So it has finally happened. Lance Armstrong has admitted to using performance enhancing drugs to win seven Tour de France titles. In the wake of the USADA report and his interview with Oprah there are still many who have defended Armstrong. These defenders don’t suggest that he didn’t dope, they tend to put forward the argument that everyone else was doping so there was a level playing field and he was just the best of the dopers.
While it probably isn’t true that everyone was doping in the Tour between 1999 and 2005, the fact that Armstrong’s titles haven’t been awarded to any other riders is certainly indicative of how difficult it would be to find an untainted rider from that period. However, it is wrong to think that everyone doping equals an equal playing field. Just because everyone was using performance enhancing drugs does not mean that everyone was using the same performance enhancing drugs, or that those drugs effected everyone in the same way.
If everyone uses performance enhancing drugs it magnifies inequalities rather that canceling them out. Those with the most money and power will always have an advantage over others. With or without doping the US athletics team will perform well at the Olympics because of the vast amount of money they pump into training and coaching resources. Small nations might have more talented athletes but without access to the same levels of training they will struggle to compete. Some Philosophers of Sport have argued that allowing drugs in sport would level the playing field as drugs are relatively cheap compared to other training methods. If an athlete wishes to increase their red blood cell count, and by extension their endurance, they can use a hypoxic air machine, or go train at altitude which can cost tens of thousands of dollars. Or they can get the same effect by injecting vials of EPO at a cost of hundreds of dollars. Allowing EPO would allow those without the money for expensive training methods access to the same benefits. But this assumes that everyone would have access to the same drugs.
Three time Tour de France winner, Greg LeMond argues that Armstrong wasn’t as good on the bike as his fellow dopers and only won because he had access to substances that others didn’t. If performance enhancing drugs were allowed in sport those with money would turn their resources to investing in the development of the best pharmaceuticals. If doping were permitted the US track team is no more likely to give their drugs to the competition than they are to invite them to use their training facilities. There will always be disparity in professional sport due to a disparity in resources available. Adding another element to further skew things in favour of those with the most money does not solve this. As for those insisting that what Armstrong was doing is acceptable because everyone in peleton was doing it: two hundred wrongs do not make a right. He contributed to the sport becoming less a measure of cycling ability and more a measure of who was the best at cheating. As top female cyclist Nicole Cook pointed out in her impressive statement as she retired last week, those who doped robbed those who didn’t of any chance of victory, harmfully altering the nature of the sport in the process.
An adapted version of this post was featured on stuff.co.nz