One of the bigger, nonpolitical stories of the summer has been the decision by Lance Armstrong to drop his fight to clear his name in proceedings before the US Anti-Doping Agency which accuses him of using “banned blood transfusions, the blood booster EPO, testosterone and other drugs” to help win his record seven straight Tour de France titles. The affair is in many ways a tragic one, since Armstrong, a cancer survivor who is doing admirable charity work via his own foundation, has been one of the most beloved and admired athletes of recent times–certainly the only cyclist to break through to popular adulation in the United States.
He was not repentant in announcing that he would no longer fight the charges that will lead to him being banned from the sport and stripped of his titles. He called the proceeding “an unconstitutional witch hunt” and said the process was “one-sided and unfair.” He did raise some legitimate questions about the process, and in particular about the lack of physical evidence and that belated nature of the proceedings, coming after his retirement and many years after the acts in question. But by all accounts the USADA had compiled overwhelming evidence of Armstrong’s infractions from among his own former teammates. All legal proceedings are subject to some doubts, but on the whole I believe the process is one that Americans can be proud of even if it brought down one of our sporting icons.
For the USADA is a non-government agency (although it does receive some money from the drug czar’s office) that is charged with policing our own athletic house. In other countries–say the old East Germany or today’s Communist China–the government is the primary culprit behind cheating and rule-bending to give national athletes a leg up on their competitors in the Olympics or other competitions. If the machinations of those athletes are exposed, it is inevitably done by the World Anti-Doping Agency or some other international body. There is scant hope of those countries policing themselves because they have a win-at-any-cost mentality and want to use international athletic glory to make up for the deficiencies of their country.
The U.S. has a very different–and more admirable–ethos, inherited from Britain, which can be exemplified by the old chestnut, “It’s not whether you win or lose…” Of course we love winners–athletes like Lance Armstrong. But not to the extent that we will connive in their cheating. It is very much to America’s credit that we are willing to police our own ranks and to mete out justice even to a beloved superstar athlete with vast resources to fight the charges against him. That sends an important signal of equality before the law that, even if we take it for granted, will resonate in countries such as China where the rule of law does not exist.
And it’s not as if our devotion to fair play hurts us in the end. After all, U.S. athletes–even without enjoying the benefits of state support for training, much less for rule-breaking–still won more medals than any other country at the London Olympics: 104 compared to 88 for China, which has turned medal production into a state-sponsored industry.