Why Lance matters a lot and not at all

June 15, 2012 § 30 Comments

The lines split clearly: Leave the guy alone vs. Hang him from the neck until dead. Great arguments exist on both sides, and not because Lance is “polarizing,” as the media love to say. The lines split because The Lance Problem is really two problems. The camp you fall into depends on which question you’re trying to answer.

The sporting question

Cycling has rules for two reasons. The first is so that everyone knows how the game is supposed to be played. The second is so that people who deviate from how the game is supposed to be played can be punished. When a cyclist breaks the rules, his punishment will generally be determined in large part on whether or not he intended to break the rules or didn’t intend to break the rules. Hence, André Mahé lost his 1949 victory and was ruled a “co-winner” of Paris-Roubaix with Serse Coppi because Mahé had gotten off course in the last kilometer and had to enter the velodrome from the press box’s back door. At the other end of the spectrum, Riccardo Riccò and Tyler Hamilton were kicked out of the sport for the next 10,000 years for repeated intentional doping.

The sporting question has little to do with doping, and has everything to do with getting caught. You can cheat and break every rule in the book in order to win, and as long as you don’t get caught, you’re the winner. Sports like NBA basketball institutionalize intentional rule breaking as a key strategy. If a good scorer happens to be a poor free throw shooter, you foul him often to limit his effectiveness. In the early days of cycling, classics were won when the victor hopped in a motor car for a few miles over the roughest patches of road. It’s not cheating if you’re never caught.

People who think Lance should be left alone believe that for purposes of the bike race he was never caught cheating. He never tested positive according to the rules in place at the time. After-the-fact accusations about cover-ups and forged TUE’s and pressure from high places and eyewitnesses to team doping will never overcome the fact that during the window of time to protest his performance in the race, he cleared all the hurdles.

Whatever rules he did or didn’t break, your time to catch him is over. The game clock has expired, dumbshit. Move on. If you’re so fucking concerned about the sanctity of clean sport, why don’t you run a few tests at the local USA Cycling masters races? You’ll catch a lot more cheats and inspire a lot more confidence among participants that there’s an even playing field.

The justice question

People in the other camp view this as a matter of justice. If Lance cheated, then he defrauded a lot more than a few bike racers and their fans. He built an empire of philanthropy on a lie. He exemplifies the morality espoused by the most evil people in history, that the end justifies the means. He is a tyrant, and the things he has done on and off the bike strike at our most deeply held convictions of justice and truth.

For these people, Lance’s Tour victories and the way he achieved them are beside the point. The way he has relentlessly attacked, defended, bullied, vilified, and ruined the lives of his accusers makes him one of the truly despicable fraudsters of the 21st Century, especially since he has done all of these things under cover of being a cancer warrior while amassing a personal fortune and cult following in the process. If his actions were part of a conspiracy, so much the worse for us who were wronged, and for him who broke the rules with impunity.

These people can never lay down arms. A fraud and injustice this great goes to the core of who we are. Those who would lie and cheat on a global stage deserve a global noose.

Can we please stop talking about Lance now? Please?

If you’re a sporting type, you stopped caring long ago. You stopped caring because as soon as we began declaring non-winners and putting second-place Pereiros and Schlecks into the yellow jersey long after the race ended, the silliness of system was exposed. We’re supposed to follow the Tour on the edge of our seats for three weeks, celebrate the victor, and then wait for a year or so to see if he gets stripped of his jersey, and if he does, we’re supposed to laud the dude who got dropped on all the climbs and finished second?

You also stopped caring because at this point doping is factored into your view of the pro peloton. You know some people are doing it. You know that extraordinary results from ordinary people are suspicious. You know that just like in every other sport, some people will cheat and get away with it. And you know what? Who cares? Catch them if you can, but please let me sit back and enjoy the freak show and don’t remind me every ten minutes that it’s professional wrestling on bikes. And grab me another beer while you’re up.

Can we please pursue Lance to the ends of the earth? Please?

If you’re a justice type, or, Dog forbid, one of the people named Simeoni or Basson or Betsy or any other of a long list of people who’ve wound up in the Armstrong crosshairs, you’ll keep turning over stones and reading the news with glee and dissecting the battling legal memoranda forever. Someday you’ll write a book. You’ll never watch another bike race again, let alone enter one. You’ll die bitter and angry, even after Lance is sentenced to death by stoning, as you reflect on how he snatched the best years from you, when you were in your prime.

Let Wankmeister help

I believe that we can have the best of both worlds. We can keep following the sport that fascinates us and we can keep acknowledging that some of the feats performed by professionals are truly remarkable. We can pay some homage to the freaks, and sniff the occasional jock when the opportunity presents itself. We can also laugh at the athletes a little bit, knowing that, like you and me, they’ll cheat from time to time.

I also believe that we can recognize that the Lance Affair is something that has taken on a life of its own. Its scale and scope, the sheer number of people affected, and the arenas of sport, policy, healthcare, law, and politics that are involved mean that it has transcended the small, insignificant, and inbred world of competitive cycling from whence it came. The Lance Affair is now about the grand movements of the legal armies, the USADA armies, the cancer survivor armies, the political armies, the media armies, and the army of public opinion.

Life has finally gotten around to imitating fiction: Lance’s story is truly not about the bike, and hasn’t been for a long time. Long live the greatest Tour rider ever, RIP Lance.

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