Friday, October 12, 2012
TWO ARMSTRONGS, LANCE AND GEORGE
Disgraced American cyclist. Disgraced American soldier.
During Abraham Lincoln's bloody attempt at keeping the southern states under the thumb of northeastern mercantilist interests, George Armstrong Custer was a flamboyant, successful and renowned hero of the Union cause. After Appamattox, Custer's military career moved west, the southern rebels had been subdued, if not killed, and it was time for Manifest Destiny to be implemented on horse back. The neo-lithic tribes of the otherwise uninhabited lands between the Mississippi and the Pacific had to be either imprisoned on reservations or sent to the Happy Hunting Grounds, a policy determined at the highest political levels and implemented by General Phillip Sheridan. Custer himself was one of many tasked to carry out this policy on the ground. His defeat at the Little Big Horn in 1876, in what's now eastern Montana, was at first a national tragedy. But, as time went by, the public became aware not only of the death of 258 US cavalrymen on the banks of an insignificant, generally unnavigable creek in the middle of nowhere, but also of a government policy that was meant to exterminate human beings. There was a subtle change in the attitude of the general population over the federal government's strategy in western expansion. Now that the land had changed ownership, with zero likelihood of it ever being returned to its original owners, a semblance of a guilty conscience began to emerge. Of course there couldn't be collective guilt, it had to be personified, and that person was to be the blood-thirsty Custer, not only a killer of women and children, but a loser and failure as well. This process peaked in the late sixties when the movie "Little Big Man" appeared, portraying Custer as a princely psychopath. He had become the poster boy for 19th century American cultural and military excess extended to Southeast Asia. And so it remains even today. There are no George Armstrong Custer high schools.
Lance Armstrong, professional cyclist and seven-time Tour de France winner, has become the poster boy for pharmaceutical excess in sports. Stimulants and performance enhancing drugs have been present in sports probably since before the original Greek Olympic games. With increased knowledge of human physiology and chemistry, drugs were bound to become significant in athletic contests, not only in endurance events like cycling but also in sports where short term explosive strength was needed, football, baseball, etc. As salaries in professional sports rose to stratospheric levels, it was inevitable that competitors on the edge of success would use drugs to get the advantage needed to win an event or maintain a spot on a team. Sanctioning bodies made an attempt to limit drug's influence on their own sport, setting up drug testing programs for participants in unlikely endeavors like snooker, darts and draft horse pulls. High profile athletes were caught using illegitimate techniques to improve their performance. One third of the 1984 US Olympic cycling team engaged in blood doping, which was not forbidden at the time. Track and basketball star Marion Jones forfeited 5 Olympic medals after admitting using PEDs. Weight lifters have tested positive for PEDs 36 times in Olympic competition since the practice has been made illegal. Jim Bouton's book Ball Four, an account of his career in major league baseball, makes extensive mention of the use of amphetamines by ballplayers. One-time Oakland Raider Bill Romanowski admitted to using human growth hormone, as have a number of other NFL players. NBA basketball star Rashard Lewis tested positive for PEDs and was given a ten game suspension.
But perhaps in no other sport is drug use as much a topic of conversation as cycling. Although doping has been not just common but mandatory for success in the Tour de France since its inception in 1903, the death of Tom Simpson in 1967 brought negative attention to the practice. The list of riders suspended from the Tour and other UCI events for failing drug tests is a long one that includes some of the most successful riders in the sport, including the greatest of all, Eddy Merckx. The BALCO affair in San Francisco involved "designer steroid" use by high profile stars in several sports, including baseball legend Barry Bonds and cycling Olympian Tammy Thomas. But nobody accused of PED use has the international profile of Lance Armstrong, cancer survivor, charity spokesman, and cycling superstar. Just as to Americans Armstrong is what the Tour de France is all about, so too has he become what doping in cycling is all about. The USADA, the agency with a nearly $9 million federal budget to investigate drug use in a media sports promotion in France, has released a report to the UCI of over 200 pages detailing the extensive use of drugs by teams of which the now-retired Armstrong was a member. Eleven of his former teammates gave testimony to the agency documenting Armstrong's drug use and their own. Since his refusal to defend himself in the arbitration process addressing the charges, Armstrong has been banned for life. The eleven witnesses, some of whom are also retired, have received 6 month bans. Another view of the case appears here.
Armstrong is portrayed in the media as a doping ringleader and pusher of banned substances to his teammates. That's probably an accurate assessment. But his teammates, the much-respected George Hincapie, Levi Leipheimer, Frankie Andreu, and others, were hardly forced to submit to the doping regimen. Nor were big time riders on other teams, Alexander Vinokurov (current Olympic gold medalist) or Danilo DeLuca, for instance, were caught doping without having any connection to the seven time Tour winner. Yet Armstrong will be the face and the name remembered for decades as the doping villain of sport, in a society where pharmaceuticals are endemic , just as George Armstrong Custer will forever take the individual blame for the genocidal policies of the society of which he was only a member.