Why my dad, a former Olympic bicycle racer, sympathizes with the disgraced former Tour de France champion
My father, Rick Ball, was a serious amateur cyclist in the late 1960s and early 1970s who represented the U.S. in the 1971 Pan Am Games and the 1972 Olympics in Munich, Germany. He raced while pursuing his Ph.D. in mathematics at the University of Wisconsin, in Madison; upon finishing his degree, he chose academia over racing, and last year he retired as chairman of the math department at the University of Denver.
Long before Lance Armstrong brought the sport to the American consciousness, I grew up in a family that watched the Tour de France religiously, at odd hours due to the time difference, on obscure satellite networks. My dad is also a bit of a libertarian where performance-enhancing substances are concerned, an avid consumer of non-F.D.A.-approved vitamin supplements ordered from exotic foreign websites and catalogs. Given this combination of interests, he's not unsympathetic to the position Armstrong, the seven-time Tour de France champion who admitted last week to taking performance-enhancing substances after years of denials, now finds himself in.
This weekend, my father and I watched Armstrong's interview with Oprah Winfrey together. Then I interviewed him about it. This is an edited transcript of our conversation.
What was your experience with performance-enhancing drugs in cycling?
I practiced at a time when the American sport had not gone through the dramatic increase in standards that it subsequently went through, as soon as [the American racer] Greg LeMond came on the scene [in the 1980s]. It was such an interesting sport back then. It was practiced mainly in major urban areas—Chicago, New York, New Jersey, etc., because they had immigrant populations, and a lot of the bike clubs were organized around that ethnic identity. You would race in the Chicago area and, honest to goodness, you could hear a half dozen languages in the peloton. The Germans would be speaking German to each other, the Belgians would speak Flemish, the French would speak French, the Italians would speak Italian.
[The drug culture was] not on this side of the Atlantic, as far as I can tell, and I think I have a right to say that, because virtually all of my racing [took place in the U.S], aside from a couple of international excursions as part of the national team, and I never ran into it. Never once. Maybe it was there, but it was totally invisible. However, there were people at the time who took it upon themselves to go to Europe and race for some period of time, and they brought back stories, and the stories were without exception about the ubiquity of drugs.
The typical story would go something like this: You're in Belgium, you're riding local races which occur three or four times a week. These are dinky little races in far-flung, rural parts of the country which draw enormous crowds, and are practiced under the most primitive conditions. So the race would start in some little cafe, you'd go to this cafe to change into your race clothes, and you'd be queued up for the public bathroom, which would be this tiny closet. And there'd be a bunch of racers around you, and someone would open up a valise, and there would be row upon row upon row of hypodermics.
And one day there would be some racer that you knew or had raced with or had trained with and you would drop him off the back—he couldn't get out of his own way. And two days later you couldn't hold his wheel—this was just not the same rider, not the same human being. And this was just at the lowest level of amateur riding.
So under those circumstances you're very soon forced to deal with that. You're not going to be competitive with that if all you've got are the legs God gave you. I have no confidence that I would not have started taking that stuff in that situation, no confidence.
What kind of drugs were they in those days?
There was a lot of amphetamine use. That was the drug of choice for many, many years. This was way before EPO [Erythropoietin, the blood-enhancing hormone used by Armstrong], which was originally discovered to diminish one of the pernicious effects of dialysis, which is the diminution of red blood cells. EPO is an indigenous hormone—we all make this hormone, it is in response to this hormone that the body makes red blood cells. That's why it's nearly undetectable.
But it was not around at that point—it was mostly speed-related substances. There's a famous episode in Tour history about a British rider named Tommy Simpson. He was Britain's great hope—no British rider would again figure into the Tour with that prominence for several decades—and he was leading the Tour [in 1967] at the point when the race came to central France, to a famous climb that is often to this day incorporated into the Tour, up a peak which juts out as an aberration from the plains of central France, a peak called Mont Ventoux. It is reviled by all the riders because it's so doggone hot in that part of the country, and the climb is brutal and unrelieved, just going up a cone, no relief, no trees, nothing. Simpson began to get into difficulty at some point along the climb, and at some point he began to wobble, and the story is that he eventually fell over, and when his support crew rushed to his aid, his dying words were, "Put me back on the bike." Afterward, they found amphetamines in his blood.
