In Defence of Lance Armstrong

Benjamin Markovits

I’m trying to remember what I thought about Lance Armstrong before the USADA report came out. I mean, if I thought he was clean. I’ve got personal reasons for liking him: he comes from my hometown, and in 2006 may have helped to save my brother-in-law’s life. Asher Price, who works for the local Austin paper, the American Statesman, got the same kind of cancer that Armstrong had. On the day his testicle was removed, he got an email from the cyclist, which offered not only the usual sympathy but a recommendation: he should see Lawrence Einhorn in Indiana, the doctor who pioneered the treatment that saved Armstrong.

Asher called Einhorn’s clinic, but couldn’t get an appointment for six weeks. So he emailed Armstrong, asking for advice. Armstrong responded within the hour: he’d contacted Einhorn’s office and there shouldn’t be any problem. The clinic saw Asher the following week, and he’s been clear of cancer for six years.

But if you’d asked me even while all this was going on if Armstrong had doped for his seven Tour wins, I think I would have answered: ‘Probably.’ One of the curious features of the recent series of revelations is that they haven’t really changed the way people see him. Before the USADA report was published, Armstrong came across as weirdly, unpleasantly competitive, a control-freak and borderline monomaniac. The report didn’t add anything to that picture; Armstrong’s interview with Oprah only filled in some of the gaps. Revelations are supposed to shock us into revaluations – in this case all that’s happened is that we’ve had some of our almost-certainties confirmed.

Armstrong told Oprah that he looked up ‘cheat’ in the dictionary and decided he wasn’t one – what he was doing just levelled the playing field. I can see what he means; I’m not sure that the use of steroids crosses any kind of meaningful line. Cycling is a trainer’s sport – it involves complex equipment and team strategies, and success on the bike depends to an unusual degree on the endurance and physical condition of the athlete. In other words, it’s not only a trainer’s sport but a doctor’s sport. One explanation of Britain’s Olympic success is that the organising committee did a very good job of identifying the sports for which a well-run training programme can make a difference. And cycling is clearly one of them, with or without steroids.

Then again, cheating is still cheating – steroids were banned when Armstrong raced. Even if everybody else was taking them, the doping regimen of the US Postal Service team must have had an effect on the general culture. And the need to lie about it pushed Armstrong into all kinds of ugly behaviour: he sued people and bullied them. Unjust systems (and there’s something obviously unjust about a sport that forces people to cheat to compete) produce a lot of secondary injustices, and Armstrong was clearly guilty of many of them.

Yet there’s also something unsavoury about the expense and the moral indignation that has gone into exposing him. Enforcing the ban on steroids costs a lot of money, requires the existence and unstinting efforts of several international agencies, and submits the athletes to routine violations of their privacy and freedom which most people would consider intolerable. There’s something disproportionate about it. We’re talking about a bicycle race, after all. One of the lessons of the whole saga is that a certain kind of justice can only be achieved at the expense of a decent and reasonable sense of the importance of the case.

For all the criticism that Armstrong is taking now, and deserves to take, it seems clear to me that he’s done more good in the world than harm. And the good he has done is plainly related to what’s dislikeable about him. One of the things the Oprah interview made clear is that he’s a serious, rigorous, disciplined guy. His sporting life was spent paying close attention to detail, working the percentages, doing whatever he could to shift them slightly in his favour. And that is exactly what he did for my brother-in-law, God bless him.


  • 21 January 2013 at 11:14pm
    jamie1012 says:
    A disappointingly misinformed piece. Though Armstrong (and other riders) did flirt with steroid usage, it was considered an inappropriate drug for a sport where keeping one's weight down was absolutely crucial. The main drug they used was (is) EPO, which raises the percentage of the user's blood that is comprised of red blood cells, improving the flow of oxygen around the body to the muscles and increasing power output and endurance by much greater margins than those by which endurance races can be won and lost.

