So let me lay out the argument.
First, let's establish what Armstrong did and has admitted to: four forms of doping. He blood doped by reinfusing his own red blood cells to enhance his blood's oxygen carrying capacity. He took anabolic steroids to increase strength and muscle. He took Epoetin to manufacture extra red blood cells. And he used anti-inflammatories and steroids to tamp down on soreness and inflammation while he was riding the Tour de France, to enhance his short term recovery.
Then he lied about it.
He also attacked, sometimes in court, ex-colleagues and employees who ratted him out.
So why forgive all this?
Let's start with the fact that in the Armstrong era, all professional riders doped in this same way. The playing field was level, and he was not taking unfair advantage of anything except superior expertise in not getting caught.
That seems like a big charge to make. How do we know this? First, it's common knowledge among everyone in the cycling community. Professional bike racing was a chemically enhanced sport in those times, and may have been since it's inception. The greatest racer of all time, Eddie Merckx, was caught using amphetamines.
At the time, there was some discussion among the Tour directorate about leaving the sport like that, as doping is so hard to prevent. Wiser heads prevailed, or at least were swayed by financial considerations about the public's opinion of their sport. That is, the officials and governing bodies bear most of the responsibility for this state of affairs, in my opinion. If everyone knew about it, so did they, and yet they elected to look the other way, or to rely on ineffectual, purely cosmetic attempts to regulate doping.
The riders, like Armstrong, were young kids who wanted to win bike races, which is a noble ambition in my opinion. It's a dangerous and demanding sport. They had to obey their coaches, like all athletes. Their choices were to give up the sport, or ride as amateurs, or to dope, which was the only way to win. The Tour de France is won by minutes, after 2000 miles of racing and three weeks of riding. Even a tiny edge is decisive and doping was a big edge. One of the reasons so many people were convinced Armstrong doped, even though he passed all his drug tests, was that it was thought to be impossible to compete that successfully at that level against riders who did dope. And the coaches, the directeurs sportif, had to go along with doping to stay in business.
Blaming only the riders is yet another way for coaches, reporters, team owners to bully the actual athletes, whose prowess they may resent. The old fart with the money is the alpha dog. And don't you forget it.
Second, the speed of the peloton, the main group of riders in a race, has dropped by a couple miles per hour since effective anti-doping strategies have been in force. Course records or climb times set during the doping era have never been equaled, despite the facts that the bikes are lighter and faster, there are more competitors from all over the world, and the training is more intense than ever.
Now, that is, riders are tested as soon as they turn pro to establish baseline blood chemistry; they are tested multiple times a year, and at unannounced times. A rider who came in second one year was disqualified for the following year because he said he was abroad when the tester come to find him, but a reliable witness said he saw him in Italy, not abroad. He never tested positive, but that was enough. Riders and their vehicles are searched at borders. Moles are planted in their entourages. People are followed. Garbage is examined.
Third, almost without exception, the riders who came in second and third to Armstrong in the Tours he won, and the riders who won just before and after his string of eight victories, have admitted to or been caught doping. In fact, usually when someone is disqualified, the runner up is given the title. But not in this case, because the Tour direction has no confidence that the riders who came in second, and have not undergone the kind of scrutiny and investigation that Armstrong has, were not equally guilty.
And yet no one but Armstrong has been banned for life from professional sports. The rest got suspended for a season, mostly.
You could say that punishing him severely has a deterrent effect, but I do not believe that. Present day riders look on the Armstrong years as ancient history, with different mores, different forms of testing and even different chemicals available. The deterrent is the focus on present day riders and teams discussed above.
Well, what about lying about it? Kind of the way Nixon and Clinton got busted not for the original offense but for lying under oath, obstruction of justice, suborning witnesses and the like.
Not comparable. Taking prescribed performance enhancing drugs is not illegal. It's against the regulations of the sport, but had Armstrong not been an athlete he could have taken all the drugs his doctor prescribed him without any penalty. Besides, he ain't President of the United States.
And if you are going to do it, you have to lie about it. It's the same act. You can't dope and then say you doped. What would be the point? I regard this second offense as a kind of entrapment, though it does bear out the old Catholic dogma that once you commit one sin, the others follow.
