Lessons of Lance Armstrong doping scandal

The Lance Armstrong doping scandal, which means he will be stripped of his Tour de France awards, should push the anti-doping effort to a new level. Like the Penn State scandal, sports entities – and fans – must look at the culture of fame and money that drives many sports.

Thao Nguyen/AP Photo
Lance Armstrong pauses during an interview in Austin, Texas, Aug. 23. He is finished fighting charges from the United States Anti-Doping Agency that he used performance-enhancing drugs during his unprecedented cycling career, a decision that could put his string of seven Tour de France titles in jeopardy.

If sports are a mirror of society, it’s a sad day for all when one of the world’s most famous athletes, Lance Armstrong, will be stripped of his major titles and awards by the US Anti-Doping Agency.

It means that the pressures for athletes to cheat – driven by the lure of money and a culture of celebrity and sensationalist entertainment – have reached such a level that sports fans themselves, not just sports officials, must now join in the efforts to curb chemically engineered athletic performance.

So many top bikers have now been stripped of their Tour de France awards because of doping that some European media no longer cover the world’s greatest bicycle race. Why should fans watch a rigged event?

Better yet, fans should remember to appreciate a sport for what it really is – a display of character, natural talent, and teamwork. Those qualities are why sports figures are seen as role models for children.

While body enhancement is a part of many sports, it cannot become a win-at-any-cost contest between athletes who pay doctors to devise a new drug that can’t be detected by today’s screening methods. The ruling sports agencies should be commended for trying to break this drive among many athletes to dope themselves to success. If a sport does not have a level playing field, it not only lacks integrity but will lose fans.

Sports-governing entities still have a long way to go to sort out what athletes can and cannot do in diet, medical treatments, and high-tech uniforms. But they still need to hold a firm line on doping, as difficult as that is, even if only to prevent athletes from taking the health risks associated with such drugs.

And just as Penn State is having to address the university culture that led to, and tolerated, sexual abuse, so sports that are prone to drug abuse need to address the culture that surrounds them. How much of the core purpose of fair play and individual achievement is compromised by a desire for sponsorship and fame? When does reputation matter more than honesty and safety?

Sports are really about progress in breaking mental barriers and new ideas in training techniques. That’s why so many records are broken at the Olympics and elsewhere. Mr. Armstrong, who claims his innocence but decided not to challenge the decision against him, certainly showed such qualities often in the Tour, even if he is now judged to have enhanced his body with banned substances to win. And he later applied his resolve of character in serving people and families affected by cancer – an effort inspired by his own victory over that disease.

True victory lies in growth in character, not in winning by whatever means.

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