If there is one topic that can spark a lively debate amongst sports fans, it is doping. Some people see it as the worst thing that can happen in sports, while others take a broader view and look at it in the context of a particular sport. Some think that anyone accused and found guilty of doping should be immediately banned from their sport and any records they hold wiped out, while others look at it from the perspective that no matter what is said after the fact, what happened happened.
Which brings us to the case of Lance Armstrong, arguably the most polarizing athlete in American sports not named Tim Tebow.
When USADA decided that it magically had the power to strip Lance Armstrong of his seven Tour de France titles because of his refusal to participate in a hearing, all of the Armstrong detractors let out a whoop of joy. Finally, they said, the cheater had been caught and punished. Because if Lance Armstrong were as innocent of doping as he has always claimed, then why would the ultimate fighter quit?
Suddenly that sentiment became the new conventional wisdom regarding Armstrong’s guilt or innocence of the charges USADA had leveled against him. Only the guilty, it was stated, would stop fighting to clear his name.
What Lance Armstrong did was what I would have done, and his case parallels what we see in college sports all the time. In college sports when a team goes before the NCAA Committee on Infractions, they are presumed guilty when they walk in the door. If the NCAA lodges a charge against you, you are not walking away scot-free. As for an appeal, you can forget that too; the NCAA controls both the infractions group and the appeals group. How likely is it that an appeal is going to be successful in that environment?
Lance Armstrong faced pretty much the same process in dealing with USADA. For all intents and purposes, USADA has set up a star chamber, where the accused basically has no chance. What chance did Armstrong have when the very evidence that USADA says is the end-all, be-all (their various drug tests) screams that the man is innocent, but the organization decides that it doesn’t matter?
Are we to think that Lance Armstrong was going to get a fair hearing before a body whose decisions are fraught with hypocrisy and are arbitrary in the extreme? The same body that chased Lance Armstrong for more than a decade for not failing over 500 USADA-administered drug tests is the same one that allowed Hope Solo to participate in this year’s Olympic Games despite her having tested positive for a banned diuretic! If you read the linked story, you’ll see that the failure wasn’t on Solo’s part; the manufacturer took responsibility for not listing the diuretic as an ingredient, so Solo skated with a warning.
But if you want a nearly apples to apples comparison, take a gander at an article written by Sally Jenkins of the Washington Post. In it, she details how cyclist Alberto Contador was punished by WADA with a two-year ban, even though they concluded that the trace steroids in his system weren’t significant enough to believe they were ingested for the purpose of doping!
If I had been in Lance Armstrong’s shoes I would have given up the fight as well. You can’t win when the rules don’t matter and the game is rigged, and in this case it was obviously rigged. Lance Armstrong was about to be asked to defend his career and his reputation to an organization that lives and dies by drug testing…until the tests don’t agree with their preconceived notions.
USADA had become zealots in their belief that Armstrong doped and in their Ahab-like pursuit of that particular whale. The 500 clean drug tests, administered by USADA-approved testers were discounted in favor of the testimony of admitted dopers! How do you defend yourself when all that matters is no longer the science, but the uncorroborated words of others?
You see, Lance had gotten caught up in a Catch 22 situation with USADA: if he attended the hearing, he was going to be branded a doper and punished; if he refused to participate in the hearing, he would be branded a doper and punished! That’s a classic “lose-lose” situation, people.
I don’t know if Lance Armstrong was a doper or not, though 500 successful drugs tests would suggest not. What I do know is that deciding not to fight when the fix is in doesn’t equate to an admission of guilt. I also know that if all it takes for a man’s reputation to be ruined and his career accomplishments sullied are the words of people who were actually caught doing what he was merely accused of, then we have reached a truly sad state of affairs.
And if you’re in the “concession = guilt” group, I honestly hope you never have to face circumstances such as the ones Armstrong did. Being self-righteous and judgmental loses its appeal when you’re the one being judged.