Lessons from Lance

Lynne Kiesling

So now we at least know something direct from the horse’s mouth about Lance Armstrong’s use of performance-enhancing drugs before and during his long run of commanding Tour de France performances. In addition to the interview with Oprah Winfrey, this CBS 60 Minutes segment and this Cycling News interview with Armstrong provide fuller details. If you do not follow cycling or have not been following these events, Juliet Macur’s New York Times story from January 6 provides a good summary. (By the way, Juliet Macur, ESPN’s Bonnie Ford, and WSJ’s Jason Gay (here and here recently) are outstanding journalists and writers whose insights and knowledge have been essential reading on cycling for years, not just in dissecting l’affaire Armstrong).

Having followed cycling since the mid-1980s, my sense is that Armstrong is right that PED use is endemic in quite a few sports, including cycling. But it’s not universal. I also think that Armstrong is choosing his words carefully, and in a very calculated manner is trying to walk the fine line between saying enough to get some reputation capital back and be readmitted to professional racing (in triathlon this time, as in his early career) and saying so much that he re-triggers the federal lawsuit about his alleged conspiracy to distribute and use illegal substances, which would land him in jail.

What I find the most personally disturbing is his callous willingness to treat other people as means to an end, one end, his winning the Tour as many times as possible. The bullying and the backing of young, eager, naive athletes into Faustian corners is unforgivable. For that alone I’d deny him a USA Triathlon license. But I’m a very strong believer in private ordering through reputation and strong social norms, probably a stronger believer in them than the general population.

Some observers, including my good friends at Reason, argue that we should allow PED use in professional sports. I disagree, for two reasons, one physiological and one moral. In sports like cycling, the blood doping is intended to increase the oxygen content of the blood and to accelerate recovery from endurance activity. It does that, but it does that differently for each person, because each person has a different baseline blood oxygen content (hematocrit) and each person responds differently to augmentation. It’s not just a parallel shift that “raises all boats” equivalently. So if you are a rider with a low hematocrit who responds well to doping and you beat a rider with a higher hematocrit who responds less to doping, what have you achieved? Who’s the better cyclist on that day?

And that gets to the moral reason why I think we should continue to have sanctions against PED use in sports. Sports, whether professional or recreational, are meaningless unless they are grounded in the deeply human institutions of fair play. We have evolved a sense of fair play for a reason. Abandoning that institution with respect to PED use in professional sports would abandon fair play, would turn sports into nothing more than a “bread and circus” spectacle to entertain the masses in the manner of the Roman gladiators, and would feed back into youth sports with very perverse and negative incentives that would undermine the physical, psychological, and moral benefits we derive from participating in sports. If we relinquish fair play in sports we relegate sports to meaningless decadence. I can’t support that. Nor does the evolution of our institutions through human history match with that decision.

Which gets me to Roger Pielke Jr.’s very insightful post in which he argues that sports need stronger institutions. I really encourage you to read his post, because he does a very good job of summarizing the complicated institutional framework in which many sports operate. Cycling is an Olympic sport, and it also involves competitions (like the Tour de France and the Giro d’Italia) run by international organizations. It also has a governance organization, the UCI, which has come in for a lot of justifiable criticism regarding its transparency and its enforcement of its private rules against doping (in fact, I think it hasn’t come in for enough criticism and that lots of heads need to roll, but that’s for another post). Roger’s post also highlights the awkward nexus of the International Olympic Committee (and the USOC) and its private sanctions against doping, the non-governmental organization that is charged with monitoring and enforcing these sanctions (WADA, and in the US, USADA), and the treatment of PED use in sports by various international governments. In particular, in many other countries enforcement does involve governments and PED use violations are subject to criminal prosecution, while under US law they are treated as private matters as long as the substances are not themselves illegal. Of course, this line gets crossed all the time, as we see when Congress gets a burr under its saddle and hauls ex-baseball players up to testify about PED use.

And that’s where I think l’affaire Armstrong and the US government’s pursuit of him and how USADA plays into that should make us all pause and consider the implications of this government power more broadly. Last week in Wired, Brian Alexander wrote that the Armstrong case and USADA’s role in it should make you, and me, and each of us worry:

So here’s the thing you need to know: The USADA takedown of Armstrong matters, and it could effect everybody. Because it will enhance the power and reach of a private, non-profit business that has managed to harness the power of the federal government in what’s quickly becoming a brand new war on drugs … with all the same pitfalls brought to you by the first war on drugs.

The USADA is a private outfit. Yet it gets taxpayer money. And it has existed in this weird legal nether world since its creation in 1999 at the instigation of the International Olympic Committee, United States Olympic Committee, and President Clinton’s White House Office of National Drug Control Policy. The USADA is designated by the U.S. Congress as the company that handles anti-doping for this country, because the World Anti-Doping Treaty — a UNESCO-promulgated document that the U.S. signed with almost no discussion – obligates the U.S. to do a number of things, which includes conforming our laws to the international anti-doping code. …

The USADA has wanted Armstrong for years. To it, and to the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA), Armstrong was Moby Dick: If they could kill the whale – and do it without a raft of positive tests to show Armstrong doped – a new model of anti-doping would be enshrined into practice. And that’s just what happened.

Piggy-backing on a federal investigation, the USADA was able to pressure Armstrong teammates to confess to doping and implicate Armstrong … with no positive test results. It was an FBI-style investigation spanning multiple countries, but there was no “smoking syringe” found stuck in Armstrong’s arm. …

So while you might wish athletes didn’t dope — I do, too — and want action taken to combat doping, you might also want to be careful about what you’re wishing for. Especially since sports is taking on a broader definition that includes amateurs, low-level marathon runners, and even your kid’s high school football team.

I’ve excerpted Alexander’s argument, but I do encourage you to read it fully for a better understanding of exactly how sobering the implications are.

That’s what I think there are a lot of disturbing lessons from Lance, and from the USADA’s pursuit of him. Both his craven conduct and lack of character and the sinister implications of his prosecution bode ill in ways that will diminish sports that we love, as spectators and as participants. And they increase the authority of the state in ways that we’ve already seen are destructive.