That's pretty chilling. In light of stories like that, how do you view the use of these substances?
I'm not sure I have much to add to the debate about that. In the case of Lance Armstrong, I really can't shake the feeling that it's rather a shame that one of the dominant athletes of our time, in a sport that I love, is now only regarded or is mainly regarded as a public curiosity.
Or a disgrace?
Or a disgrace, worse yet. But the things that I remember are the descriptions of this young man who was coming up, when he was not yet understood as the talent that he proved to be. And you should hear these descriptions. I remember the world championships, this was before Lance was sick—he came out of nowhere and he decimated the field. Just decimated the field, and everybody was rocked on their heels, because where did this guy come from? This is when he was 20 pounds heavier than he was the rest of his career—after cancer he had actually gained an advantage by paring off a good deal of his muscle mass.
But that's the part I don't think is widely appreciated. He is a genetic freak in terms of his gifts. It's just something almost otherworldly.
And that's true even without the drugs, you think?
Yes, no question. I don't think people necessarily understand the constant, extraordinary demands that this sport makes. I mean, you are basically killing yourself every minute that you're out there. And many times what that leads to is a flat tire, or someone gives you an elbow and bumps you off the road in the last corner, and the break goes on without you and you can't do anything about it—over and over again, and you just have to understand that's the way these things unwind, and your day will come—or not.
But back to the question about drugs—you've sort of led me to believe you didn't entirely disapprove of them.
Had I had Lance Armstrong's body, and had I had the possibilities he had—that is to say, if I were able to somehow magically find myself in the pro peloton—I have no confidence that I would have refused the blandishments to which he eventually succumbed. Besides, as you know, you're talking to a father who's a vitamin freak.
Right, you believe in better living through chemistry.
Keep in mind that our lives are fundamentally different in part because of the understanding of the human body that modern science has made available to us. A good deal of the technology that's outlawed in sport and the subject of great scorn is the same technology that allows us to save AIDS patients from wasting, that allows us to bring many, many disabilities and disease states back from the brink to something like full functioning. I myself have been taking supplemental testosterone for medical reasons for 15 years, with no ill effects. These things are powerful weapons that mankind has developed for good.
There are some interesting alternative strategies. For instance, there's something called an altitude tent—a hyperbaric chamber. If you sleep with an oxygen content in the air typical of higher altitude, the body's response is to begin to generate more red blood cells. It's everybody's response to altitude, and you can do it just by taking the hours that you sleep and reducing the oxygen content. Not the pressure, just the oxygen content of the air. So many years ago many of the Scandinavian cross-country teams began to train while domiciled in whole houses that had been altered to reproduce this state of affairs.
You don't want to, by the way, just move to Colorado, because it turns out that the full-boogie adaptation to altitude is not particularly favorable, because your blood pH changes in such a way as to make power production decline. The ideal is to sleep at altitude and train at sea level. In fact, our good friend Barb Buchan [a severely brain-damaged Paralympic cycling medalist] bought one of these tents, and it had the effect of dramatically reducing her seizures. Then, when she was at the Olympics, she was not allowed to use it, and she had a seizure right before the race.
In her case, part of what was interesting to me was that that tent really worked. She could pretty much march her hematocrit right up to whatever level she wanted. This is a woman, and women's hematocrit levels are usually far lower than those of a man.
Are there side effects to this kind of doping as there are to things like amphetamines or steroids?
