Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Cheaters usually prosper....

Congratulations to Chris Horner on winning the 2011 Tour of California (because all he had to do in Sunday’s final stage was not let anyone get more than 38 seconds ahead of him—well done, Chris, Team RadioShack, and Matt Busche, who looked like a young Chris Horner as he gave 110% to get Chris and Levi where they needed to be in the race on Saturday and Sunday).

And my condolences to Horner as well. His glory will now be tarnished, the wind sucked from the sails of victory, by allegations of doping in professional cycling. Again. In all the years that Chris quietly worked to bring other teammates like Levi Leipheimer to the podium, no one questioned his lifestyle. Now that he’s a champion, people will murmur behind his back. The words sound something like this: “He’s probably doping like the rest of them.”

I have written in the past about Lance Armstrong (6 June 2010), about not being a starry-eyed fan as I followed his career. Last week, several days before Sunday’s “60 Minutes” interview with Tyler Hamilton about his federal grand jury testimony regarding the use of performance enhancing substances in professional cycling, Lance posted a message on Twitter. The gist of it was this: In 20 years of cycling and 500 drug tests, I never tested positive. “Enough said.” Hmm, I thought at the time. Not enough said. Saying you’ve never had a positive result is not the same as making the declaration, ‘I’m not concerned about these allegations because I’ve never used performance enhancing substances.’

Let me interject a brief education here for my non-cycling-enthusiast friends. The term “performance enhancing drugs” is a misnomer. The substances named in the allegations are not “drugs” in the sense that we think of them but rather those chemicals which are already found naturally in the body, such as Human Growth Hormone, Testosterone, and a rider’s own blood (withdrawn pre-race and then secretly transfused back into the exhausted rider’s bloodstream, replacing the depleted blood with fresh and lively red blood cells). These practices are banned, of course, by the authorities who govern professional cycling. Tyler Hamilton mentioned that Lance Armstrong used these aids “in preparation” for the Tour de France, not during, but I think the poor bedeviled man was splitting hairs in order to find some way to not be the world’s most hated whistle-blower. Too late, my friend.

Regarding Tyler Hamilton: Someone, please, keep an eye on him. By his body language alone, it is clear that he is deeply distressed, so awash in emotional pain that he is hurting physically as well. I have no doubt that he is suffering monumental depression. Someone, please, watch over him and keep him safe. I would applaud him for his courage in coming forward… had he done so of his own volition. (He was subpoenaed by the court; he gave his testimony reluctantly and only after assurance of exclusion from prosecution.) Keep teaching those young guys how to ride, Tyler. You’ve a long way to go, but like anyone, you do have the opportunity to redeem yourself if you work hard enough.

Hamilton said that when he was offered performance enhancers, it was with the lure of being able to step up his game, ascend to the next level. He’d worked so hard for so many years to get to that point, and he could see it… just one step over a thin line. In his mind’s eye, he saw glory and adulation, and he reached out to grab it.

And it is my position that we should all be held accountable for his error in judgment. This is what occurs when we raise our children to believe that fame and fortune are the only goals of value in life. If you don’t agree that we teach them that every day, turn on your TV set. Nobody is anybody unless he or she is winning big or earning big.

Do Tyler’s revelations change the way I feel about professional cycling? No, not really. We weathered this storm with baseball, for the most part, and I still find the game fascinating and thrilling. I loved Mark McGwire, too, and despite his eventual admission of guilt (if you can call it that) regarding steroid use, I’m pretty sure we’ll never know the whole story there, either, just as we won’t with Lance Armstrong. Keep in mind, before there was steroid use, there was pine tar. My point is that, wherever athletes strive to be the “best,” you’re going to find those who are willing to cheat. This is no different than the day-to-day world we live in. People cheat every day—on the diets, their taxes, their significant others. I’m no longer horrified by those who make such choices. In fact, I feel a certain amount of compassion for them. As I said, for some folks, the pressure to ‘be somebody’ is overwhelming these days.

My guess is by now Chris Horner has been asked about a hundred times in the last two days what he thinks of the current doping scandal and whether he’s ever used banned substances. He will be asked these same questions again—a thousand or so times—when he competes in the Tour de France in July, and that’s unfortunate. Someone, please, just ask him how it feels to be one of the oldest guys out there still competing on this level… and maybe what he ate for breakfast.

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