Commentary

Being superhuman

Are we complicit if we know athletes are taking extraordinary measures?

Updated: October 12, 2012, 4:23 PM ET
By Tim Keown | ESPN.com

Lance Armstrong, Tyler HamiltonDamien Meyer/AFP/Getty ImagesTyler Hamilton, right, testified against Lance Armstrong and wrote about doping in cycling.

No sane human could read "The Secret Race," Tyler Hamilton's memoir of drug use in the world of cycling, and believe anyone at or near the top of the sport -- especially not the man who spent nearly a decade at the very top of the sport -- got there without help from some of the best and most unethical medical minds in athletics.

The release of the United States Anti-Doping Agency's 1,000-page report on Lance Armstrong's nefarious dealings within the cycling community links seamlessly with "The Secret Race" and comes as no surprise to anyone who has read the book.

Hamilton was one of the 11 former Armstrong teammates who testified against the seven-time Tour de France champion as part of the USADA investigation.

[+] EnlargeLance Armstrong
Jamie Squire/Getty Images Many fans refuse to vilify Lance Armstrong because of all he has done to raise money for cancer awareness.

Armstrong will always have his supporters. His foundation's work to raise money for cancer awareness -- not research, but awareness -- serves as a shield against criticism. He is in the hope business, and a simple yellow rubber band has done a lot to sell hope and counter Armstrong's image within the sport as a kingmaker and bully.

The USADA report almost seems like piling on, a thousand pages to prove what we already know. Armstrong is in quite a fix. He can't admit to anything without facing the possibility of perjury charges, so he really has no choice but to continue dancing the same dance. Evidence piles up, and Armstrong immediately dismisses it as conspiratorial and inconsequential. It's the only move he knows.

At this point, the details are the only revelations. The fascinating part isn't that they doped -- of course they did -- but the effort, planning and expense that went into cheating. After reading Hamilton's book, it's clear that "cheating'" is an outside word, something you and I might use but never occurred to the people inside the sport. The guys on the bikes didn't consider it anything more than a professional necessity, similar to putting the proper air pressure in their tires.

Riding without EPO or testosterone was called riding "paniagua" -- code for "bread and water," just the basics. They used "extraterrestrial" for those who did something so obviously extreme, such as Lance's historic climb up the Alpe d'Huez in the 2001 Tour de France, that it was humanly impossible without the best kind of pharmacological assistance.

It's startling to learn how nonchalant they were about the entire doping operation, how cavalierly they discussed the elaborate schemes they employed to keep their doping levels high enough to compete and low enough -- at times down to the tenths of a percent -- to avoid detection. Hamilton's account is comical at times, especially when he recounts hiding in his home when the drug testers came to the door. Hiding worked: U.S. Postal riders discovered they wouldn't be treated as a no-show if they told the testers they were home and simply refused to answer the door.

They took great pains to hide their drug use from the authorities but not from one another or their families. It was a sordid, creepy world, not far removed from the sordid, creepy world Jose Canseco described in the Oakland A's clubhouse. Hamilton's wife was a willing accomplice, helping her husband get to transfusion sites, protecting him from the testers and engaging in her own coded language with her husband. And why not? Hamilton's career and lifestyle got a lot better when the doping got serious.

Cycling is a minor sport with one major player. Could it provide the impetus for a more adult look at the issue of performance-enhancing drugs? Are we reaching a tipping point where we've had enough of the witch hunts to seek middle ground somewhere in the vast distance between Armstrong's alleged traveling chemistry experiment and PED madness?

Here's the 800-pound gorilla of a question: Can we say that steroids and other performance-enhancing drugs are absolutely off-limits for children while addressing professional athletes as a separate issue?

We demand superhuman -- extraterrestrial -- acts from athletes, whether it's riding more than 2,000 miles across the European countryside in three weeks or training a 275-pound body to run through 330-pound blockers and get to the quarterback. Yet we get all moral when someone is found to be using extra-human means to accomplish those superhuman acts. As medicine continues to advance, is there room for a reasoned discussion of regulation? After all, Lasik surgery has undoubtedly prolonged careers in baseball, so why not EPO in cycling or HGH in football?

If Hamilton is to be believed -- and it's worth noting that he told the truth only under oath, then for profit -- Armstrong was motivated more by the quest to find the most advanced doping as the best training. He handpicked the best riders to accompany him for the best doping, and being selected for this honor was a huge deal. The doping was the foundation of the success.

Is the Armstrong legend based on a fraud? And is the fraud the doping or the refusal to admit it? It's possible to draw a parallel between Armstrong and Arnold Schwarzenegger, who used steroids to become a champion bodybuilder, bodybuilding to become a famous actor and acting to become the governor of California. Then, later in life, he had the audacity to preach to kids about the dangers of steroid use. Rarely does irony arrive stacked that high.

Is there a way to separate unhealthy PED use from healthy PED use? The view from inside this one sport, from Hamilton, Floyd Landis and apparently Armstrong himself, was this: It's not cheating if everyone is doing it, and it's really not cheating if everyone knows everyone is doing it.

Armstrong's demise, satisfying though it may be to those who dislike him, won't change that mentality. Consider this statement from British cyclist Alex Dowsett, who told the London Evening Standard, "[Armstrong] is still a legend of the sport. A guy who had cancer came back and won the Tour de France. I think [the doping] is not really important, and I really don't think it matters."

Most of us would agree that it should matter, but here's a question we should at least be willing to ask: How much?

Tim Keown | email

Senior writer, ESPN.com

ALSO SEE