The recent charges by USADA against Lance Armstrong are not just about one individual, they are about the entire sport system. In 1988, Ben Johnson shocked the world by testing positive for anabolic steroids. The outcome was the Canadian Dubin inquiry, which most importantly revealed that an athlete alone cannot build a culture of doping. It is a systemic problem; it is a product of how athletes are set up to fail in sports by our pushing them towards transcending human limits with limited means. It is about the malleability of what we consider to be a fair competition, when people are not biologically born or nurtured in similar ways.
The press material from USADA is aggressively pursuing one individual, placing all the blame squarely on his shoulders for breeding a culture of secrecy of doping practices. It has sought to make this case against Armstrong for many years. It operates within a nation that has placed the war on drugs in sport above many other social problems that exist. Yet, it is also a nation that breeds the pursuit of excess and champions sporting victories so greatly that it is little wonder athletes do all they can to advance the possibility of victory.
We live in a time when cheating is commonplace within many aspects of our society. Who can forget the recent banking scandals? Trying to get away with cheating is a high return, low risk activity in many complex professional practices. The World Anti-Doping Agency describe Armstrong as having developed a sophisticated programme of doping. Not really. If he is proven guilty, all he did was use things for which there are not tests. Not sophisticated at all. Quite sensible -- the basic principle of doping done well. Using doping methods for which there are tests is idiotic.
If these allegations are upheld in a court, then the answer as to how he got away with it for so long is quite simple. Doping is commonplace within cycling. There is a culture of doping within the Tour and many athletes feel inclined to maintain this circle of secrecy because those are the values of their sport. For years, I've heard discussions about qualifying claims about doping within the Tour and figures from experts range from saying it is a minority to saying it is everybody.
Here's the problem. It's a problem that never goes away for elite sports. Athletes are smarter than anti-doping authorities. Actually, athletes have an unfair advantage over anti-doping authorities. An athlete can study what is being developed in the world of science, new designer steroids for example, pursue access to those that were never commercialized -- even work with a lab to bring them to product stage. Anti-dopers will never know that the substance exists and so never seek to test for it.
Alternatively, the claims about Armstrong are that he used substances and methods that were known, but for which they could not test. Autologous blood transfusions is one of the most challenging. If this is the predicament of the sport's world, then anyone who wins is potentially doping, so under the present system we can never feel proud of an athlete's achievement as the book will always be open on whether they doped or not.
This is why we need to rethink the entire situation. If Armstrong is guilty, then another of the world's greatest heros has failed us, at least this is what they will say. In my view, it is the sport system that is failing us. It's time we set up a World Pro-Doping Agency so we can allow athletes the means to enhance themselves as safely as possible using medical technologies and we need to bring this all into the open. Some say this will turn people away from sports. I say it will inspire honesty about what makes a great athlete -- the combination of nature and nurture, biology and science. These two have always worked together to win gold medals.
As it becomes harder and harder to detect doping practices, we need to find another approach to ensure that we can believe in what athletes have done when they win gold. It's a sorry state of affairs when someone like Armstrong is brought down, after a life that has been incredibly challenging and hard. Even if he used performance enhancements, they didn't allow him to breeze through the door. There is a lot still left to admire about the doped athlete and compassion in understanding their circumstances will prove more productive than a witch hunt.