Earlier this week I called for Lance Armstrong’s long-overdue confession to prompt a no-less-overdue conversation about sports and drugs. A conversation that gets beyond all of the moral outrage and begins to grapple with some of the underlying reasons why performance-enhancing drugs are so common in sports, and in endurance cycling in particular.
Watching the first part of Armstrong's interview with Oprah Winfrey last night, I realized pretty quickly that he can’t be part of this conversation. If Armstrong is really hoping for forgiveness -- even if he is being motivated less by a desire to clear his conscience than to compete again -- he needs to stay focused on individual responsibility. (Actually showing some remorse wouldn’t hurt, either.)
Armstrong did some of the worst damage to his own cause last night when he rose to Winfrey's bait and acknowledged that drugs were part of “the culture” of cycling. (I’d go a step further here: We’re talking less about the culture of cycling than its very nature. The human body was not meant to pedal up steep mountains at high speeds over extended periods of time.) He sounded like he was deflecting blame when he said that he had used his cancer to justify his use of testosterone -- “I thought, ‘Surely, I’m running low’” -- or when he said that he didn’t feel like he was “cheating” when he doped.
These spasms of honesty only made Armstrong look all the more immoral. But are they so far-fetched -- given that cycling's governing body, the UCI, actually permits cyclists to take testosterone if their physical health is deemed to be in danger? Should he really have felt like a “cheater,” considering the drug-soaked nature of the sport? And more to the point, why should we care how Lance Armstrong “felt"?
We care because the Armstrong story has become a story not about doping but about Armstrong’s (admittedly very poor) character. Deadspin, as usual, puts it pretty well in its headline.
In the end, the most anticipated TV sports interview since "The Decision" was memorable mostly because it was so boring. You know what would have been a lot more interesting? If Winfrey had spent 90 minutes interviewing a cycling doctor who could have broken down the various drugs that riders take. What is their material effect? Which ones are legal and which ones aren’t, and why?
This, at least, would have been a good starting point for that sensible conversation.
(Jonathan Mahler is a Bloomberg View columnist. Follow him on Twitter.)
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