The columns on Lance Armstrong just get nastier and nastier. The LA Times’ Michael Hiltzik actually delves into neo-libertarian bullying, saying if the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency’s lawyers were any good, they’d have better jobs. (If you feel compelled to retort in personal terms, use any combination of the words “writer,” “J.K. Rowling” and “best-sellers list.” Or, as Chris Farley once put it, “Is that Bill Shakespeare I see over there?”)
Let’s clear up one myth. USADA chief Travis Tygart is being painted as some cross between Inspector Javert and Kenneth Starr. He’s neither. He has evidence that he believes is enough to persuade neutral parties (if any exist) that Lance Armstrong was not totally clean in his Tour wins.
And yet, USA TODAY finds, Armstrong might not have lost all his Tour titles had he cooperated. Not that this is the important part to Armstrong. It’s not about the titles now. It’s his rep.
In any case, USADA’s authority to strip the titles is highly debated. That’s evident even from WADA’s John Fahey in his widely circulated quote: “Olympic medals and titles are for other agencies to decide, not WADA.” (All of which leads to a brilliant parody: “I Am Stripping the USA Women’s National Soccer Team of Their Gold Medals!”)
And so we raise the question: What has been accomplished here?
I’m late getting to a couple more good reads on the topic:
- Bonnie D. Ford, ESPN: “As many critics have correctly suggested, the majority of other men who populated the podiums in that era are suspect, as well, so what good would it do to reshuffle the standings and refit the yellow jerseys? Cycling in those years is rapidly approaching the point of no-there-there, unless we co-sign the cynical premise that doping was so endemic that the playing field was level anyway.”
- Jim Caple, ESPN: “We must test. But we also must draw a line somewhere. And going after athletes for something they might have done seven to 13 years ago clearly crosses that line. Stripping Armstrong of his titles does far more harm than good. USADA should have let this one go. The agency exists to police sports, not destroy them.”
- And a powerful, personal read from the WSJ’s Jason Gay, usually seen unleashing his wit on Twitter: “There will always be the moral relativists, outraged by outrage. There will always be those who point to the epidemic of doping, and wonder if the playing field was merely leveled. Don’t be naive, they say—sports is about the furious pursuit of an edge. In full arc of Armstrong’s story, doesn’t the good outweigh any allegation? That latter argument is not an abstraction to me. More than 10 years ago, I got a cancer diagnosis. From the start, doctors assured me it was quickly treatable, and it proved to be. But it was still frightening.”
I’m not comfortable calling myself an Armstrong apologist or even saying that it doesn’t matter. (Another clunker in that LAT column: “These pitchers are taking testosterone. Is that worse than hitters getting Lasik?” Yes. The technical counterargument for comparing routine eye surgery with screwing up your body to make it more susceptible to cancers and other ugliness would be “Duh.”) But I’m not going to discount the good Armstrong has done, even if it’s ironic that he’s so much better loved outside his sport than within it.
Armstrong isn’t Joe Paterno. It’s not a question of whether a lifetime of good work can be undone by a shocking secret of horrifying negligence. We’re talking about someone who, at the very least, played within the bounds of what he knew cycling could reasonably test.
So don’t make Armstrong the spokesman of the new wave of clean cyclists. Aside from that, what else can we say about him at this point?