What I want from Lance Armstrong is the unabridged and brutal truth. It’s very simple. I want to know why he doped.
Unlike other commentators, I am hoping Armstrong avoids mea culpa and throwing himself on the mercy of the court of public opinion. What I want is to know is just what it was about cycling in the 1990s and 2000s that enabled such a sophisticated doping operation. Armstrong knows where all the skeletons are buried and just how high systemic doping in cycling really went.
I hope that Armstrong really does tell all. I want him to describe just how tough it is to be an elite cyclist and what people have to do to get there. Joe Public is largely ignorant of what it takes to be an elite athlete. It is a bizarre and rarefied world that bears little resemblance to the two-dimensional purity we see on our screens. Broadcasts are carefully stage-managed and mediated to ensure a spectacle that is pure sport.
And we all fall for it because we want to be deceived into believing there is something pure and romantic about sport. This comes from Victorian times where sport was intricately tied to religion and the arrogance of British colonialism. Sport was seen as a method of training young British men to take their rightful position of moral superiority when dealing with the colonies. Sport in this era has been characterised as “muscular Christianity”.
The reality is that elite sport is a brutal place, constantly treading the line between abusing and venerating athletes. Sport constantly demands citius, altius, fortius at any cost. Athletes can end up being treated like widgets in a production line, where ones that fail any test are discarded. Athletes caught doping are replaced by the next available athlete with little, if any observable impact on performance, sponsorship or revenues. The costs are borne entirely by the athlete, and the benefits belong to the sport.
The problem with Armstrong is that his comments may make us face the brutal reality of what we ask athletes to do in the name of sport, usually for our entertainment. So I want Armstrong to describe, in detail, what athletes have to do when providing a urine sample. I wonder how many people in the general public would strip from the chest to the knee and have someone watch a sample “leave the body”. I wonder how many people would be willing to tell their employer where they will be for an hour each day (including weekends and holidays) three months in advance of a race or risk losing their jobs. This is what happens to athletes to enable randomised out-of-competition testing, and has been observed to be the kind of thing courts usually reserve for paedophiles released from prison. This is the reality of what athletes have to do to allow the public to enjoy “drug-free sport”.
Exposing the public to the reality of elite athleticism breaches the psychological contract we have with sport, where we agree to be deceived. This puts us in a state of cognitive dissonance. Our behaviour (enjoying sport where athletes are required to dope to meet our performance expectations) fails to match our attitudes (pure and virtuous sport defined by the absence of doping). It draws back the veil and shows us that there is no such thing as drug-free sport. We know the majority of athletes use a cocktail of pharmaceutical “supplements” and medicines in seeking a competitive advantage.
This is perhaps why some people want Armstrong to apologise. But what I want is for him to tell us exactly what role different players had in co-ordinating and enabling doping in elite cycling in the same uncompromising way he rode in every event he entered. I want to know if the US Postal Service, and by extension the US government was somehow complicit. I want to know if International Olympic Committee members were complicit. I want to know if the International Cycling Union was complicit. I want to know if the organisers of the Tour de France were complicit. I want to know if sponsors were complicit.
I also want to know what it is like being singled out and relentlessly pursued by the United States Anti-Doping Agency.
What I hope is for Armstrong to blow this whole thing so wide open that Joe Public can understand what went on and why doping happens. I hope to be mesmerised and confounded by just what it takes to be an elite cyclist – doping, anti-doping and all.