It wasn’t about the bike clearly when Lance Armstrong sat on the couch opposite the grande dame of celebrity confessionals, Oprah Winfrey. But in this great American ritual of cleansing, it wasn’t about him being ripped apart either.
Just about everybody knew that Armstrong would admit to doping once he had agreed to being on the show. The issue was how much she would get him to divulge. Both Armstrong and Oprah did what was expected of them, but left viewers like me wanting to know more.
It would have been educative—for fans and administrators alike—to understand not just how Armstrong’s mind worked, but how drug abuse penetrates cycling and other sports at the highest echelons. What, how, and why has this proliferated so much? Was there some inflexion point in his life when he could have been saved from self-destruction?
There are several considerations that go into the making of such programmes. In that context, just getting Armstrong to state whatever he did on camera was a coup. Even if he did not quite appear full of remorse, the emperor had been stripped of his clothes.
Like millions of others across the world I’ve lost a hero too. Cycling to medals, titles, fame and money was only one facet of Armstrong’s overpowering personality. His successful fight against testicular cancer through sport—which elevated him to the status of a cult figure—was perhaps the more significant.
The second aspect—though in many ways unconnected with the first—sadly now stands as diminished. Armstrong’s cynical deployment of his fight against cancer to camouflage his use of drugs to create a superhuman persona is a shocking reminder of the extent to which human beings will go to achieve their ends.
Armstrong’s confession comes in the wake of several drug cheats being caught in the past few decades. Ben Johnson testing positive for anabolic steroids three days after winning the 100m gold at the 1988 Olympics was the first striking example that drug abuse was not restricted to athletes from the erstwhile Eastern Bloc.
In subsequent years, Marion Jones’ confession, among those from other athletes, blew the lid off the practice among US athletes in such matters. Indeed, the malaise is global and has not spared India either if the number of our athletes who have tested positive in recent years is any indication.
The problem has not been restricted to track and field alone. In tennis, football, cricket, hockey—virtually every sport—the ingenuity and use of drugs to enhance performance has reached a level that has kept anti-doping agencies like the World Anti-Doping Agency (Wada) on constant vigil, but also on the back foot.
There are other aspects to cheating too, like match-fixing, which have sullied the reputation of sport. The anguish of fans arises from the belief that sport is pristine and sportspersons are unlike ordinary mortals and above corruption. The truth is that they are all too human and subject to the same frailties: greed for money and fame, vanity and excessive competitiveness, insecurities about their future, jealousies and complexes about rivals, et al.
Talking of sports cheats, the one I find most unusual and amazing is Fred Lorz, a bricklayer from New York who won the marathon in the 1904 Olympics in St Louis. The race, as several archival reports suggest, was run on a forbiddingly hot and humid summer day. What made the race more daunting was that the cars accompanying the runners were throwing up clouds of suffocating dust.
Lorz won the race in 3 hours and 13 minutes. Just when he was about to climb the podium for his gold medal, a spectator created a ruckus that the winner was a sham and Lorz’s world came crashing down.
It was to emerge that Lorz had actually capitalized on a misunderstanding to claim the gold. Barely 9 miles (around 14km) into the marathon, he had withdrawn because of fatigue and was picked up by his coach, who then drove almost 11 miles before their car broke down. Lorz decided then to reach the stadium on foot, and was hailed as winner by an unsuspecting crowd. He was to say later that he played a “practical joke”, which was obviously frowned upon by the authorities, but Lorz became a favourite of fans.
The gold medal then went to Lorz’s compatriot Thomas Hicks. But there was a further twist to the story as it transpired later that Hicks had twice during the race been given strychnine with brandy to overcome the debilitating heat and fatigue.
But Hicks was not stripped of his medal because performance-enhancing drugs were not banned then. The first drug cheat, ergo, went scot-free despite everybody knowing of his crime.
Ayaz Memon is a senior columnist who writes on sports and other matters.