The real problem with Lance Armstrong

Sports fans all share two universal delusions. One is that the games they watch have some lasting significance. Another is that pure competition, untainted by performance enhancing drugs (PEDs), is not only possible but must be achieved. The first delusion will endure as long as sports do. Will the second? Will we keep chasing the ideal of athletic competition unspoiled by artificial drugs, and along with it a “true” measure of natural ability?

How many summers in sports will be like this one, with a Belarus shot putter stripped of her gold medal, a Chinese swimmer suspected for hers, baseball players Melky Cabrera and Bartolo Colon busted and now cycling legend Lance Armstrong waving the white flag in the face of charges that his wins were a fraud?

Surely more summers like this are to come. Drugs will always remain one step ahead of enforcement and foregoing drugs will always be a concession to the competition. Some suggest we stop the ruse and legalize PEDs, a strategy that was the subject of a recent New York Times Room for Debate piece. But that would force all high-profile athletes to take damaging drugs to compete, mortgaging their futures just to toe a starting line or a batter's box.

Our opinions, policies and worries about drugs in sports rest on the shaky supposition that when it comes to athletic ability, there is a clear distinction between what is natural and what is artificial. In truth, the lines are very blurred, especially in professional sports. An athlete may be born with natural ability, but to play Major League Baseball or swim in the Olympics, the athlete early on opts out from any semblance of a normal life, foregoing school, social activities, a normal sleep schedule, a normal diet. Before even touching a needle, an athlete has traveled far from the world of "normal" or "natural." The higher the stakes, the harsher the extremes: Chinese athletes spend their lives in training centers, uprooted from hometowns and families, in the name of national service, doing the athletic equivalent of military duty or prison time. At this point, at this level, performance-enhancing drugs seem less like a violation of high-profile athletics and more like their most logical extension.

The apostle Paul spoke of athletic training as the ultimate exercise in self-control, and thus a metaphor for spiritual discipline. The habits of training may indeed be comparable to sanctification. But even in Paul's day, when athletes were worshipped as gods, sports were about ego and excess, the worship of the body and the craving of a new deity. In Paul's day they raised statues of athletes. Today, too, sports give us golden calves to venerate. Which cud those calves chew seems less important than the fact that they're idols and we're bowing.

What Do You Think?

  • Should performance-enhancing drugs be allowed in professional sports to level the playing field?
  • Is there such a thing as “pure” competition?
  • How much reverence do you give to professional athletes?

Comments (4)

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I agree with the notion that there is a lot of illusion when it comes to professional sports.  Even if you have the physical and mental abilities to make x feat happen - if you can’t get in with the right people to train and condition you, you’re going to have a very tough time making any real progress.

Sports already has their own built in downfall - the toll it takes on the mind, body, and spirit, is severe.  Add in the drugs that professional athletes are able to take just to maintain comfortable lifestyles and you’ve already added a whole new set of risks.  So once you purposefully allow other performance enhancing elements, you pretty much damage everything - especially for the vast majority who get left without sports careers and the consequences of drug use.

This is a strange piece. This “idol” was less an object of worship as much as he was an inspiration due to the adversity he overcame. Lance was revered because he not only survived a disease which has ravaged nearly every home in our country, but went on to unprecedented success after it. This has little to do with a level playing field or the supposed lasting significance of the races he won; it has everything to do with what he overcame to get there.

The story of Lance Armstrong is one of net growth. Coming from a debilitating disease to reach the pinnacle of success in his field. (Strangely, this sounds biblical. “Beauty from ashes,” using the “weak to shame the strong.”) He was rarely considered “Lance Armstrong: Cyclist.” He was almost always considered “Lance Armstrong: Cancer Survivor.”

Lance being an athlete was secondary. Surely an aspect of it was that he used the same body once worn down by cancer to succeed, but it was always more about giving people hope that they can overcome their current bleak situations.

He was not notable for being a pseudo-diety. He was notable because of how relatable his story was. He was not a golden calf, he was the trailblazer.

I know this comment is disjointed. Lots of thoughts coming in at the same time. Im sorry about that.

I disagree with you that there is a dilution about drugs in sports and that the lines are very blurred.

Take baseball for instance. Decades ago with baseball greats like Mantle and Maris set the records they set, they were regular joes, who not only were gifted athletically, but some even held day jobs in the off season. No drugs were involved other than beer, cigarettes and cigars. Those records, specifically the single season home run record and the all time career home record were achieved without drugs and only broken decades later by those who abused drugs. I believe sports can be played at a high level with out drugs and believe the lines are not blurred with as humans just tend to get lazy.

There is an argument to be made about even caring if athletes abuse drugs because we watch sport for entertainment. But I am more a purist and don’t want PED’s in sports because it proves that hard work pays off, that sacrifice pays off. I think those things are valuable lessons. I think its possible for it to not be an extension of athletes, but society puts the pressure for those athletes to achieve great things instead of just waiting to see what they achieve. Which is where I’m at. When I see a young talented athlete, I say man he could do great things, let’s see what happens.

Your example of Chinese athletes, is one example from one country. I think its perfectly fine for people to pursue those goals and be in training centers. Im sure Michael Phelps spent his fair share of training over the years and there is nothing with the time they spend doing that. Its a choice. (Well maybe not for the Chinese) But there is nothing wrong with that choice. That choice pays the bills.

One’s christian walk takes years, decades to fine tune and even then mistakes are made. In our lives in order to follow Jesus, sacrifices need to be made, hard-work in our relationships needs to be done.

If you’re a christian playing sports and you give into this idea that is a natural extension, what are then suggesting to those ppl, they should cheat because its logical? No. Jesus wants us to try our best to be excellent in the endeavors we choose. I think ideas like its the logical extension serve to further muddy the lines between unnatural and natural.

If we condition ourselves to believe well they’re will always be drugs and its a grey area between natural and not natural than what if we had the same mindset in our walk. Well i’ll always sin or i’ll always fail. Well my walk is a grey area I sorta follow Jesus but sometimes I don’t and that’s ok.

Its there a direct correlation, obviously no. But in thinking about sports this way and examining it from a christian view points these are the thoughts that cross my mind. I love seeing humans do great things because they worked hard to get there. It shows me that if I work hard in my life either in my career or with my family or my walk that I can grow and accomplish great things.

This piece was all over the map. The question of whether there is “pure” competition isn’t necessarily relevant to the fact that each sport has its rules - fair or not, logical or not - it doesn’t matter. Those rules evolve over the years. What is OK today may not be OK tomorrow. Armstrong was cheating. Most of those doing various PEDs, etc. in their sports were cheating against the specific rules of their sport. Yes, there are many ways to get an edge. Even surgery to repair torn ligaments can result in an advantage. Or lasik surgery for a baseball player, giving them better than 20/20 eyesight. All this is interesting but not necessarily relevant to Armstrong and those who have been knowingly breaking the rules of their sport and, in Armstrong’s case, going to great lengths to express outrage at all those who dare question him.

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