Yes. EPO in particular has been implicated in 20 or 30 or 40 deaths in amateur racing. Red blood cells are enormously bigger than any other cells in the blood, and when you increase them the blood becomes sludgy and the heart has to work much harder. I had a master's student who was genetically disposed to overproduce red blood cells, and he had to give blood from time to time to reduce the load on his heart.
Can you imagine a set of doping rules that would make more sense?
I'm not so sure I disagree with the rules that we have. I think what's happening is probably a profound reorientation of the ancient culture of the sport. The sport itself is not that ancient, it's only, what, 150 years old—the bicycle was only invented 200 years ago. You could take the point of view, and I guess I do, that this is now going to be the future of the sport. I found it very interesting to hear that what was decisive as far as Armstrong was concerned is what's called a biological passport. What this means is that you're not testing the athlete for levels of any particular substance; you're instead creating a normative measurement over time by taking blood samples over the course of a year or longer, out of training, and you get a profile of what his blood should look like. And then if, upon the racing season's arrival, you have a test which is wildly discrepant, that's the basis for a disqualification.
There's also evidence that the culture is changing. There's a new team that Jonathan Vaughters has put together—a kid from Colorado, actually, I first heard his name as a junior and he raced briefly in Europe. He is now the chief honcho in a team that is predicated around weekly testing of every single member of the team. These guys are squeaky clean, and their appeal to the organizers of the big races is they are above reproach. And this is what the Tour wants. And so [the team has] been rising very quickly through the ranks. The riders are very committed to this and it's been surprisingly successful. So this is the future.
It seemed to me, watching the interview, that if he were being honest, Lance would have said, "Look, this is what everybody did, I just did what everybody did"—but he wouldn't have gotten any sympathy for that, he would have seemed to be making excuses or playing the victim. So he'd been coached not to explain things in that way, even if that was the truth.
I think you're right, it would have certainly not exculpated him—he wouldn't have gotten any sympathy. But the fact that it's true is something I know and I wish he would have been able to point out. Because I'm also aware of the fact that he's exposing and explaining himself to an audience that is relatively naive [about cycling].
So is he a victim, in your view? Is he a scapegoat? Or does he deserve what he's getting? You said it saddens you that he'll be remembered mainly as a disgrace—does he deserve better than that?
Well, first of all, the court of public opinion is nothing if not fickle. There was an article I saw that listed all the public figures who fell into disgrace only to rehabilitate themselves somewhat later. I think Armstrong is going to lose in the court of public opinion not because he doped so much as because he was such a bully. People are right to be really, really offended by the fact that he ruined so many careers, the fact that he sued so many people he knew were telling the truth. He's got a long ways to go before he begins to make amends for some of that. But there again, we are talking about one of the great bike racers of all time. The guy doesn't have to be liked or even particularly nice to be a great racer.
You said to me once, and I've never forgotten it, "The perfection of the human form is a worthy goal, and if a few teenage boys' reproductive systems have to be sacrificed to that end, so be it."
[laughing] I said that?
We were talking about steroids, I think. So were you just being outrageous, or is there a part of you that feels that way?
There's a part of me that feels that way. Not perhaps with that particular example, but in the larger sense. Had somebody, at one moment in my life, offered me some sort of a Faustian choice—would you like to win the Tour de France or would you like, I don't know, to prove great [mathematical] theorems—I wouldn't have hesitated. I would have chosen to win the Tour. I cared so much about it. Maybe it would have been a foolish mistake, but there's no doubt I would have chosen it.
By the time I finally finished my Ph.D., which took forever, I had accumulated boxes of pieces of paper covered in calculations. And when I went through them, on the upper right corner of every one were calculations of gear ratios, calculations of how much various components weighed, calculations of anything having to do with bike racing. You could see that while I was sitting there trying to prove theorems, my dream life, my fantasy life, where my spirit lived was on the bike.
So how, in the end, do you think we ought to view Lance Armstrong?
With tremendous admiration for what he's accomplished, and vehement disapproval of the way he treated the other human beings in his life. There's no excuse for that.
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