In the ultimate fall from grace, Lance Armstrong was reduced in stature to the extent of sitting on Oprah Winfrey’s couch this week and confessing to using performance enhancing drugs for virtually his entire career. Shockingly unshocking. Is anyone really surprised that Lance Armstrong doped and doped and doped his way to seven Tour de France titles? How about Barry Bonds hitting 73 home runs? Or Roger Clemens winning seven Cy Young awards? The common thread: they all cheated–themselves and us and their sports.
Statistically speaking, history has a foolproof way of validating the human element in sports. Rules changes aside (lowering the pitching mound, handcuffing football defenses, the three point shot), records spanning seventy-five or a hundred years are remarkably resilient. We know that, all things being equal, a baseball player cannot hit more than 61 home runs in a 162 game season, a pitcher cannot win more than 30 games, a football running back cannot run for much more than 2000 yards in a season, and so on in swimming, track and field, cycling, etc. Athletes today are bigger and stronger and faster than they were even twenty years ago, much less 50, 75 or 100 years ago. And yet, records (other than those set by longevity) tend to stand. Hard to believe, but maybe some of the players of yesteryear (Roger Maris, Babe Ruth, Hank Aaron, Jim Brown and Jesse Owens) were better than anyone else, even compared to today’s athletes.
But at some point the athletes lost their way. Sports moved from being about sport and became about something very different: money. And when sports became about money–mostly for the leagues and networks and advertisers, but also for the athletes, it began to corrupt everyone involved. Of course, ego has a lot to do with it as well, but athletes have always been about ego. When Alex Rodriguez wasn’t satisfied being considered the best player in his sport, he had to have the highest contract as well ($25 million per year), and then he was so egotistical that neither the ridiculous amount of money nor the statistics he was achieving without doping (if there ever were any) weren’t good enough either. So he doped. And he got caught. And then he admitted it, because he was still so egotistical that he felt he had to rehabilitate his reputation. Just like Lance Armstrong.
Some say that Armstrong did so much good, raised so much money for cancer research, that we should give him a break for cheating his way to seven titles. Really? Lance Armstrong purposefully ruined the lives of anyone who he ever imagined posed any threat to exposing him. His ego was so big that he stopped at nothing–lawsuits, threats, financial ruin–to maintain his ruse. And he should be forgiven because he also did good? Well Bernie Madoff gave a lot of money to charity over the years, too.
Did anyone ever have to hear Lance Armstrong admit that he doped to really believe that he doped? Or Barry Bonds? Or Roger Clemens? In my opinion, the enormity of the disparity in these athletes’ accomplishments versus the historical record was a tipoff to some fishy stuff going on. Here’s my question, and I hope I’m wrong, but . . . can you look at any of the off-the-charts athletes these days and not think they must be on something? If they are, and they get caught, at least they know that Oprah has a couch they can visit someday.