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Good! The U.S. Anti-Doping Agency finally got that bad, bad Lance Armstrong. Now, I hope they’ll finally go after Babe Ruth for all those beers he drank during Prohibition.
I am no Lance apologist, but I am an avid cyclist and cycling fan, and frankly, I wonder what good can result from USADA’s decision Thursday night to strip him of his seven yellow jerseys. Three of those Tour de France victories came a decade or more ago, while the most recent was seven years ago. That's so long ago it would have been considered ancient history even in the pre-Twitter world.
It’s not like taking away Lance’s victories will correct a past injustice. With the rampant use of performance-enhancers, we cannot automatically say the second-place finisher each year rode clean (yes, Jan Ullrich, I’m talking about you). In fact, combine this latest decision with all the Floyd Landis, Alberto Contador, Ullrich, Bjarne Riis, Operation Puerto scandals/mia culpas, and as far as I can tell, no one actually won the Tour de France from 1996 to 2007. The cyclists rode 20,000 miles and climbed countless mountains to exhaustion for no reason whatsoever. Tour de France announcers Phil Liggett and Paul Sherwen should have spent those 12 Julys at the beach instead.
There are two reasons why cyclists are busted so often for performance-enhancers: One, they obviously use them to excel in a sport that demands they race more than 100 miles a day for three weeks during the biggest stage races. The other reason is that, like track and field, cycling actually tries hard to catch the cheaters by testing them repeatedly. You can even be banned just for not letting people know where you are on a given day (2007 Tour de France leader Michael Rasmussen was dropped by his team for that very reason). Get caught doping and you can be banned anywhere from several years to life.
This is unlike American team sports, especially football, where the players grow ever bigger, faster and stronger despite assurances that they are regularly tested. And even if they are caught, the players miss as little as four games. And fans prefer it that way. They don’t want a sport’s biggest names regularly banned -- particularly if they have them on their fantasy teams.
That’s what concerns me most about the fallout from this latest Lance decision. I don’t worry about the sport, but I worry for the fans, specifically the potential fans that will be lost.
Lance’s Tour success inspired many Americans, myself included, to get on their bikes and ride. Forget about his considerable work in raising funds for cancer research (I think we still will all treat cancer as a serious issue regardless of what happens to a bicyclist), Lance also turned many of us onto cycling and got us hooked on a healthier lifestyle. Thursday night’s news will not stop us from riding or from following races. But what about those potential fans who will be turned away from cycling and never get on a bike to experience the joys and health rewards of the sport (not to mention the gas-saving benefits)?
On the one hand, these intense testing programs are necessary to keep the competitive playing field at least semi-level. On the other hand, the sport eventually winds up eating itself, turning every single one of its athletes into a suspect, making all top performances suspicious and driving away potential fans to other sports.
Don’t get me wrong. I’m not saying that we should not test. I applaud baseball for cracking down -- the recent Melky Cabrera and Bartolo Colon bans are proof the sport takes testing seriously -- and appreciate that home run and other batting statistics have returned to the norm.
We must test. But we also must draw a line somewhere. And going after athletes for something they might have done seven to 13 years ago clearly crosses that line. Stripping Lance of his titles does far more harm than good. USADA should have let this one go. The agency exists to police sports, not destroy them.
Rather than investing so much money and effort chasing an athlete from the previous decade, perhaps we should be more focused on catching the current cheats.