There's this young man I know. Just a teenager, seventeen-years-old. A few weeks ago, he was telling me about what he wants to do when he finishes high school. He wants to get involved in a competitive sport. He has already been training for a while now. He's a smart kid. Focused. Serious. He has definite goals, and he has definite ideas about how he's going to achieve them.
He talked to me about the lengths to which he would have to go, the sacrifices he would have to make, in order to get where he wants to achieve his goals. At just 17, he already has what appears to me to be an encyclopedic knowledge of performance enhancing drugs, PEDs. He talked at great lengths about things that I didn't understand, things like "loads" and "cycling on and off." He used terminology that I didn't understand at all, had never heard before, and can't remember. It was like he was speaking another language, one in which he was quite fluent.
Since I couldn't discuss the subject on his level, I asked questions from a perspective that I could understand. I asked him if it would be satisfying to be successful knowing that he had used PEDs. He replied that anyone who succeeded in his chosen sport had to use PEDs, and that because everyone used them it wasn't really cheating. I asked him about the potential health risks. He replied that the people who develop health problems, as well as the ones who get caught, are the ones who don't know what they are doing, and that he would never be like that. I wanted to know how he would feel if, later on in life, he found out that taking PEDs had wrecked his body and shortened his life. He told me that if he were to achieve the type of success that he hopes to achieve, it would all be worth it.
This young man, barely 17, serious, intelligent, focused, told me that he hadn't used any PEDs yet, but that he knew that he would. There was no question in his look, in his tone. It was just the way that it had to be. He didn't even seem resigned to the fact. He had a goal, and PEDs were merely a necessary step towards achieving that goal. I can tell you, honestly, knowing this kid, listening to him speak, that it didn't bother him at all.
I've heard a lot of talk this week about Lance Armstrong and the worst-kept secret in sports, that he cheated. A lot of what I have heard centers around balancing out the harm he has done, versus the good he has done. I happened upon a thread on Twitter today, where a guy was arguing that the fact that Lance Armstrong cheated to win some races was insignificant because Armstrong has raised something like $500 million through lending his celebrity to a cause. When challenged, the Twitter guy would just repeat the same argument, "case closed... discussion over."
I have never been comfortable with defending someone's bad actions by arguing about all the good they did. If that's your opinion, you're entitled to it, I suppose. However, if you're going to compare the good things accomplished in Lance Armstrong's name (and surely no one believes that Armstrong personally raised $500 million) with the harm he has done, then don't trivialize it by believing he cheated to win some races and that's all. If you believe that, you're buying into a rationalization. Either that, or you really don't understand the issue at all.
Yes, Lance Armstrong cheated to win some races. Throughout his career, as well as in retirement, he has responded to all accusations with not just denials, but with out and out threats towards the people and organizations which sought to bring his malfeasance to the light of day. He has, for years, actively undermined the very mechanisms that are in place to attempt to keep sports free of the type of cheating to which he now admits. And what of the people who have defended him over the years, who worked for his charity, who raised money in his name for a cause in which they believe with all of their hearts? I can only imagine the disappointment, the sense of betrayal that they must feel.
When you're adding up the credits and demerits of the sordid story of Lance Armstrong, cyclist, cancer survivor, liar, cheater, remember all of the people he has hurt. Remember that 17-year-old kid I told you about. If you want to play the game of balancing out the good that Lance Armstrong has done versus the harm, make sure that you give him a fair accounting.