Tuesday, September 11, 2012

What’s it Worth to You to Dope for the Tour de France?

As if I wasn’t already thinking about Lance…Armstrong, that is (because who has not given at least one nanosecond of thought to the current swirl of events around cycling’s icon for the last many years); I was reading Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl over the weekend, in which the male protagonist prefers to go by his middle name, Nick, instead of his first name, Lance, because the latter sounds too slick, entitled and, yes, untrustworthy; an apt coincidence given Lance A’s situation.  
  Until yesterday, I hadn’t given too much thought to what I actually thought-thought about The Lance Events.  My conversations on the topic tended to the anodyne agreement with others, “yes, I think he probably was doping” and “yes, the zeal of the investigation seems extreme, but…” And so on.  But then in the way ideas have of coming upon us suddenly, apropos of nothing, I had this series of thoughts about The Lance Events, which pertain not so much to Lance, the individual, but to sports in general and why we participate in them and what “sport” is about. 
So here goes:
I am disappointed, though not surprised, to learn that Lance may well have doped.
I think it’s true, too, that the investigation into allegations against him was a bit of a witch-hunt.  Although I think the more apt description would be of the restive ruling classes toppling a too-popular king (throw in a little French history in honour of the Tour de F), not ignorant citizens chasing after older, single women with the gift of healing (what witch-hunts usually entailed).  Whether or not the investigation was more zealous than others is both beside the point and understandable.  Lance has been the standard bearer for cycling and it would be wrong to allow a cheater to maintain that status. 
The more important question, to my mind, is what is the world of cycling actually doing about the rampant doping in the sport?  More testing?  Harsher after-the-fact individual sanctions?  Those measures aren’t nearly enough, because they do not get to the heart of the matter.  Why do cyclists dope?  What is at stake?  And the answer is, as is so often the case, money.  Lance is not some poor cyclist, carrying his bike down five flights of stairs from his mean garret every morning to hit the streets rain or shine in whatever second-hand gear he can scrape together.  No, he is a super-endorsed athlete, training with the best of the best of everything, not to mention living a storybook lifestyle.    
To be at the top of cycling is to enjoy the trappings of the endorsements that come with it.  Sport is big money.  No wonder athletes cheat.  After all, as we’ve seen, cheating is rampant in the financial world, too.  The Tour de France has become a major media event, a spectacle that commands big advertising budgets (it’s not the Superbowl, but still…). 
So I have two proposals.
First, if any cyclist riding in the Tour de France gets caught doping next year, then the Tour de France will be cancelled for 2014.  Oh yes, I am aware that’s an extreme proposal, but the sport is dirty.  Not every cyclist, but far too many.  Unless there are real sanctions that matter beyond the individual; who can always “redeem” themselves with a tell-all book, salacious television interviews and maybe even a reality show; change will not happen.  Where’s the incentive to the whole sport to get itself clean?  (And this reasoning extends to other sports, of course).
Second, the money issue needs to be tackled.  And I’ll provide a spoiler alert here—I am going to get socialist on you.  I’ve been reading E. F. Schumacher’s 1970’s classic, Small is Beautiful, a thought provoking look at the dehumanizing effect of much economic theory.  Cyclists (not just cyclists, people, many people) cheat because money is at stake, because if they don’t win, they don’t earn the livelihood they need.  And the winners, like Lance, need their competition.  They need other cyclists who are top-tier athletes to keep the races interesting.  Yet many of those cyclists are not earning enough and/or the gap between what they earn and what the Lances earns is so large, that it is hard to be immune from the temptation to cheat.  Because if they could just win, then…The solution is to shrink the gap, to spread the wealth, as it were (I warned you!), to acknowledge that cycling needs all its athletes, not just the winners.  All cyclists earning above a certain amount should be required to tithe (a church concept of donating 10% of one’s wealth—and no, I’m not endorsing religion, only the charitable impulse, of which Lance, by the way, is a great example), or contribute some other percentage to their respective national cycling federation and the applicable international cycling body, which money will go into a general pool, then distributed out in some fairly apportioned fashion to the athletes who participate in events throughout the year.  By “earning,” I mean everything they earn by virtue of the fact that they are a successful cyclist.
Of course, I recognize that there are many parameters that need precise definition in this proposal.  It is the bones of the idea I’m throwing out for your consideration—that cheating risks the sport, not just self; and that winning and succeeding financially wins for the sport, not just for self. 
After all, isn’t that what sport is supposed to be about?—a forum to which we bring the physical manifestation of our highest selves, in competition with other worthy opponents.  Isn’t that what the Greeks and Romans were after with sport?  Sport is about the purity of the physical pursuit, and yes, about winning, but not just for the money (and for the dubious privilege of appearing in advertisements purporting to adore some watch or shoe or some hyper-scientized sports drink), but also for the love of the sport.
My proposal both ensures a clean sport and a high level of competition.    
Cycling is a beautiful sport at risk of sinking under the weight of its own dirt.  I propose we not let that happen.