The furore over Lance Armstrong’s confession to Oprah, and by extension the world, of the fact he used performance enhancing drugs and blood doping to help him win his seven Tour de France titles, says more about the mass ignorance that surrounds the issue than it does about the integrity of Lance Armstrong. Indeed elite sport remains one of the few arenas of modern life where a massive gulf remains between public perception and reality. In other words the surprise is not that someone like Lance Armstrong was using performance enhancing drugs throughout his career, the surprise would have been if he had not.
Anyone with a basic knowledge of human physiology, nutrition, and high performance sports will know that elite athletes repeatedly transcend the limits of natural human potential both in their training and performance. Regardless of advances in science surrounding training, nutrition, and recovery, and regardless of genetics, it is impossible for the extraordinary feats of athletic and sporting performance we have become accustomed to witnessing on a regular basis without the aid of performance enhancing drugs. This at least is my contention.
The male hormone testosterone determines an individual’s natural level of strength, muscle mass, and aggression. The natural level of testosterone produced by a male in his peak years of physical development – from 18-21 – is around 6 mg per day. When it comes to growth hormone, essential for muscular development, a healthy immune system, bone density, growth, and cell regeneration, an average male’s levels drop off around the age of 30 by 1-2 percent per year, and by age 40 a man is naturally producing half of what he was at age 20. It is this decrease in GH that drives the ageing process.
Athletes are not average people. The stress they place on their muscular and skeletal systems, the demands placed on their cardiovascular system, and the impact this has on their central nervous system, is monumental. The ability to do so on a regular basis and recover makes the use of performance enhancing drugs, such as synthetic testosterone in its various forms, or growth hormone, not just desirable but essential for those whose aim is to compete at the highest level.
When it comes to Lance Armstrong and cycling in particular, the Tour de France is an event that requires those competing to smash through the limits of endurance, speed, and power time after time. Consequently the use of drugs and blood doping is almost required.
Just on the level of formal logic the stakes involved in professional sports – millions of dollars in prize money, endorsements etc for those at the top – fuels a win at all costs ethos, mirroring the emphasis on success that is so prevalent in society and sits at the apex of our cultural values.
Many serious athletes will view the taking of performance enhancing drugs as levelling the playing field. Moreover within the closed and highly pressurised world of competition, with its own values and understanding of what it takes to win, it will not be considered a big deal. Armstrong himself stated during his interview with Oprah that taking PEDs was as natural to him as putting air in his tires or water in his water bottle.
Viewed in this light it would be more shocking to find elite athletes who don’t or have never used them rather than those who do or have. Increasingly the challenge for those athletes who do use them is to remain one step ahead of advances in testing, though there are still sports, pro boxing in particular, in which the testing regime remains lax.
Ultimately Lance Armstrong’s sin lay in getting caught. His extraordinary success, magnified in his case by a successful battle with cancer, led to him becoming the prisoner of a public which demands that its sporting heroes jump higher, run faster, punch harder, and cycle faster while conforming to a level of moral purity and rectitude rendered impossible in a culture in which success and human virtue are considered two sides of the same coin.
Lance Armstrong’s achievement in winning the Tour de France seven times still stands as a remarkable feat worthy of the admiration and respect. More importantly, it is high time there was an honest conversation on the use of performance enhancing drugs in sport.