People are very quick to claim the moral high ground when it comes to drug use in sports.
Frankly, their moral outrage, self-righteous posturing and vituperation – delivered in a holier-than-thou judgemental wrapper – make me want to vomit!
I, like many others, cheered a heroically post-cancer Armstrong to victory in tours and individual stages but, unlike others it seems, I’m not disappointed or surprised at his subsequent drugging revelations.
To those posturing bleeding hearts, I say this:
Wake up and take a reality check. If you believe drugs have not been an intimate, critical and prevalent component of top level cycling, and many other professional sports, for the past fifty years then you simply have to be counted among the naive and innocent people on the planet. Wake up! Read on!
Rampant Drug Use by Athletes
To illustrate my point about rampant drug use in sports, and the manner in which the governing bodies have condoned it by turning a blind eye, I could choose any one among a number of offending (and offensive) sports such as: weightlifting, cycling, football or baseball. However, since I’ve always followed the sport closely, I have chosen track and field.
As all true fans realised at the time, North America and the old Soviet bloc (East Germany in particular) were systematically drugging their track & field athletes (and swimmers, etc) in the 1960’s-1990’s. So, what has the IAAF done about it?
I could go on for hours here but let’s look at one area of IAAF inaction: fantastic world records almost certainly achieved by drugged athletes; official records that, in 2013, remain on the IAAF record books as they have for decades – taunting and haunting generations of wonderfully gifted drug-free athletes from all over the world! How insulting and head-in-the-sand is that?
Here are what I believe to be the worst examples among some spectacular world records set by steroid-pumped female track athletes that have stood the test of time and which continue to be recognised, and thus their associated drug abuse condoned, by the IAAF:
Disgrace #1: Womens 100m & 200m 10.49secs & 21.34secs Florence Griffith-Joyner 1988.
Firstly, here was a suddenly muscular and sculpted 29-y-o who was managing, late in her theretofore mediocre career, to run dramatically faster than ever before in her life and who raised by quantum amounts records typically adjusted in tenths or hundredths of a second.
Secondly, despite: improved diets, training, equipment, track surfaces, coaching and natural evolution, the fastest women in the world in the succeeding 25 years, including such gifted athletes such as: Shelly-Ann Fraser-Pryce, Merlene Ottey & Carmelita Jeter, haven’t even run close! In fact, not even next gen American drug cheat Marion Jones could match FloJo’s times!
Let’s face it, FloJo’s masking drugs must have been ahead of the testers. As an aside, Flojo died young from an epileptic seizure, in 1998, aged just 38, though it was claimed there was no link to drug use.
Disgrace #2: Womens 800m 1.53.28 Jarmila Kratochvilova 1983
Same scenario as Flojo. Record outta sight and still standing 30 years later. For god’s sake, the best time in the world in 2012 was ‘only’ 1.56.19! For those who never saw her, Jarmila was a powerful ball of muscle, man-like in many ways, and no track fan I’ve ever met believes she deserves recognition as anything other than an embarrassing black mark on the sport’s escutcheon.
Disgrace #3: Womens 400m 47.60 Marita Koch 1985
Same scenario as Kratochvilova; also built like a brick shithouse! Best womens’ 400m time in the world in 2012? 49.16!
Enough Track; Back to Cycling
In my opinion, we must view Armstrong in his correct historical context. He starred in a sport rife with proven, and suspected, drug cheats and his era was perhaps the one when this cheating was most prevalent; read acceptable to the sport’s governing bodies.
It’s simple really; in all the sports I’ve mentioned, the cheats prosper for as long as their cheating or drug masking ability remain more sophisticated than the governing bodies’ drug test procedures OR, and I reckon this is significant, for as long as the governing bodies condone the cheating by sweeping it under the carpet or turning a blind eye.
What do you do if you’re the governing body and almost all the global stars of your sport are cheating? Interesting question, huh? So was Armstrong the worst or only cheat? Or was he ‘normal’ and the non-drug users in the minority?
I suspect the latter; read on to understand why.
Pre-Armstrong Drug Use (cheating) by Cyclists
Firstly, let’s look at earlier generations to establish whether the drug cheating seeds were already planted in the sport of cycling or whether Lance Armstrong was the flag-bearer and devil incarnate who first visited cheating on a previously innocent and clean sport.
Well, in 1924 Henri Pélissier, Francis Pélissier & Charles Pélissier of France abandoned the Tour de France and gave an extraordinary interview to journalist Albert Londres in which they admitted that they had used: strychnine, cocaine, chloroform, ‘horse ointment’ and other drugs in order to keep going.
Italian Fausto Coppi admitted in 1949 that he used amphetamines in order to remain competitive.
Jean Mallejac’s 1955 race collapse was widely attributed to drug use. And so it goes on. And on. Almost every year!