    The reason why this IS cheating - why it does NOT equate to a level playing field as the dopers try to convince themselves and others, is that each person has a different natural red blood cell level (hematocrit). If Rider A is faster when clean than Rider B for reasons of technique and strength but Rider A also has a lower natural hematocrit level than Rider B, the same level of increase through doping will raise Rider A's hematocrit level higher than Rider B's. In the days before there was a test for EPO, the cycling authorities simply decided that a hematocrit of 50% was the cut-off point, beyond which doping must be at play, which meant that a rider with a natural hematocrit of 49% had only a 1% margin for increase through doping, but a rider with a natural level of 40% could "earn" a 10% increase using the same drug. And none of this even mentions the enormous boost in performance both Rider A and Rider B will have over Rider C, who is clean, and doomed to an unsuccessful career.

    • 6 August 2013 at 3:47am
      danw says: @ jamie1012
      What many people fail to realize about the Lance Armstrong case is that both Testosterone and Erythropoetin are potent anti cancer drugs. The use of testosterone for this purpose is well documented and has been used successfully to both prevent and treat testicular cancer in those with undescended testicles for many years. The use of erythropoetin along with chemotherapy for the treatment of testicular cancer and brain cancer while controvercial obviously worked in Lance Armstrong's case. Having stated these medical facts, I think it was not worth Lance Armstrong's time to compete internationally because the public outcry and misunderstanding of this type of situation is so great. It's unfortunate that many people don't understand that when testicles don't descend in to the scrotum before a child is born a lot of testosterone is produced at first which creates a strong person. Unfortunately it also means sometimes that once the testicles are outside of the body not much testosterone is produced naturally and that can lead to all sorts of medical problems including cancer

  • 21 January 2013 at 11:43pm
    Niall Anderson says:
    Professional road cycling is clearly a cynical business, and the cynicism starts at the very top, but it's still a little too pat to regard Armstrong as just another cheat set apart merely by the level of his success. The mounting anger at his misdeeds is not so much about him taking drugs to win (we are used to that); it's about the growing volume of testimony suggesting that he bullied, harrassed and threatened others into doing likewise - and exiled those who would not. The picture of Armstrong as a sinner among sinners doesn't convince. Here is a man who actively conspired to make the sport as a whole dirtier.

    I do think there's an element of tragedy here, though. Most drugs "cheats" - whatever the sport - are journeyman pros who are worried that they're losing their edge. Moreover, even when the cheat is an athlete at the peak of their powers, they tend not to be able to sustain the spike in performance beyond a certain (short) period. Neither case applies to Armstrong.

    Similarly, the Tour de France is not necessarily won by the best rider. It's won by the lead rider of the best team. Armstrong's team also beat the drugs curve by delivering their leader to the yellow jersey year after year. The horrible possibility presents itself that Armstrong actually was the best rider in the world, drugs or no drugs, and his team the best team. The siege conditioning that Armstrong initiated and enforced might have been enough to see them capture all those wins, without the use of drugs.

    • 28 January 2013 at 1:33pm
      Paul_S says: @ Niall Anderson
      Alas, no matter how good Armstrong and US Postal were, they could not have won the Tour clean. Marco Pantani alone would have seen to that.

      Bradley Wiggins's winning time for the 2012 Tour would have put him in the middle of the peloton in the Armstrong era. EPO and blood transfusions were a necessary, if not sufficient, condition of Tour victory. But everything you say about why Armstrong deserves special condemnation is nonetheless true.

  • 22 January 2013 at 7:38pm
    alex says:
    First you say Armstrong crossed no meaningful line, then you acknowledge that he did - taking a banned substance. And taking exception to the expense required to expose him is strange: if Armstrong hadn't been such a persistent cheat and liar, the expense (and outrage) would be less. I'm glad he was nice to your relative, but it doesn't say in the rules that people who help journalists' brothers-in-law should be allowed to cheat and lie to everyone else.

  • 22 January 2013 at 10:18pm
    rbarsky says:
    One: he cheated and if he needs to look up what the definition is he has other problems.
    Two: he does have other problems: he is a sociopath. He tried, and did, destroy the reputations of people who had the nerve to tell the truth about him.
    Three: He can ride a bike.
    Four: He is a sociopath who happens to be able to ride a bike.

