The blog of Chicago-based freelance writer David Johnsen.
Sunday, July 03, 2005
The Tired, Old Lance Armstrong Question
Chicago Tribune sports columnist Rick Morrissey today addresses the question people have been asking about Lance Armstrong since he won his first Tour de France in 1999: is he using performance-enhancing drugs?

Let me start by saying that I am not the world's biggest Lance Armstrong fan. I admire his talent and particularly his dedication, but I have a feeling that I wouldn't like him in person (the embattled Tyler Hamilton is more my type). This drug question really irritates me, though. As Morrissey acknowledges, Armstrong has taken a lot of drug tests and has never tested positive. In fact, he has been targeted for testing. On Friday, the day after all Tour de France competitors were tested, a "random" drug test was performed on one cyclist: Armstrong. It was his sixth "out-of-competition" drug test this year. Still, people think he must be taking something to be so good. Morrissey admits that his own cynicism about doping in all professional sports is the main reason he can't seem to trust Armstrong, but that doesn't make it fair. It's as stupid as when a jaded woman says, "Well, of course he's going to sleep around. He's a man, and that's what men do."

Here's another thing to consider about Armstrong's alleged doping that Morrissey didn't mention. Armstrong doesn't win all the time, and if you think that's deliberate manipulation on his part, then you don't know his competitive nature. In yesterday's 11-mile time trial, Armstrong finished 51 seconds ahead of everyone else... except Dave Zabriskie, who won the race by two seconds. But does anyone accuse Zabriskie of taking drugs? When Armstrong finished third on Brasstown Bald in the Tour de Georgia, did anyone say that Tom Danielson and Levi Leipheimer beat him because they had better drugs? When Ivan Basso finished with Armstrong ahead of everyone else on two tough mountain stages at last year's Tour, did anyone question Basso's purity? Naysayers are always attacking Armstrong, but they don't question others (that said, there is a small group of critics who swear that everyone in pro cycling uses drugs, regardless of their race results or test results).

Other people say that Armstrong must be using some kind of incredible new drugs that no one else knows about, drugs that they can't find through testing. While I am skeptical of the pharmaceutical industry, I find it hard to believe that someone would create an undetectable superdrug just for Armstrong. Besides, after what Armstrong has been through, I couldn't imagine why he would put such an untested substance in his body. And even if he did, there would be no point in doing it now. His future was secure financially after a few Tour victories, so if he had been cheating, why would he continue to do so and keep racing? If I had used drugs to achieve what Armstrong did, I would have concocted some sort of accident or medical condition that "made" me retire young, legend intact.

Armstrong's story of cancer recovery and total Tour de France domination does sound "too good to be true," and I suppose that is reason enough for people to try to knock it down and find out "the real story." Several writers have tried to do that, often relying on hearsay or questionable sources (i.e., former employees with an axe to grind). Armstrong has responded with lawsuits that draw criticism from people who think he is trying to keep the "truth" from getting out. I see it for what it is: a man worth millions is simply protecting his "brand." If someone wrote a book claiming Coca-Cola causes brain cancer, I would expect the Coca-Cola Company to react the same way.

Ultimately, idle conjecture by writers like Morrissey is pointless and perhaps even mean-spirited. It adds nothing to the body of evidence on either side of the question. It is a sad reflection on sports and sportswriters that this column appears at the top of the Sports page while an article about something that actually happened (yesterday's time trial) is relegated to page 20. I am not swearing that Armstrong is 100% clean (I wouldn't pretend to know that for anyone but myself), but in the absence of damning evidence, navel-gazing benefits no one.


David, I have included a link to this post in my Weekly Blogscan on (this week titled "Lance Armstrong, Icon"). In fact, I have given you the last word (before mine, of course.)

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