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Was Lance Armstrong Really the Best?
— Despite Doping?

thoughts & comment — 23 Jul 2017
Many argue that, despite finally admitting to doping throughout his professional career, Lance Armstrong is still the best cyclist of his generation because every other elite cyclist was doing the same.

WITH THE TOUR DE FRANCE concluding today, I would like to comment on the old chestnut of Lance Armstrong’s use of performance enhancing drugs or PEDs. What I read in a lot of forums is the view that everyone was using PEDs at the time and so Armstrong can still be thought of as the best cyclist of his era, and that he should never have been stripped of his seven Tour de France wins. This is a view that Armstrong himself seems to have, stating that it would have been impossible for anyone to have won the Tour at the time who was not using PEDs. He has even stated that, given a second change to live his life again, he would still make the same decision to use PEDs.

I would agree with Armstrong that it is unlikely that someone not on PEDs would be successful in a sport with a serious PED problem. But the claim that Armstrong is therefore genuinely the best cyclist “because everyone was on them” is fallacious because of the number of variables involved.

How successful a cyclist is in any race will depend on five broad variables:

  1. His or her natural talent or genetics.
  2. His or her psychological toughness and focus.
  3. The effectiveness of his or her training program which also includes diet, recovery and sleep cycles.
  4. The team he or she rides for and his or her standing within that team.
  5. The type of PED program used, if any, and how expertly it is supervised and tweaked, both for performance and to prevent detection.

For natural cycling, the first four are the primary issues. These are the main factors that will determine how successful a cyclist will become.

For doped cycling, ALL FIVE are the primary issues. You cannot be successful at cycling just with the right PED program… it has to dovetail expertly with the other four variables to make a winning formula.

So if someone wins the Tour de France having used PEDs, then there is no denying that they are an elite cyclist… they would have to be! But what is unknown is whether they would be a winning natural cyclist, or whether they would win if everyone had access to the same PED program and medical expertise. The reason for this is threefold:

  1. Cycling PED programs are not all the same and involve many different possible combinations of the following: Erythropoietin (EPO) for increasing red blood cell count, anabolic steroids such as nandrolone for building muscle, blood transfusions for aerobic advantage, testosterone and synthetic steroid hormones to increase muscle mass, human growth hormone (hGH) for muscle building, corticosteroids for increasing energy and reducing inflammation, ephedrine for energy, diuretics to modify kidney function, asthma drugs to boost breathing (this is easy to abuse by claiming the cyclist is is an asthmatic), nonsteroidal anti-inflammatories to aid recovery, amphetamines to increase stamina and reduce fatigue. And these are just a few we know about. There are no doubt many more PEDs available to elite athletes that are so new and obscure that sporting bodies have not (yet) banned them yet.
  2. PED programs are not all supervised and tweaked with the same expertise, both for performance and to avoid detection. Different doctors do things differently. As PEDs are illegal and as these doctors make big money from being the best PED administrators, they are unlikely to share their programs with other similar doctors. So there is likely to be disparity between the PED programs supervised by different doctors.
  3. The same PED program supervised by the same doctor will NOT boost every cyclist’s performance equally. It will depend on factors such as genetics, psychological profile, and how training programs are optimally adjusted to maximise the advantage of the PEDs whilst minimising their chance of being detected.

The false assumption that many, including cyclists, are making is to assume that the PED advantage is somehow fixed rather than variable, so that if everyone is on PEDs then the race finishing order would not be much different if the cyclist were all riding clean. This is a false assumption and shows no appreciation for the different factors involved.

For example, Lance Armstrong’s doping was supervised by the doctor considered to be the best doping expert at that time: Dr Michele Ferrari (apt name!). Ferrari has been lined with other cyclists, but he was not supervising the whole Tour de France during the Armstrong era. So there would have been a number of different doctors involved, and that would imply different levels of doping experience and expertise.

Again, there is no denying that someone has to be an elite athlete to win major sporting events on PEDs, but there is a big question mark over whether the winners using PEDs would have won clean. That, nobody actually knows because the PED advantage is so variable.

The blanket use of PEDs in any sport, therefore, skews who will be the winners and losers. And this changes the sport to something a bit different. PED athletes would now need to not only be elite but also have the right genetics, physiology and psychology to optimally respond to a specific and tailored PED program. (I mention psychology here as knowingly you are are being duplicitous to your adoring fans and harmful to yourself and therefore your family can take a toll on things like motivation and attitude, especially if you have a conscience.)

There is also the possibility that, at some point in the future, PEDs are made legal as sport becomes an ever greater media spectacle. Doped athletes are certainly more entertaining to watch as their performances are superhuman, despite those chemical modifications coming at great cost to their health. But in a winner-takes-all society, where most of the younger generations would now be happier to shine for a few years than to merely glow for a lifetime, health considerations are certainly secondary to the glory involved in winning. So it may not be so long before sporting bodies who specify the rules accept PEDs within strict limits in order to rake in the insane levels of money paid by the media for superhuman performances.

However, this would fundamentally change the whole ethos of sport. A successful PED athlete would be more akin to a successful motor racing driver where even the best driving skills are not enough to win unless coupled with one of the best racing car manufacturers. And it would be a slippery slope to legalise PEDs even with strict limits because there will ALWAYS be those who abuse those limits to gain an edge, and so doped sport would become much more physically dangerous, with the value of the spectacle trumping the value of human life. This would be fundamentally destructive to the values of any civilised society.

But for now, PEDs are not legal, and claims that Armstrong is the best because “everyone was doping at the time” shows little appreciation of the variables involved.