Lance Armstrong’s confession to performance enhancing drug use is a devastating blow to the sports community.
After years of denials, the sports world was inclined, and frankly hoping, that the most recent allegations by the U.S.Anti-Doping Agency were untrue. Unfortunately, in the last decade of sports, accusations of performance enhancing drug (PED) use have too often been true. The fans and admirers have had to deal with the reality that their favorite athletes have cheated.
In baseball, this year was characterized by a Hall of Fame ballot ridden with steroid users. Barry Bonds, the greatest hitter, and Roger Clemens, the greatest pitcher of this generation, were once regarded as first-ballot hall of famers. Along with Sammy Sosa, who with Mark McGwire helped resurrect baseball in 1998 after the lockout of 1994, they were denied spots in the hall of fame.
Despite these transgressions by some of our most beloved athletes, America must be willing to forgive them and move on. We far too often forget one crucial thing about our athletes: they are human beings just like the rest of us and prone to mistakes. Naturally, we idolize our star competitors for their talents and put them on a pedestal. They are bigger, stronger, and faster than the rest of us. Likewise, every athlete seeks to gain an edge in their sport to be able to bring the fans to the seats, please their audience, and maintain their place among their competition. When opportunities like steroids present themselves, many athletes take them because of the pressure and their personal desire to be the best.
The sporting world has profited heavily off of these athletes, including we the fans. McGwire and Sosa’s home run record chase in 1998 captivated baseball and non-baseball fans alike around the country. Before Armstrong won the Tour De France after beating cancer in 1999, Americans had no regard for the most grueling event on earth. MLB Commissioner Bud Selig could never imagine how baseball would be without 1998, like cyclists could never imagine their sport without the spike in popularity generated by Armstrong. As fans, we can’t envision baseball or cycling without these events either, as they have shaped and brought unprecedented excitement to sports.
Does this mean we should encourage PED use? No, cheating should not be encouraged. However, we need to acknowledge that it has happened and move on. We cannot erase these episodes from the history books. When Bonds, Clemens, McGwire, Sosa, and Armstrong, all among the best of all time in their game, are brought down because of steroids, it seems as if they were the only ones using PEDs. The media does not publicize the other 129 baseball players that are linked to steroids use or the 19 Tour de France winners since 1960 that were implicated in doping. Not to mention the countless others using PEDs in those sports that we don’t know about.
German journalist Hans Halter once said about the Tour de France, “For as long as the Tour has existed, since 1903, its participants have been doping themselves. No dope, no hope. The Tour, in fact, is only possible because — not despite the fact — there is doping. For 60 years this was allowed. For the past 30 years it has been officially prohibited. Yet the fact remains: great cyclists have been doping themselves, then as now.”
This adequately describes the culture created over the past two decades in sports. Steroids became a necessity to stay competitive, and likewise athletes followed suit. The greats of this era were competing against other athletes that used PEDs. In one sense, their accomplishments are remarkable. Bonds hit 763 home runs against pitchers that were juiced, Clemens won 354 games against hitters that were juiced, and Armstrong won 7 Tour de France’s against other cyclists that were juiced. These athletes were competing against their sport’s best on a level playing field.
In the end, PEDs did not teach Bonds how to hit, Clemens how to pitch, or Armstrong how to ride a bike. They did not exempt any of these athletes from the hard work and training regimens that it took to be the best. Yes, it gave them the extra energy to continue to work and develop their skills. We must concede, however, that they were against peers that were doing the same.
As Armstrong’s book title appropriately says, “It’s not about the bike.” His cycling record may take a hit, but his true legacy as a cancer survivor and founder of the Livestrong foundation is an inspiration to those fighting similar battles the world. So let us forgive our athletes, not to condone their cheating but to understand their nature as human beings. We need to move past this sad episode in sports, yet provide these athletes credit for their accomplishments. The steroids era may be a difficult time, but forgiving not condemning, our athletes is the way to understand the faults of the past and to construct appropriate safeguards for the future.