Cheat to Win

Yesterday, Lance Armstrong felt it was time to fess up to something that we pretty much already knew: Lance Armstrong was using performance enhancing drugs in order to help him win all of those cycling achievements. The outrage that followed was predictable: people believed in Lance's abilities to push the sport of cycling a little further, and by using foreign substances the myth of Lance Armstrong as superhuman athlete shattered with one little admission.

Imagine what would have happened had he said he wasn't doping, and could back it up with proof?

I can't think of a sport that hasn't had some performance-drug scandal. Baseball even had the US Congress get involved with investigating their doping scandal (which still boggles my mind why Congress would get involved in the first place, but apparently they have a nose for spending time on irrelevant issues). Doping has become so commonplace, it's the remarkable athlete who can say they haven't taken any performance-enhancing drugs, and can back it up.

What does that say about the competitive culture we put these athletes through?

I think they should just make these performance enhancing drugs legal. Why not? Athletes are always looking for that competitive edge: the extra millisecond shaved off a race time, the extra force applied to a ball. Make them part of the training regime. If you want to compete with your God-given abilities, that's your prerogative but the real competitors are using drugs, baby. It's all about the end result, so why not give it to them in spades?

I suspect one of the reasons competitive sports have rules against this sort of free-doping is pretty simple: kids idolize these athletes.

Imagine you're 12 years old, and your hero is freely admitting his performance is because of performance-enhancing drugs. What's your 12 year old logic going to do with that information? "Well, if it's good enough for Lance Armstrong, then it must be good enough for me" which you then equate the drug as necessary to achieve the performance. It's the same reason young bands think partying will make them rock stars (note: it won't).

Or, kids will think even more damaging thoughts: "well, Lance Armstrong achieved his performance using drugs, so I guess I won't even try: the bar is set too high". Eventually, discouraged kids and aspiring athletes hang it up, because the only way to achieve these results are with performance-enhancing drugs, and those who believe natural ability should trump any score are shut out.

The world of sport (as if that were a thing) needs to accept that they've created a culture where doping is considered part of the training regiment. At the moment it's considered cheating. I'm reminded of Timothy Ferriss' book "The Four Hour Work Week" where he claims he won martial arts contests by exercising one of the rules, and pushed his opponents out of the ring rather than face them directly in a contest he couldn't win. He alleges because he was so successful, now everybody does it. Whether that's true or not, for those who are more interested in competition vs. others rather than competition vs. self, it seems an obvious tactic. Competition breeds people looking for some advantage, and doping is a now part of those competitive advantages.

And as long as we idolize and encourage this sort of competitive behavior, and reward it with monetary and lifestyle rewards, we're only going to see more confessions, more preventative measures, and more people getting discouraged their natural performance isn't good enough for the big leagues.

Until we either accept the culture of doping, or change the cultural mindset that personal competition is more important than external competition, we're getting exactly the lying, cheating athletes (and human beings) we deserve.