The Feds (and Everyone Else) Should Leave Lance Armstrong Alone

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Yes, he lied, cheated, and doped. But vilifying him is at best useless and at worst hypocritical.

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REUTERS/Francois Lenoir

The United States Department of Justice has now decided to join in the "whistleblower" lawsuit against Lance Armstrong by former teammate Floyd Landis.

This means that at a time when the president says we are facing Armageddon for lack of government resources, millions more dollars will be spent focused on what a bunch of 20-something kids did in Europe a decade ago. This is nuts.

At the root of the lawsuit is the claim that the vaunted institute called the United States Postal Service was damaged by associating with one of the greatest athletes of his generation. Never mind that the Postal Service actually did something seemingly impossible by sponsoring Armstrong's team: They found a way to make money and save taxpayers a small fortune. We are actually to believe that harm has come to the reputation of an organization so flawed that "going postal" is slang for an underappreciated and overworked employee shooting fellow underappreciated and overworked employees.

This makes about as much sense as thinking that Floyd Landis, who was plucked from obscurity and made into a star by Lance Armstrong, is a victim. Floyd was a great bike racer, the kind of kid who would ride through hell just to see his tires smoke, but he's as much a liar, cheat, and doper as Lance Armstrong. If Armstrong's team was a vast criminal enterprise, Floyd Landis joined the gang, prospered, then went out and started his own gang only to get busted. And now he sues his former gang?

This makes that crazy case of the person who was attacked by McDonald's hot coffee seem like the sort of cause the International Court of Justice in the Hague should prosecute. I loathe doping and cheating in sports and have written about it and ranted about it for years. But there is something about this rush to demonize Lance Armstrong that is as misguided as the previous push to make him a saint.

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Let's start with the obvious: European pro cycling has been a drug-infested sport for a very long time. And when Lance Armstrong says that he doesn't believe he could have won seven tours without performance-enhancing drugs, there's little reason to doubt him.

This isn't the place to go into the sordid history of drugs in pro cycling, but it's a history that dates back to the sport's earliest days. To really understand what it was like for the riders of Armstrong's generation, everyone should read The Secret Race by Tyler Hamilton and Dan Coyle.

The Secret Race is the story of how Tyler Hamilton, one of Armstrong's long-time teammates, an extraordinarily courageous and talented athlete from Marblehead, Massachusetts, was relentlessly drawn into the world of pro-cycling doping. Raised with a strong sense of honor, right and wrong, Hamilton grew to realize that without doping he could not compete at the highest levels of the sport he loved as much as life itself. It wasn't a matter of ethics so much as simple biology.

It is chilling to read Hamilton's description of the first time a team doctor tested his red blood cell level (hematocrit) in 1997:

"Not too bad," he said. "You are 43."

I remember being struck by Pedro's wording. It wasn't "You scored a 43" or "Your level is 43," it was "You are 43." Like I was a stock and 43 was my price. Only later would I find out how accurate this really was.

Red blood cells carry oxygen through the body. In an endurance sport, any athlete with more oxygen will endure longer and harder. The slightest difference in hematocrit level could mean the difference between glory and defeat. Training can increase levels to a certain point, but everyone has a natural ceiling. And that's where drugs and blood manipulation like transfusions come into play.

Hamilton, one of the toughest athletes of the modern era, describes riding hard as he could up some impossibly steep climb in one of his early races in Europe only to be casually passed by Danish rider Bjarne Riis who was calmly turning over a massive gear. Then it hit Hamilton that while he was trying desperately to hold on, Riis was training. This was the same Bjarne Riis who had been a journeyman rider until he suddenly transformed into a superstar in the l993 Tour.

He lied when others were lying. Maybe he did it with more vigor or effectiveness than others. But what does it really mean to be the bigger liar in a world of liars?

The reality was clear. Without doping, Hamilton writes, "We had no chance to win, no chance to attack or affect the race in a meaningful way; we were just grateful to survive. The reason was the other riders were unbelievably strong. They defied the rules of physics and bike racing."

It's easy to say that Hamilton and Armstrong and all of those riders should have put down their bicycles and refused to join the system. Many Americans and European cyclists did just that. With rare exception, today we have no idea who they are. They never won big races. They disappeared from the top levels of the sport.

And that's really the crux of this entire issue. To be fair to the athletes of this era, we have to acknowledge that the choice they were facing was not just to dope but whether or not to leave their sport, at least at the highest professional level.

Naturally we all say it would have been far better to ride clean and lose. But do that race after race, year after year, and pretty soon you won't be going to races. Because you won't have any sponsors. The economics of pro cycling is no one sponsors the team or riders who are consistently not in the running. Losers just lose, and when you lose a lot you quit losing because you're not going to the race.

Can any of us really imagine what it was like for these athletes? Can any of us really say what decisions we would have made? They are the chosen, the genetically blessed, a fiercely driven, tiny slice of the population. There are a thousand times more successful heart surgeons than pro bike racers.

To succeed at that level requires much more than physical gifts and drive and luck. It takes love—a deep and abiding love for a sport. Imagine falling in love with a sport when you were five or six years old. You have a gift! You stay with it. You fight your way to Europe. Then you discover the game is played with a different set of rules. You quit and go home, never to test yourself against the world's elite? How hard would it be to voluntarily withdraw from that sport because of ethics, knowing that your top competitors were doing what you were refusing to do?

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Stuart Stevens is a writer and political consultant. He is the author of five books, including Malaria Dreams and The Big Enchilada.

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