According to the United States Anti-Doping Agency, the case compiled against Lance Armstrong paints an even more dire image of his involvement with doping than many had imagined. Based on the testimony of 26 witnesses, including several members of the U.S. Postal Service team, the Agency claims to have evidence that:
The U.S.P.S. Team doping conspiracy was professionally designed to groom and pressure athletes to use dangerous drugs, to evade detection, to ensure its secrecy and ultimately gain an unfair competitive advantage through superior doping practices…A program organized by individuals who thought they were above the rules and who still play a major and active role in sport today.
Armstrong, according to the allegations, was not simply a complicit participant. Instead, the USADA believes he was the “kingpin” of the expansive apparatus.
For many the news is shocking. Painful. Even personal. It’s easy to understand why: Lance Armstrong—the cancer survivor, the philanthropist, the dedicated athlete—achieved a legendary degree of success in what is considered to be one of the world’s most competitive sports. His story was an inspiration precisely because it was so unbelievable.
Perhaps because his story has always seemed so improbable it was easy for fans to look the other way as the doping case coalesced. Maybe because Armstrong’s triumphs never seemed completely possible, people could accept the end of his legal battle as a stalemate instead of a defeat. Writing in the New York Times in August, George Vecsey said of Armstrong that “he was the best cyclist of his time, in maybe the dirtiest sport in existence.”
At the time, Armstrong had just been stripped of his titles and Vecsey’s comment seemed an eloquent summation of the bittersweet conclusion. Now, as the story takes a darker turn, this same statement gains a new meaning.
After all, doping is not a capital offense. In the case of the USPS team, the stakes of cheating were increased by a contract with the Federal Government. And of course, doping endangered the health and lives of several—perhaps many—young men. But the real damage this case has done to the United States Government is too small to be measured. And these men were already eager to sacrifice everything—including their health and lives—in the quest for a title.
The true victim is not Armstrong, not the U.S. Government, not jilted competitors, or even disappointed fans. It is instead the sport of cycling, even Sport itself, and what that means for future athletes.
Armstrong, and the case against him, has opened a wound. One with an unexpected parallel.
In 1970 Cesare Maestri, an Italian mountaineer, traveled to Patagonia in Argentina with a seven-person team and a gas-powered drill. Over the course of the season he drove more than 350 bolts into the face of the region’s highest spire, establishing a line of ascent that would become known as the Compressor Route.
When news of the route spread to the climbing community at large, Maestri and his team began drawing harsh criticism for their tactics. The argument against the route was famously summarized by another Italian mountaineer, Reinhold Messner, in his essay “Murder of the Impossible.” In it, Messner wrote “When future mountaineers open their eyes and realize what has happened, it will be too late: the impossible…will be buried, rotted away, and forgotten forever.”
The route, Messner and others argued, did more than desecrate a single mountain. Indeed, Maestri inflicted a wound on the entire endeavor of alpinism, a wound that would transcend generations.
What Messner so astutely argued was that human achievement is not only defined by what is gained, it is given meaning by what is not lost. Without the risk of failure, there can be no success. Setting an unnaturally high bar makes the fall of these heros more dramatic, but it also leaves a vacuum for future athletes in which there is no clear goal to work towards. If Armstrong built a network that guaranteed his victory—and it is looking, increasingly, as though this was the case—he stole something from the future for temporary satisfaction in the present.
This is not a small crime. Sport is not simple recreation. It is not distraction. It is not frivolous entertainment. Sport is a form of exploration, a tool humanity uses to measure the boundaries of our ability. Messner knew this. The cyclists who made the difficult decision to testify against their friends, teammates, and even themselves know this. And anyone who has been brought to his feet by a cyclist breaking the peloton with a powerful surge uphill knows this.
The Compressor Route does offer some hope: In January 2012, two young alpinists accomplished what was once considered impossible: A ‘fair means’ ascent of Maestri’s travesty.
Evidence suggests that winning the Tour de France seven times in a row was the impossible. It was murdered and though justice has been done, we have all lost as a result. Now, it is up to the next generations of cyclists to mend the wound.