Sunday, October 21, 2012

When the Mountain Mist Clears...

As the Lance Armstrong saga continues to unravel...the damning evidence presented by USADA, the stripping of his titles, his lifetime ban from sports, stepping down as chairman of his foundation, “LiveStrong”, with other allegations that are being reported, and now the sponsors who have supported him for years kicking him to the curb. Lance said at a “LiveStrong” fund raising gala last night, “I’ve been better, I’ve also been worse”. Among other things, Lance is a spectacular PR man. He is a natural promoter, leader, visionary, and will survive this seemingly limitless setback orchestrated by the USADA. It’s been called a witch hunt, I've called it a witch hunt, but as it turns out, there are actually some witches involved. And even though Lance is being burned at the stake, he will continue to be a part of the American fabric for decades to come. Why? The reasons are complex and go to the core of human motivation...and on these points Lance, in my book, is still a winner.

At the first brilliant point in his life, after he survived cancer and won his first Tour de France (TdF), he wrote the book, “It’s Not About the Bike”. Which is what we, along with the 80 million people who wear the distinctive yellow bracelets will continue to support. Why? Because it’s true. The profound good that this organization can do in our world stands clear, and, it is indeed not about the bike. Lance knows this...he wrote the book. However, shortly thereafter, having come back from the dead, Lance confused his own beliefs about his foundation and the meaning of his bike. Professional road racing, the extreme spectacle of a TdF win, the challenge of winning more, and of course the bike, took hold of him in a way that became an obsession. Why? Because while he can’t personally cure cancer, he can make money. To make the most money he must win the most bike races. If winning bike races is what it takes to cure cancer, the end’s must surely justify the means. As it turns out the bike takes front and center. Winning is the solution, the goal, the obsession. The bike is the mechanism for the win however the motivation for the win has fundamentally changed. That motivation obscures everything in it’s path until it’s it no longer about the bike. At least for him. For everyone else in professional cycling, the bike remains important.

Professional road racing is an exhibition. Sponsors, above all others, understand that exhibition is what sells product. The TdF is an extreme exhibition, hence extreme product endorsement. The participants who compete are not like regular humans. They are extreme specimens shaped with decades of preparation. All professional sports are exhibitions, without sponsors there are no exhibitions. Few events are as extreme as the TdF. It extracts an extreme toll physically, mentally, and even spiritually on the human body. Participates sacrifice, most, if not all of their lives riding a bike in pursuit of winning. And those of us who are spectators, pay to see it happen. We pay to see, in the great voice of Jim McKay, “the human drama of athletic competition” at it’s greatest and at it’s worse. Once a year, in France, during the month of July, all of these things come together in professional road racing. For exhibitions where one prepares a lifetime, the motivations are a varied as the participants who ride. In this story, the motivations of Lance Armstrong, outweigh most, if not all, of the other riders. If Lance want’s to use this spectacle as his platform to cure cancer, he must win at the TdF. Sponsors like a winner. They too, if they can back a winner, make a contribution to his foundation, and sell more product. Lance’s sponsors have a win-win-win situation on their hands. The riders on his team, if they can catch a “boost up the mountain” in his slipstream also, boost their careers. They have a win-win situation. And if there is one thing that is certainly true about the TdF, Lance knows he cannot do it alone. He must exploit the win-win to facilitate his sponsors win-win-win to promote his foundation.

But winning the TdF is not easy. It’s not even hard. It is extremely difficult. To win the TdF you have to have best five things money can buy. First, a large team from which to choose the strongest riders. Second, the best technology. Third and fourth, the best coaches along with the best tactics on the road. And finally, the very best physical training available. Coupled with the physical training comes nutrition and health, recovery and therapy, and psychology programs. No team will win the TdF without having all of these categories covered. In every category teams are constantly stretching the limits, within the rules, to top out in each area. Performance enhancing drugs fall into the category of physical training. As it turns out, and something that should come as absolutely no surprise to anyone even remotely acquainted with this sport, most of all the sponsors, including Nike, Anheuser-Busch, and Trek, that pay for their name in lights and on the podium, finding an advantage is the nature of business. Kicking the athlete when he is down must also be good for business. The teams that were winning were the teams that found a way to boost their physical performance without being caught by the rule book. Lance, as it turns out, rewrote this rule book and found a way to times. Performance enhancing drugs were necessary or another team, pick one, that was using them would win. He leveled the playing field. But no way Lance wins without the other things also in place and also at the very peak of their performance. The team, the equipment, the coaching, the tactics on the road are just as important. Just ask the other teams. The ones that were doping but failed in the other categories, and the teams that were not doping were not even in the top 10, maybe not in the top 20. And there are only 24 teams in the TdF. 

