Longer than most people, I held out hope that Barry Bonds was clean. Sure, he was bulked up, but that could just mean a lot of weight training. And it wasn't like he was some mook who suddenly started hitting homers—the guy was already headed for the Hall of Fame. And that swing? You don't get a piece of perfect physical poetry like that from steroids. Of course, eventually, it became impossible to deny. Which brings us to the story of Lance Armstrong. Yesterday Armstrong gave up his fight against doping charges, and the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency announced it would strip him of his seven Tour de France titles and ban him from the sport for life. While Armstrong never failed a drug test, multiple people, including former teammates, were prepared to testify that they either saw Armstrong doping or had other direct evidence that he was.
Lance Armstrong isn't just an athlete, he's a brand, an inspiration industry unto himself. Leaving aside what you might think of him as a person (an interesting topic in itself), how should we now think about his athletic accomplishments? Winning the Tour seven times was one of the greatest athletic feats in history. After his recovery from testicular cancer, Armstrong was said to be possessed of a super-human will that drove him to train harder than anyone else and call upon reserves of mental strength no one could match. Does that all disappear if he was cheating?
I'm not so sure. If widespread reports are to be believed, at the time Armstrong was at his peak, virtually all of his competitors were doping, too. Subsequent Tour winners Floyd Landis and Alberto Contador also got their Tour wins stripped for doping. "Everybody was doing it" isn't an excuse, but it isn't that a juiced Lance Armstrong won seven Tours de France over a bunch of clean cyclists; a juiced Lance Armstrong won seven Tours de France over a bunch of cyclists who were also juiced. I don't know enough about the science of it to say whether that really means it was a level playing field, but it seems unlikely that Armstrong's juicing was of some higher quality than what everybody else was using.
I'm not trying to defend his actions in any way. But we do have some rather arbitrary standards for what constitutes cheating. For instance, if you take a drug called EPO which increases your oxygen-carrying red blood cells, you've cheated. But if you sleep in a hyperbaric chamber, which does pretty much the same thing, you haven't. At last year's U.S. Open, we found out that Novak Djokovic, then in the midst of one of the two or three greatest seasons ever put together by a male tennis player, used something called a CVAC Pod to increase his red blood cell count. Athletes do all kinds of things to improve their performance, from the sneaky to the ridiculous (the baseball players who wear those absurd titanium necklaces thinking they'll improve their balance or whatever are so goddamn stupid I can't believe they're capable of tying their own cleats). And who's to say Babe Ruth's strict pre-game regimen of whiskey and hookers didn't give him an edge?
Of course, we'll never think of Armstrong's feat without thinking of cheating, which is too bad. But it's a good bet that technology is going to keep at least a couple of steps ahead of our ability to figure out what constitutes "fair play."