enough, or completely enough, if you can no longer sustain the strength, flexibility and energy needed to be the best, and your career looks like it's coming to an end (like, say, Roger Clemens or Andy Pettitte), tough shit. Go retire.
Lupica and his friends say so.