Yet let’s not forget about the the race itself. These super-humans don’t come from nothing. Give me an injection of EPO and I still don’t make it to the first turn in the road. These super-humans still have to have talent. They still have to ride, something still has to be accomplished. And in the case of the TdF, extreme tasks must still be completed. The riders, with all their preparation, still have to push back the pain and endure 21 stages. No matter how many drugs you have in your system, to say it’s a grueling race to the top of Alpe D’huez, to fight through the mist, dueling wheel to wheel with another rider, pushing your body to it’s limits, is as extreme an understatement as the 2,200 miles of racing is long. The fact that the race is physically punishing confuses every issue even more. The sacrifices made to train, to be apart of a great team, to give up you life to pursue a career in professional road racing, for the sake of being a professional road racer are real. These demands cannot be imagined. When someone offers you better equipment, an easier way to reach the top, particularly when it’s coming from the king of the sport, the option to say no is unavailable. 

Lance found a formula for his team to win. And maybe it’s a technicality, but it;s an important technicality. Lance Armstrong never failed a drug test and neither did most of his riders. The rules are play by the rules but you seek every advantage possible within the guidelines as they are established. If you find a loophole you drive a truck through it. Companies, like the companies who sponsored Lance, have legions of lawyers looking for legal loophole, trying to gain a corporate advantage in an extreme marketplace. It is beyond hypocrisy to seek your own advantage, yet spurn those who do so also. Some may go beyond the law. When they get caught, hopefully they get prosecuted and go to jail. Their motivation...greed. Maybe, just maybe, in amateur sports, and in venues like the Olympics, where there is some ethereal belief that we are admiring the natural limits of the human body, this might not be true. But my observation is that Olympic athletes, even these “non-professionals, are far from natural. The Special Olympics, or Paralympics might be the better venues to admire natural limits of the human body, or better yet, the local high school competition or Little League. The line between cheats and those who play fair is extremely long, extremely crooked, and wafer thin. In politics the term is gerrymandering, redefining a congressional district to gain the advantage of demographics in a particular region. Do we call that cheating? Lance chose his path and took his team down that road. 

Society is no longer looking the other way, the norms society has deemed as the rules are no longer in Lance’s favor. So be it. Wanting to gain an advantage is human nature. Stretching the rules is human nature. If you lean too far forward and go beyond the bounds of the legal loophole and get caught, you should pay the fine imposed by society. An eye for an eye, etc. In this case, since everyone in the TdF was doping, in that society, good or bad, right or wrong, it was acceptable behavior as long as your drug test was clean. If you get a speeding ticket, you pay the fine. Does that mean you are going to stop cheating the posted speed limit of 55 mph? That depends on your motivation. If you are keeping up with traffic, perhaps you are OK. If you’re speeding alone because you are late for work and might lose your job (your riding career) as a result, the officer who pulls you over might have little compassion. However, if you are rushing a bleeding child to the hospital, perhaps the ends justify the means and the officer who pulled you over might overlook the infraction. The USADA, in this case Tavis Taggart, is officer who pulled Lance over. He doesn't see the bleeding child the back seat of Lance’s car. In fairness to Taggart he sees a bleeding child that is the use of performance enhancing drugs in professional athletics. Whichever side of the argument you might be on, finding a cure for cancer betters the human condition. Suppressing human nature from seeking a competitive advantage also suppresses the human condition because it is human nature. Lance beat cancer. He had the very best science and the financial wherewithal to seek the latest treatments. He cheated death as a result. Many others do not have the resources to they lose their race. LiveStrong want’s to level that playing field. Lance’s desire to level the playing field at the TdF is no more or less troubling, at least not to me. As self-serving as it may sound, the only one speeding with a bleeding child in their car was Lance Armstrong. His foundation, his obsession, his desire to cure cancer became his bleeding child. He survived, he can win, he can live strong for’s not about the bike but the necessity to win with the bike became his save all bleeding children.

Lance was paid to win. We all paid for him to win. We pay to see champions. We pay to see the human drama. We will continue to buy Nike shoes and drink Anheuser-Busch products. We will continue to push an army of Lance’s to the extreme. Extracting a penalty from the offenders we carried forward, that exceeds what can be established as a societal norm, is unfair. The USADA has a different agenda. Maybe they have cracked the “code of silence” surrounding the practice of doping. And that’s a good thing. If the TdF is completely clean, nobody has to speed, and maybe that’s better in the long run. But for Lance there are still bleeding children in his car. When the USADA witch hunt is over, the fog will roll back in, something else will take the place of drug doping that will stretch the rules and help teams gain an advantage over one another. The mountainous toll cancer will take on society will continue. On another day two riders will emerge out of the mist on some unknown high mountain pass. Lance Armstrong will be one of those two riders breaking and chasing back the wheels of death all the way to the top. I personally hope that Lance will find another way to level the playing field with a winning team behind him. You can bet death will be looking to cheat him at every opportunity. But as death is now riding against a great champion, times seven, don’t count Lance Armstrong be continued...