Monday, October 22, 2012

Lance Armstrong and the Myth of the Clean Sport

With the release of the USADA report on Lance Armstrong and the testimony of numerous pro cyclists coming to the surface, much of the media attention has been focused on Lance Armstrong and how this impacts his business interests. At the same time, there is another story here, one that the media seems unwilling to focus on.

In Levi Leipheimer's Wall Street Journal OpEd, Why I Doped, he states:
Until recently—or maybe even until today—when people thought about doping, they thought about a guy, by himself, using banned substances to get ahead. What people didn't realize—what I didn't realize until after I was already committed to this career—was that doping was organized and everywhere in the peloton. Doping wasn't the exception, it was the norm. 
and goes on to say:
I came to see cycling for what it was: a sport where some team managers and doctors coordinated and facilitated the use of banned substances and methods by their riders. A sport where the athletes at the highest level—perhaps without exception—used banned substances. A sport where doping was so accepted that riders from different teams—who were competitors on the road—coordinated their doping to keep up with other riders doing the same thing. 
In the aftermath of this report, much of the focus has been on Lance Armstrong -- sponsorship deals canceled, stepping down from Live Strong, you name it. In many ways, the media narrative on this is a simple story of Lance Armstrong, bad guy druggy. Or maybe it's Lance Armstrong, cartel leader and his gang at Discovery/Postal. The media seems unwilling to wrestle with the larger issue at play here.

Broadly, what these riders have said is not just that these performance enhancing training programs were a one-off, but that they were endemic to sport. From doctors and coaches to infrastructures that they tapped into, this network nodes in this infrastructure run through the entire business. These aren't guys robbing pharmacies for Oxycontin. They aren't scraping around the dark sides of town for heroin or meth. These are managed programs with supply chains, bank transfers, and a very above board aspect to this hidden side of the business. Put in a different way, does anyone really believe that some cancer patient had to go without their needed EPO because professional cyclists were 'skimming' off their supply?

In that way, a somewhat hidden context of the USADA report is that, for all intents and purposes, their testing, the institutional testing program, didn't work. They make a case that many of the tests were avoided or circumvented. But fundamentally, the testing program didn't work. Put in a different way, with enough money and enough organization, a well-managed group can circumvent these testing programs. Yes, that means teams that participate in professional cycling. But the same holds true for governments and the Olympics or any sport where there is a convergence of money and endurance.

So, as all of this stuff boils to the surface, you see all of the sponsors walk away from Lance Armstrong. From a business and PR perspective, it's important for them to disconnect from the story of Lance Armstrong, doper. There business is selling to the spectator base and there will always be other athletes. If they treat it as the act of an unsavory individual instead of an aspect of the sport, then the whole thing doesn't come crumbling down. and they can bank on the market of future consumers buying into the illusion of a correlation between success and a sponsored product. What type of energy bar does Lance Armstrong eat when he's riding up a mountain? What type of cereal does Michael Phelps eat before he spends hours in the pool?

So what did USADA hope to accomplish with this? From my reading, I think that this was an effort to use Lance Armstrong as a rock, casting him at the 'Goliath' of professional cycling and the UCI. To quote from Levi''s OpEd again,
When Usada came to me and described a solution—where my admission could be part of a bigger plan that would make the positive changes we've seen in recent years permanent—I said "I need to be involved." I don't want today's 13 year olds to be discouraged by their parents from dreaming about one day riding the Tour de France.
USADA even made note that they had waived the rule on Statute of Limitations for some of their Lance Armstrong story because they felt circumstances justified it.

Did they hope to take down the professional cycling, UCI, or address some sort of systematic weakness that lived outside of their control? It's not really clear from available material that I've seen. At one point in their report, they do reference a warning to a rider to "watch out for USADA testers while in Europe because they were more likely to test." And yet, instead of casting a stone aimed at the broader body of cycling, their report fits neatly into the framework of Lance Armstrong managing a dastardly criminal organization. It's like they wroted a report saying that Lehman Brothers ran a derivatives-based securities trading cartel.

But even if they had noble goals, the industry surrounding organized sports is too big to fail. I think that they wanted to characterize this story as, "if the world would just follow our protocols, we can manage this". And yet, there is nothing in this report to suggest that there is a magic bullet. Instead, we're left with the reality of something kind of like a bad horror movie.

After the story resolves, after the chaos and the destruction of lives, the camera pans to the killer -- not Jason, nor Freddy, nor Michael Myers, but the mythical body of 'clean sport' -- laying on the ground, finally dispatched.

The camera pans back to USADA. "They thought they could get away with it," USADA says.

Then the camera pans back to the spot where the mythical body of clean sport lay dead, but the body is gone. Slowly, the camera pans back to a mirror with the reflection of USADA, but we notice something different. Instead of the anti-doping body, we see the mythical body of clean sport. It's mouth forms an evil smile and we know we're in for a long line of sequels.

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