I don't really have any excuse for him attacking other riders and ex-employees who squealed. They went along with him until it wasn't convenient, so I can't say I'm very sympathetic to their plight, but it was pretty vicious on his part too.
What I can say is that winners are not always nice guys. You can admire their athletic ability, their drive, their determination and their focus, but to expect all of them to be exemplary in all other ways is probably too much to ask. A certain amount of narcissism and selfishness kind of comes with the territory. Me first.
The Australian said I was justifying someone acting like a mafia don enforcing omerta. I admit he had a point.
Still, I feel at this point that Armstrong has been punished enough. He's been out of professional competition for years, suffered financially, lost prestige. No matter what happens his reputation will never be the same.
In fact, given the good work his cancer institute was doing, and the exemplary, if illusory, role model he was providing, it would have been better if his prosecutors had looked to the present day sport instead of digging around in the past. The lawyer who chased him down, spending years and millions of dollars, said Armstrong showed a win at all costs mentality which he found reprehensible, but, as so often, he was describing himself.
A very useful and essential, and much neglected, concept for my conclusion here is one only known to people who study history seriously or professionally. It is called historicity. You cannot judge people and events from other eras and cultures as though they were living in your world. George Washington owned slaves. Today that would earn him opprobrium and jail time. And you can't say he didn't know it was not kosher even then. You can look at statements he made, and the abolition of the slave trade in other countries from much earlier than his period.
But while condemning slavery unequivocally, you have to give him a pass on that. It was accepted in his time. He was a very great man and a very admirable figure in very many and very important ways. You hope someone will transcend his time but it is unreasonable to expect he will in every way. Washington certainly did in so many other ways. It is intellectually and morally incorrect to pretend that the standards which hold in your time are eternal truths. It's provincial and arrogant. Things change, and they keep changing.
So the Armstrong era was the era when professional bike racing was a chemically enhanced sport. You can't change history. The races he rode and won were great triumphs. They belong in the glorious history of the Tour. He won 8 Tours by his own efforts, skill, determination, strategy and physical prowess, adhering to the standards of bike racing which prevailed in his time.
So it's time to prevent doping in the sport now, not in the past. And to give Armstrong back the honors he won on the road, mano a mano.
He was, I believe, the greatest Tour rider ever. Perhaps not the greatest racer, as Merckx won so many other races besides his 5 Tours, including the hour record--in fact one third of all the races he ever entered; but Armstrong, besides winning 8 tours by defeating on an equal paying field all the riders competing in the environment as it was then, was the only Tour victor who was the best both in the mountains and in the time trials. That is, most Tour champions are time trial specialists who can limit their losses on the climbs, riders like Merckx, Hinault, Induran or Anqueteil. Sometimes a great climber who can limit his losses in the time trials will win. But only Armstrong consistently won both. He was the best time trialer of his time and also the best climber. Laurent Fignon only achieved that once, and only won two Tours total.
You can ask questions, like, would Armstrong have won if he and the other riders had not been doping? This is like, could he have beaten Merckx if they both rode at the same time? The philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein laid that one to rest early in the last century. He said questions based on hypotheticals have no answer. As he put it, "If I were a duck, would I lay eggs? I have no idea. I'm not a duck." It's hard enough to answer real questions.
We can continue to sanction riders who dope, and enforce and enhance anti-doping measures without trying to rectify the sport's past. As the second placed Oscar Pereiro said, less than enthused about the first place the Tour direction offered him after first place Floyd Landis had been disqualified for testosterone, "You win the Tour on the road." Not in a law court. Or as another rider put it, though concerning an entirely different kind of case, involving Bernard Hinault ( AKA le Blaireau, the Badger). "Pour nous, dans le peloton, c'est le Blaireau qui porte le maillot. For us, in the peloton, it's the Badger who's wearing the jersey."
So the prosecutors and bureaucrats may have taken Lance's 8 yellow jerseys away from him, but for at least some of us who have actually turned a crank in anger, pour nous dans le peloton, c'est Lance qui porte les maillots. He's already paid whatever debt he owes for participating in the toxic culture of the 90's Tours de France.