  • 23 January 2013 at 2:03am
    Adm says:
    I strongly agree with the others who left comments, trying to downplay the cheating is an odd endeavor.

    "I’m not sure that the use of steroids crosses any kind of meaningful line."

    It patently is crossing a meaningful line. There is a rule and he broke it, gained an advantage which he used to win and then, as a kicker, lied about and systematically (baroquely!) covered up his violation and bullied others into covering it up and then maligned those that told the truth.

    "The need to lie about it pushed Armstrong into all kinds of ugly behaviour: he sued people and bullied them"

    Think for a second how that abusive behaviour impacted other people. He defamed anyone who told the truth, threatened to sue them and in many cases successfully sued them. For example, these journalists from the London Times:

    "Armstrong sued the Sunday Times and two of its journalists over an article that appeared in the newspaper in 2004 concerning the doping allegations. After a series of rulings in Armstrong's favor in the UK courts, the two sides reached a settlement, the size of which was not disclosed. The newspaper also issued an apology to Armstrong. One senior source at the newspaper said that the case cost it about $1 million."

    He didn't just make them back down, he had the gall to take hundreds of thousands of dollars and a public apology from honest journalists, from people who make their living exposing the truth and depend on their reputations. How does he sleep at night?

    And it is morally offensive to chock that up to "Unjust systems (and there’s something obviously unjust about a sport that forces people to cheat to compete) produce a lot of secondary injustices." He is responsible for his actions, both the 'primary' cheating and the 'secondary' abuse of others.

    Finally, that brings us to the weirdest part of this argument:

    "there’s also something unsavoury about the expense and the moral indignation that has gone into exposing him"

    Besides the price of justice being utterly besides the point ("It's going to cost $10 million dollars to prosecute this murder?! Pass."), this also undermines the previous argument. If its true that "there’s something obviously unjust about a sport that forces people to cheat to compete" than surely justice requires the enforcement of rules (or the abolition of rules you cannot enforce cheaply?).

    "There’s something disproportionate about it. We’re talking about a bicycle race, after all."

    Tell that to all his victims, the non-cheaters, the teammates and the journalists whose lives and reputations he's attacked for nothing more than his own personal gain. I don't doubt that he's done many other great things, but that doesn't change a thing about all the harm he's caused.

  • 23 January 2013 at 2:47am
    tony lynch says:
    Sometimes people write when they haven't thought things through. This is one of those times.

  • 23 January 2013 at 2:19pm
    semitone says:
    Queue-jumping at medical clinics, especially for conditions where a six-week waiting list can be the difference between death or recovery, may also be morally problematic. But I'm sure Mr Markovits has already thought this through, too. Just as I'm sure it weighed heavily on Lance's mind at the time.

    Have a nice day.

  • 23 January 2013 at 5:18pm
    ander says:
    For those who have followed the coverage of Tour de France in Le Monde (by far the best), all this is about a decade-old news. For many years the iron rule in professional cycling was, "you don't dope, you don't win". Until the last cheater is popped (to use Tyler Hamilton's expression), it will remain strictly true.

  • 23 January 2013 at 10:43pm
    Chuck Vekert says:
    If one defines cheating as taking an unfair advantage, then a strong case can be made that Armstrong was not cheating. All the top cyclists were making times that no one can equal today. They were all breaking rules, but none got an unfair advantage over the others.

    But Armstrong's conduct to the people around him was cruel and certainly far beyond what was necessary to defend himself. On the other hand, he helped many people stricken with cancer. It is beyond human understanding to weigh one against the other. This is a case where the biblical injunction to judge not, lest we be judged is most appropriate.

  • 24 January 2013 at 9:56pm
    flannob says:
    Texan sentimentality, Mr. Markovitz? "He's suffered enough"is what they said about Nixon.
    Perhaps there could be a yellow tinge to such posts, so we can be warned of the onset of some sports pages.Some might wish the dope testing of all London cyclists, perhaps the silenced charities for the disabled and those unsettled on a footway near you...but let us return to the texts, particularly The Third Policeman and Alfred Jarry's Supermale, both about the implications of mechanising and systematising the male body.

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