The endurance-sport world is aquiver with the recent allegations from L’Équipe (a French newspaper) that Lance Armstrong took Erythropoietin (EPO) to help him win the Tour de France in 1999. The paper flatly calls Lance a liar, though the affair is certainly much more complicated than that. What it boils down to is that a French doping lab, working under new EPO-testing methodology, discovered positive test results amongst anonymous samples from the 1999 Tour. Apparently someone at the French paper was able to break through the anonymity and identify six of the samples as belonging to Armstrong.
So why are people getting so hung up on this retired cyclist’s six-year-old pee? Well, scientific ramifications aside (can signs of EPO last that long in urine and did the lab follow proper testing protocols?) this situation has the same draw as a classic Greek tragedy: the hero is about to fall, and we are to look at him and see ourselves.
The general public grabs on to people like Lance. He becomes an example to us all, and his morality is important, especially because of his repeated claims that he is drug-free. If the allegations are true, his guilt would be made worse by the fact that he has essentially based his celebrity on being “clean”—it’s his shtick, so to speak (oh yeah, and the bike thing, too).
The doping drama takes on added meaning for those of us in the athletic community. Athletes (especially endurance athletes) will do some crazy things. The other day I trained for two hours. I ran up a mountain that would leave most fit people out of breath, even if they just walked up. I do this because I will be representing my country in my chosen, albeit masochistic, discipline. I also do it to see if I can, to push my body as far as it will go, and because when I run a race, I want to win.
If I do win, I might be a role model to my little sister and to the university-level athletes that I coach. I don’t have the burden of an entire society worrying about what I do, but I still have choices to make regarding what I put in my body. I have a pretty open diet, but I do make use of a scientific recovery drink, as well as a healthy does of vitamins, both entirely legal. If I don’t include these supplements in my diet, I am not able to train at such a high level, and my body breaks down. But for elite competitors like Lance Armstrong and Kenenisa Bekele, so much more is required to maintain high levels of performance. Armstrong is on his bike six hours a day. I heard that some Olympic triathletes carry entire suitcases full of (legal) supplements when they travel.
The pressure to perform is much greater, and so are the temptations to break the rules.
In track and field, most drug scandals focus on the sprinters—Ben Johnson being the prime Canadian example. Those of us in the distance-running community have always been a bit smug about our heroes—those East Africans who ran ten miles to school and back every day in bare feet (probably uphill both ways), and who now provide for their families through their racing exploits. But maybe it’s time to wonder about distance runners. Robert Johnson, a competitive runner and the co-founder of Letsrun.com, made an interesting study of the progression of world distance running records back in 2000. The connection he makes between the FDA approval of EPO in 1989 and the explosion of distance-running records is scary.
Sometimes, when we see chinks in the armour of our heroes, it is reassuring—it lets us know that they are human. When someone like Bekele says, “Yes, there are days when running and training twice a day is not easy. Sometimes the weather is bad or it is simply a bad day. I am not happy every day, but running is my job,” I can identify with that, because I feel it too.
But how can we enjoy their seemingly superhuman exploits with the spectre of drug use hanging over them? There is a bit of Icarus in everyone who strives for something more, but is their fatal flaw that they want too much? And seeing Lance fall? That may be disappointing, but I think it would be cathartic, too.
John Lofranco takes breaks from rigourous training to push the limits of sports writing for Maisonneuve. His columns appears every two weeks. Read more columns by John Lofranco.