October 1, 2022

Will Armstrong’s confession change cycling?

The canary is dead. Now, what about the coal mine? After Lance Armstrong’s confession to Oprah Winfrey in a 90-minute television that he won all of his seven Tour de France titles with the help of performance-enhancing drugs, will cycling become drug-free?

The canary is dead. Now, what about the coal mine? After Lance Armstrong’s confession to Oprah Winfrey in a 90-minute television that he won all of his seven Tour de France titles with the help of performance-enhancing drugs, will cycling become drug-free? Or will the authorities ruefully make their own confession: that drugs are essential in competitive professional sport?

It may be a sad day for Armstrong and his fans, but it brought glad tidings to supporters of human enhancement. Writing in The Age (Melbourne), Oxford bioethicist Julian Savulescu argued:

“Armstrong is not the disease. He is a symptom, and the disease hasn’t been cured. But it is not a disease, it’s a condition: the human condition. To try to be better. The zero-tolerance ban on drugs is an example of the victory of ideology, wishful thinking, moralism and naivity over ethics and commonsense. Human beings have limitations. Lance Armstrong is no god, but he is also no devil. We should change the rules, and take Armstrong off the bonfire. There will, after all, be more like him.”

Savulescu argues that drugs are most dangerous when they are banned. If athletes were free to use them, they could get better medical advice about the risks. Nor do they make the sport less interesting. “. If every Olympic sprinter or cyclist were using steroids, it would still be the same sport, just slightly faster,” he writes in a draft paper.

Most of the discussion in the media highlighted Armstrong’s lies and bullying. “I’m a flawed character,” he told Oprah. “I viewed this situation as one big lie that I repeated a lot of times.”

However, the real lesson from the disgrace of one of America’s sporting heroes may be that records cannot be smashed without taking drugs. Armstrong told Oprah that he did not regard himself as a “cheater”. Cheaters are people who seek an unfair advantage. All he wanted was a level playing field in a sport where everyone was taking drugs.

Besides, without revolutionising the world of sport, huge financial incentives all but force athletes to take drugs. Dr. Verner Moller, of the Center for Sport at the University of Aarhus in Demark and author of ‘The Ethics of Doping and Anti-Doping’ told Voice of Russia that:

“The winner of Tour de France can become a millionaire and it’s clear that if you get a little bit of an advantage by doing something that is against the rules – there’s a huge temptation. You can go from being nobody without much income to be a celebrity and a millionaire. There’ll always be people who want to take advantage.”

The problem of cheating in sport has even reached the Vatican. An official told the media that pro sports “have become a commodity that is subordinate to the free market and, therefore, to profit.” They ought to respect human dignity and shape the whole human person, but instead they have “reduced people to merchandise”. 

Michael Cook
Creative commons
drugs in sport
enhancement
Julian Savulescu
sports