FILE - 23 AUGUST 2012: After dropping his lawsuit against doping charges brought on by the US Anti-Doping Agency, the agency (USADA) announced on August 23, 2012 to strip Lance Armstrong of 7 Tour de France titles and ban the cyclist for life. ANNECY, FRANCE - JULY 23: Lance Armstrong of the USA and Astana in action on stage 18 of the 2009 Tour de France, a 40km Time Trial around Lake Annecy, on July 23, 2009 in Annecy, France. (Photo by Bryn Lennon/Getty Images)
Why is pushing the limits of human achievement a bad thing? Like most of his fellow cyclists, Lance was willing to do whatever it took to win.
If my answers frighten you, Vincent, then you should stop asking such scary questions. -- Pulp Fiction
Lance Armstrong won the 2000 Tour de France by a margin of 6 minutes and 2 seconds.
Jan Ullrich, who finished second, was later implicated in a doping scandal. Ditto for Joseba Beloki (third), Christophe Moureau (fourth), Roberto Heras (fifth), Richard Virenque (sixth) and Santiago Boreto (seventh).
All six were world-class athletes who had the support of the best doctors and chemists money could buy. Yet none could catch a rider who apparently refused, merely out of principle, to give himself even the slightest edge in training. If his supporters are correct, Armstrong really must have been the greatest cyclist of all-time.
The New York Times called the Tour de France "the world's most physiologically demanding event ... equivalent to running a marathon almost every day for three weeks". Think about the type of drive it takes to train for that event, win it and then repeat the process six more times. Armstrong didn't even need to win a seventh Tour for history's sake, not when the previous best mark for career wins (shared by four cyclists) is five.
In order to win at that level, a cyclist must be willing to push his body to the absolute limits of his physical ability. In the modern age, the only way to reach that point is through chemical help. The great myth about performance enhancing drugs is that they are a way for an athlete to cut corners. In reality, they're designed to enable an athlete to work even harder than they could before.
When Jose Canseco accused Mark McGwire of using steroids, Tony La Russa, their former manager, laughed it off because he said he had never seen anyone work harder than McGwire. Of course, that's why the slugger used the drugs in the first place. They helped his body recover faster from lifting weights, which enabled him to lift more and build muscle mass faster.
As we are constantly reminded in commercials for athletes like Michael Jordan, a champion is the ultimate competitor. There was nothing Jordan could tolerate less than losing, which is why he would hold a grudge for something seemingly as minor as losing a game of cards.
That type of drive can't be turned on and off. A person willing to train six hours a day in order to be the best is willing to train seven or eight as well, even if they need some help to do it. That's why Armstrong is so adamant about holding on to his accomplishments; he knows the type of work he had to put in to achieve them:
I know who won those seven Tours, my teammates know who won those seven Tours, and everyone I competed against knows who won those seven Tours. We all raced together. For three weeks over the same roads, the same mountains, and against all the weather and elements that we had to confront. There were no shortcuts, there was no special treatment. The same courses, the same rules. The toughest event in the world where the strongest man wins.
Whenever a "scandal" like this breaks, we're apparently supposed to think of the example that it sets for the children who look up to these star athletes. Yet what message is getting through when we endlessly harp on the manner in which they "cheated"? That it works? Just because the USADA has issued a Pravda-like decree that we must all re-write history doesn't make it so.
The cynic would say that Armstrong didn't win seven Tour de France championships because he was the best cyclist in the world but because he had the best chemists. But at the end of the day, what's the difference? It's all competition.
Becoming a world-class cyclist is no different than becoming a world-class driver, swimmer or sprinter. A century ago, an elite athlete could win races just by showing up in shape. Now, you need a team of specialists around to maximize every last possible percentage point of achievement. As Matt Damon said, an Olympic athlete "is a the tip of a spear that goes all the way back to the beginning."
Every four years, the athletes at the Summer Olympics are bigger and faster than the ones that came before them. They are at the very tip of the latest advances in their sports. Whether those advances are in nutrition, coaching or chemistry is ultimately irrelevant. All that matters is that they advanced.
Inherent in the definition of reaching new heights is doing things that have never been done. Lance Armstrong did things on a bicycle that no man ever had. But one day, whether it's a year or a decade or even a century from now, someone is going to show up and break his records. He'll make enemies in the process and, if they look hard enough, they will find evidence that he's trained in ways that Armstrong or Eddy Merckx or Miguel Indurain wouldn't have dreamed possible.
Some will call it cheating; others will call it progress. Either way, it's inevitable.