“Opportunity is missed by most people because it is dressed in overalls and looks like work.” – Thomas Edison
Wow. Gun control, abortion…and Lance. I wonder how many Facebook friendships have been terminated over these issues in the past few weeks? I usually don’t jump into the mosh-pit that these “discussions” inevitably degrade; I have my opinions, yes — but won’t air them unless I think it’s actually going to be a rational discussion. I don’t do drama or flame wars. And I don’t really have an “inside” on these other issues that would constitute anything more than my personal opinion. With the Lance debacle, however, I do have a side of the story you may have not yet considered. I’ll try to spell it out here best I can, but understand: it’s a very tricky thing to explain.
So being a Lance apologist is a bit of a lonely island these days. I remain, however, as I have since the mid 90’s — unabashedly, a Lance supporter.
Yet I totally get the vehement Lance hate — I do. Lying, perjury and the whole sorted host of ugliness surrounding this story is unsavory enough on its own, but the rabid, “best defense is is a nuclear-option offense” style of character assassination is just, well… pathological.
The thing is, though, is that “pathological” describes just about every fantastic athlete I’ve ever come into contact with. It would also describe my first 21 years on this big blue marble. Now, most are able to “flip the switch” between “on the field” competition and real world interactions. Some can’t. Some (myself included, at that time) fall into some murky in between. And, too, some sports are just so all-encompassing (cycling is one), that it’s nearly impossible to delineate a clear dividing line between the two. Especially at the professional, and in that particular sport, life is cycling, and cycling is life. I’m hard-pressed to think of any other TDF competitor that, under the same circumstances and with the same level of power and prestige in the sport, would not have reacted similarly. “Perfect Storm” is a bit of a cliche these days, but that’s exactly what obscene amounts of money, power, prestige, sporting prowess and unrelenting drive creates.
Understand: this isn’t a condemnation of the sport itself (or sports in general) so much as it is a condemnation of the double standard society places on sport. My Efficient Exercise partner Mark Alexander has written an excellent piece on just this subject. By all means, give this a read NOW — it’s simply outstanding.
We perpetuate a society in which the “winners” in every imaginable endeavor (business, the arts, etc.) are showered with power, prestige and money, and expect that these winners will undertake any means possible to wind up on top. Except, that is, in sport — where certain advantages are deemed “ungentlemanly” in an endeavor that, in our collective narrative, ought to remain pure. We have a long history of this in sport, of course — going back to the ancient Greeks. For athletes contemplating doping then, this simply becomes a risk-to-benefit question. No different now than it was for those ancient Greeks.
For my own part, I’m rather agnostic on the use of PEDs at the professional level. I wish they didn’t exist at all, but alas they do, and as long as society places such a premium on winning, there’s no way they are going to go away. Somewhere in the trenches of American cycling (or football…or baseball….), the next “Lance” is pouring everything he has into that one shot he has at the American dream. And know this: athletics isn’t like business, where one can claim bankruptcy, step back, and start anew tomorrow. An athlete has one shot, and a very narrow window in which to have that shot come true. And we think that they won’t utilize any means possible to get there?
I suppose my “doping pragmatism” came about by virtue of my having been exposed, from a young age, to all manner of PEDs (mostly the ubiquitous and various steroids). In the S&C culture that I came of age in, these drugs were simply seen as another tool. But they were seen, though, as the tool of last resort. In other words, their use marked the end of level progression. The rule was “you’ll never rise above the level you start using”. Start using in high school? You’ll never have a successful collegiate career. Start in college? Kiss the pros goodbye. The idea was that these drugs will do nothing for you (in a competitive sense) unless you’ve tapped out your natural ability. In fact, they become a crutch to keep an athlete from tapping out his/her natural ability. See this play out in practice enough times (and I surely did), you become sold on the notion. So when Lance talks about leveling the playing field at that highest level of competition, I get it.
When I get asked (as I do, often) if I’ve ever used, the answer is easy — I never did. And yeah, I understand — sure, Lance said that, too! (this begets the other nasty fallout from this ordeal — accusation by denial). The more complicated question, though — albeit one we rarely get around to — is this: what would I have done had I made it to the professional level? Well, if I thought I needed that edge in order to compete with (or better recover so as to compete with) the best? Yes. Of course, this is a multifaceted question — but yes, if I thought that that was the particular tool I needed at that point, I wouldn’t have ruled the option out from any moral standpoint. When money enters the equation along with high-level competition, purity is a natural casualty.
But back to Lance, and to the underlying pathology of the need to win — or the utter fear of losing, as some in the shrink game have couched it: I don’t think the general populace — even the most ardent of sports fan — can even come close to understanding just how overwhelming and all-encompassing this drive can be. It wasn’t until I had a much better grasp on “real life” and things that truly matter, that I began to see how utterly unhealthy this psychology could be. And believe me, I would have never come to terms with this while still in the competitive sphere. Never. It wasn’t until I was forced out of competition due to injury, and following a couple of “dark years” of trying to “find myself” in the real world, that I finally came to terms with, and learned how to better handle and direct (deflect?), this drive.
I can laugh at myself now for resisting the urge to get into golf, or compete in something like the CrossFit games. But the truth of the matter is that I know myself, and these things are like black tar heroin to a former addict. I still don’t trust myself to compete for the mere sake of competing — I would have to be the best; win, or die trying. What I can’t afford now is to have that creep back into my life. Like jungle ivy, the need to win (or not lose) tends to invade and totally overrun all else.
So I can appreciate that side of what Lance is having to come to terms with. It’s not an easy transition. Luckily for me, the dividing line between football and “real life” was much better defined. Those days are passing though; more and more, collegiate level athletes are having to deal with this blurred line. As a society, we’re just waiting for these kids (and they are still kids) that we’ve put on pedestals to stumble so that we can sacrifice them to the Gods of sporting “purity”. And if that’s not a collective, manic pathology, I’m not sure what is.
I distinctly remember when my son played his very last baseball game, and when, by his own decision, he opted not to play at the next level. His reasoning? “There’s some things I want to do other than baseball”. And that none of those “other things” were particularly competitive was an absolute alien concept, even to the “reformed” me. But he knew what was expected of the collegiate baseball player, and that there would be precious little time for those “other things”, so he chose to pass. The difference between he and myself at the same age was that he saw this glaring disconnect between sport and “what really matters”, and I never even questioned it. Sport (more precisely, winning at a chosen sport) was what mattered. In fact, the question was never if I’d go on to the next level, but when and where; not if I’d win, but how. All else be damned. I realize now, when taken out of context, just how destructive that line of thinking is, but at the time it was simply my reality. So in overcoming that psychology, Lance surely has his work cut out for him. And to the extent that I understand the “win-at-any-cost psychosis”, I can empathize. As I watched the give-and-take between Oprah and Lance, I couldn’t help but think: there, but for the grace of God go I.
Again, I certainly don’t expect the rational person to understand this point of view. And I’m certainly not saying that I, in any way, shape or form, discount the pain and suffering Lance’s actions have caused others. My point is simply that this condition is, although rather rare (I suppose?), also very real. I can even justify it by saying that I’m quite sure it offered huge dividends, from an evolutionary point of view.
But we also evolved free-will, and a sense of justice and fairness. Not to mention, prospective and balance. But damn, to throw obscene amounts of money, prestige and power at an endeavor that already attracts this personality type like moths to a flame, is to then pump jet fuel on that same flame. And in light of that, to be shocked that something like this has come about is to be completely naive.
In health, fitness, and ancestral wellness –