Drug use was first outlawed in cycling in 1965 and drug testing was first introduced to the Tour de France in 1966. Hmmm, a bit late to the party but it cleaned up the sport, right? Well, no.
In 1967 Great Britain’s Tom Simpson died during the 13th stage of the Tour de France. A post mortem found amphetamines in his system. Bernard Thévenet of France won the 1975 & 1977 TdF’s by over-using cortisone. In 1982, after retiring from racing, he said “I was doped with cortisone for three years and there were many like me. …The experience ruined my health”
Cycling legend, Eddie Merckx returned multiple positive drug tests, most notably in the 1969 TdF! Was he, a 5-time TdF and 5-time Giro d’Italia winner, as untouchable then as Armstrong later became?
Irish legend, Stephen Roche, was implicated in widespread administration of EPO to his team in 1993. It was not just the shit-kicker domestiques who were touched by drug controversy but the elites as well.
Basically, it was corticosteroids or simple stimulants, like amphetamines, up to the 1970’s, then in the 1980’s it was on to the more sophisticated blood doping and early anabolic steroids (remember 1980’s sprinter Ben Johnson and the aforementioned Griffith-Joyner & Kratochvilova?)
After steroid testing began to catch out athletes in all sports, along came the temporary fix of sophisticated masking agents and then the more sinister EPO which stimulated increased red blood cell production. The deaths of 18 European cyclists between 1987 & 1991 were attributed to EPO!
The Dutch PDM team became infamous for its systematic and team-wide use of drugs and, hilariously, the entire team withdrew from the 1991 TdF because of ‘food poisoning’. A year earlier two of their riders had withdrawn from the race with acute heart problems. And so it goes on. From the 1990’s it appears, from the evidence that has since emerged, that entire teams were systematically and ‘professionally’ drug cheating – so it almost certainly began long before then. The truth always lags behind the cheating!
Drug Cheating During the Armstrong Era
So this is the professional environment in which Lance Armstrong (b. 1971) began his professional cycling career at the top level, in 1991. He’d had modest success, but no big titles, when cancer hit him in 1996, cancer of the testicle, lung & brain. He returned to racing, triumphantly and with his new Foundation in place, in 1998 – and the fun started.
Let’s take a look at Lance’s top contemporaries of the 1990’s & 2000’s; the ones who occupied the spotlight when he didn’t win:
i) In 1999, the year of Armstrong’s first Tour de France (TdF) win, the runner-up was Swiss rider Alex Zulle, who a year earlier had admitted to having taken EPO for the previous four years. Zulle made the admission only after his Festina team was caught in a huge 1998 drug scandal – the first of many in the modern era.
ii) Jan Ullrich of Germany, the 1997 TdF winner and a three-time runner-up to Armstrong, was the biggest-name cyclist among at least 50 implicated in the anti-EPO “Operation Puerto” in Spain in 2006. He also served a six-month ban following a positive test in 2002 for amphetamines.
iii) In 2007, Bjarne Riis of Denmark admitted to using EPO, growth hormones and cortisone on his way to victory in the TdF in 1996.
iv) Another Dane, Michael Rasmussen, won a TdF stage in miracle style on the 2007 TdF and subsequently admitted he’d been drug cheating for the preceding 12 years via the use of: EPO, cortisone, insulin, human growth hormone and blood transfusions!
v) Armstrong teammate Floyd Landis put in a mountain stage win for the ages, much like Rasmussen’s, in the course of winning the 2006 TdF. Urinalysis subsequently revealed massively increased testosterone levels and he was stripped of the title.
vi) Ivan Basso of Italy, the 2005 TdF runner-up, served a two-year ban linked to the Puerto case.
vii) The 2004 runner-up was Andreas Kloeden of Germany. In 2009, an independent German probe alleged his Telekom and T-Mobile teams engaged in systematic blood doping from 1995 to 2006, and that he used illegal blood transfusions during the 2006 Tour.
viii) Legendary climber Marco Pantani, the much-loved ‘Pirate’, won both the TdF & Giro in 1998 during a career beset by drug use allegations. He was disqualified from the 1999 Giro after EPO was found during testing and, despite competing up to 2003, he lapsed into depression, eventually dying tragically young at just age 44 – of cocaine poisoning.
So, these guys were probably all cheating and many of the other prominent riders of Armstrong’s era as well.
It’s all very well to strip Armstrong of 7xTdF titles but without subjecting his competitors to the same level of suspicion and scrutiny it’s impossible to award any of those titles to another rider – so I say they belong to Lance because if we judge Armstrong in the drug-riddled context of his era he was truly the best and the winner of those seven TdF races.
And if you think he’s unworthy, get up the IAAF as to why the deceased Flojo still holds those two sprinting world records and nobody can even run close to her or Koch’s or Kratichvilova’s times of almost 30 years ago!