The Fifth Lap
Like most Americans, my introduction to professional cycling was following Lance Armstrong win the Tour de France. Then win it again. Then again, and again, and again and so on.
And, like most Americans, I watched as allegations accusing him of using performance enhancing drugs accumulated.
So when Armstrong recently gave up his legal battle against the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency, and in doing so criticized the fairness of the process, my reactions to his statement varied with time.
First, I found myself feeling indifferent - not about performance enhancing drugs (it's a topic I feel very strongly about), but about the result of the proceedings. My mind had been made up about Lance Armstrong and there was little that could come forward in this case to change it. I was simply disinterested.
But, despite my disinterest, I noticed the statements and the headlines after Lance decided to end his lawsuit. And from these stemmed concern about the impact on the anti-doping effort going forward. Only time will tell to what extent Armstrong succeeded in branding the USADA as incompetent, or worse, as unfair and agenda-driven.
The case has frayed some political unity between the various anti-doping and regulatory organizations. Furthermore, Armstrong's defense was that he couldn't receive a fair ruling, as the victim of a corrupt bureaucracy.
While I may not know whether the process is in need of an overhaul, Armstrong's defense sets a dangerous precedent that could be employed by future athletes with cases against them. He changed the perception of the USADA from doggedly persistent pursuers of justice to vindictive investigators who would never stop harassing him. If Armstrong's portrayal of the USADA becomes public perception, it could damage the legitimacy of the agency. I was left with an all-too-familiar emptiness.
It's an emptiness that is attached to many of my childhood sports memories. I grew up with performance enhancing drugs; I was a young boy living outside of Chicago during the home run race between Sammy Sosa and Mark McGwire and an Astros fan before Roger Clemens and Andy Pettitte arrived. I remember when Marion Jones was one of the most recognizable faces of track and field and when Shawne Merriman was one of the most exciting and dangerous defensive players in the National Football League.
Each of those athletes has either admitted to using banned substances, been convicted of using them or been enveloped by the black cloud of suspicion and circumstantial evidence.
The characteristics that caused us to admire them are tempered by the fact that they cheated. Yes, they cheated in an age of cheaters, but they still cheated.
There may not be an athlete who fits this twofaced mold better than Lance Armstrong. On the one hand, he's a courageous cancer survivor, a fierce competitor who achieved unmatched supremacy (even as all of those around him were doping) and a philanthropist. At the same time, he may be the sport's most clever drug cheat and an unrepentant liar.
Even though many athletes have had crowning achievements left hindered by performanceenhancing drugs, NCAA sports, although plagued by other controversies, have remained somewhat immune. The NCAA has a strict testing and suspension policy: A first-time positive test is a year suspension and a second offense ends a player's collegiate career.
But when was the last time there was a suspension of a big-name player, or multiple players at a big-name programs? A Google search for "NCAA Performance Enhancing Drug Suspension" brings up more results about the MLB and the NFL than about any college issues.
The idealist in me wants to believe that it's because performance-enhancing drugs really aren't a problem in collegiate athletics. But the cynic who grew up in the age of PEDs has a hard time accepting it.
The greatest cost on us is incurred by those who choose to cheat with drugs, and in doing so make honest athletes subject to the same suspicions and questioning.
More from The Rice Thresher
On Thursday, sophomore distance runner Grace Forbes proved to the rest of the country what her Conference USA opponents and Rice teammates have known for years – she’s one of the fastest runners in the country. Competing at the NCAA championships in Eugene, Ore. for the second consecutive year, Forbes, took second place in the 10,000-meter, the best finish by an Owl at the NCAAs in over a decade. According to Forbes, who missed the indoor season and the first month of the outdoor season due to extreme fatigue later diagnosed as an autoimmune disorder, the result was a testament to the work she’s put in to overcome an incredibly challenging year.
Five Owls will be heading to next week’s NCAA outdoor track and field championships, after qualifying at the NCAA West Preliminaries which ran May 25 through 28. Headlining the meet for Rice was sophomore distance-runner Grace Forbes, who took first place in the 10,000 meters for the second consecutive year. Forbes will be joined in Eugene, Ore., by sophomore thrower Tara Simpson-Sullivan, junior thrower Erna Gunnarsdottir, senior thrower James McNaney and sophomore vaulter Alex Slinkman. Jon Warren, head coach of the men’s track and field program, said that he was impressed not only by the five qualifiers, but by all 13 Owls who participated over the course of the week in Fayetteville, Ark.
The Conference USA outdoor track and field championships saw Rice’s men’s team place third with 121 points — their best conference championship performance since 2005 — and the women’s team place fifth with 88 points. According to men’s head coach Jon Warren, he was proud to see the work his team put in all season be on full display at the meet.