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August 29, 2014, 12:04 pm

Oprah, media horde, wrong about Lance

As a cycling enthusiast, I’m not really feeling the whole “Lance Armstrong confession thing.” In fact, I’m feeling pretty much Lanced-out, and Oprah’ed-to-death.

I imagine Oprah is happy, though. That’s usually the case when your exclusive, two-part interview is simulcast to more than 100 countries in Western Europe, Latin America and Asia, and on several other cable networks. I have nothing, at all, against cable networks and celebrities using their promotional muscle to build audiences and to make a buck. After all, that, too, is “the American way.”

What I am deeply concerned about, on the other hand, is the absolute lack of perspective about, and knowledge of, cycling — and of world-class athletes, in general — on the part of mainstream media outlets that have been piling on to trash Armstrong, not just now, but over the past several years.

Their premise seems to be that, before Lance Armstrong came along, the athletes who inhabited the world of Grand Tour road races were as pure as the driven snow. Even worse, in their collective rush to judgment, it seems, not very many of Armstrong’s accusers have even bothered to find out just how grueling and, perhaps, inhumane, the Tour de France actually is.

For example, in most years, since its founding in 1903, the Tour has been a 2,200-mile-long race, conducted over a 23-day period, through fair and inclement weather, on flat lands, cobblestones, gravel roads, hills and snowcapped mountains. That averages out to more than 100 miles per day, for three straight weeks. The average speed for the 150-200 Tour participants, over the entire course, has been about 24 miles per hour. Over the years, some of the time-trial (sprint) riders in the Tour have reached speeds of more than 34 miles per hour, and maintained that pace, over a ten-mile course.

By comparison, the average “winning speed” for the country’s top-tier horse race, the Kentucky Derby, has been 37 miles per hour over the past 50 years or so. By the way, those horses — the best in the world — only have to maintain that pace for 1¼ miles, and when it’s over, they are visibly fatigued.

Please raise your hand if you think, for a second, that you could just step up and be a Tour de France competitor, no matter how many “performance-enhancing drugs” you ingested.

I don’t see many hands. Quite frankly, I didn’t think I would.

Maybe you’re aware that, periodically, Tour de France participants have actually died on the course, riding their bikes over the edge of mountains, crashing and dying on 55 mile descents, and expiring from heart failure.

No, the Tour de France has never been for the faint of heart, and like world-class athletes in other sports, its participants have always sought competitive advantage.

I read, recently, that, in Ancient Rome, gladiators consumed substances to “pump them up” and to make their fights more spectacular, and that athletes, in antiquity, “used hashish, cola plants, cactus-based stimulants and fungi” to enhance their competitive performances.  

It’s also been reported that Dutch swimmers, in national competitions, in 1865, used stimulants, and that, as early as the late 19th century, “European cyclists were using a multitude of drugs — from caffeine to ether-coated sugar cubes to a cocaine-laced wine — to alleviate the pain and exhaustion resulting from their sport.”

Not surprisingly, from its very earliest years, various forms of “doping” have been in wide use at the Tour de France. Over the past 50 years, a significant majority of the race’s top finishers confessed to, or tested positive for, drug use to assist them in getting to the finish line.

In fact, when cycling’s governing body, the U.C.I., stripped Lance Armstrong of his seven first-place finishes, recently, it was perhaps understandable that they didn’t automatically bestow the iconic, first-place, yellow jersey on the person who had finished second in those seven events. The problem was this: In each of the years Armstrong placed first (1999–2005), the second- and third-place finisher had also confessed to, been accused of, or tested positive, for performance-enhancing drugs.

If you believe Ms. Winfrey and her colleagues, however, including, shamefully, ESPN, which ought to know better, Lance Armstrong, single-handedly created the concept of using stimulants to withstand the rigors of a totally debilitating, physically dangerous, but highly popular and profitable sporting event, whose revenues have been estimated, in recent years, at $200 million.

In cases such as this, of course, you don’t kill the sport, you don’t threaten the TV revenues or the brands of the deep-pocketed sponsors, heaven forbid. No, you pick one, poor, sucker to throw under the bus, for the good of the entire lucrative enterprise.

This year, the “sucker” happens to be Lance Armstrong.

Last year, Levi Leipheimer, one of Lance’s former team-mates was asked whether he had ever used, or thought about using, performance-enhancing drugs. He said, “All I ever wanted to do in life, since my teenaged years, was to ride, one day, in the Tour de France. So, I moved to Belgium to pursue a professional cycling career, to live with people I didn’t know, whose language I didn’t speak, and whose culture I didn’t understand.

“I worked hard for years and applied myself,” Leipheimer added, “to being able to join a team, as part of a major Tour event. One day, I was informed that, at that level, my choices were, to either, take performance-enhancing drugs to improve the team’s overall effectiveness … or go home. After all those years, after all of that hard work and sacrifice, I decided that I wasn’t going home.”

None of this institutional pressure to use performance-enhancing drugs is new to athletes. If they were gladiators, in Ancient Rome, they would have known the drill. If they were female swimmers on the East German Olympic team, given a steady diet of anabolic steroids, they would know precisely what was expected of them. If they are members, today, of a professional football team, concerned that they’ll be cut from their multi-million dollar contract, if they don’t very quickly “make weight,” and gain strength, no one has to draw them a map.

These athletes are forced to operate within a system, however, that makes it clear that if they get caught doing precisely what their sport, or indeed, their nation, has demanded they do to achieve maximum performance, they will be expected to “take the hit,” on their own.

I think about all of that when I see the pompous voters for Major League Baseball’s Hall of Fame turn down Barry Bonds as a member, because he has been suspected of using “human growth hormones,” a performance-enhancing drug.

These voters have, so far, cynically made the case that “human growth hormones” were the sole reason that Mr. Bonds played so well, over his 22-year career, generated nearly 3,000 hits, including 762 homeruns, amassed 514 stolen bases and earned eight Gold Gloves for defensive excellence. Tell me, how does a “human growth hormone” help you catch balls hit to the outfield in a major league baseball game?

Maybe the next time Ms. Winfrey wants to talk to somebody about “performance-enhancing drugs,” she ought to invite in a few top-tier business executives who depend, every day, on white-collar “performance-enhancing” pain-killers, such as Oxycontin and Percocet, to allow them to get through their work day, pain-free.

Or maybe Oprah, or Matt, or Anderson, or Piers, can drag in some current university students who commonly use pharmaceutical “study drugs,” such as Adderall and Ritalin, to enhance their ability to study.

I can go on, but I think you get my point. Today, it’s Armstrong. It’s anybody’s guess as to whom the bus will roll over next week.


A. Bruce Crawley is president and principal owner of Millennium 3 Management, Inc.