The Lance Armstrong scandal may be a giant step in the battle against performance-enhancing drugs in athletics. But Armstrong's confession after so many years in itself reveals the magnitude of the challenge facing athletics bodies, since the now former Tour de France champion passed myriad drug tests for years before being found out.
The world-wide outrage at Armstrong is not only that of sports fans angered and disappointed at his cheating. The use of banned drugs undermines the very ethos of sport which, ideally at least, is centred on rules and an ethical stance which adheres to such rules. Admittedly, however, this is a grey area. Why are certain drugs like anabolic steroids banned, or certain procedures like blood oxygenation, when superior athletic performance also depends, not only talent only, but on other artificial means such as vitamins and specialised training? The modern athlete is superior to any of his forbears mainly because of technology.
Nonetheless, the distinction between the banned drugs and the legal ones is that the latter are supposed to bring an athlete's performance to its peak, while the former carry an athlete beyond what would be otherwise possible in terms of strength, speed, and endurance. This is why the use of performance enhancing drugs is more common in sports like running, weight-lifting and cycling, and less so in cricket and tennis, where reflexes and coordination are more crucial to success.
But Armstrong's transgression was not confined to sport, although that was its genesis. His offence has been heightened because he portrayed himself as a hero—a cancer survivor who not only beat the disease, but went on to beat other persons who had not faced similar tribulations. He became the living embodiment of an ideal of mind and body which is central to Western civilisation from the days of ancient Greece. And he channelled his hero image into near-saint status, by starting a cancer charity.
But, as the world now knows, this was a mass deception. Armstrong did beat cancer and did return to his competitive cycling, and that would have been reason enough for admiration. But he did so by taking performance-enhancing drugs and discrediting everyone who tried to reveal the truth about him. Now, he is nothing but an object lesson against blind hero worship. His disgrace is deserved.
But will this be a lesson learned, especially by other athletes? Armstrong's years of beating drug tests implies that the athletics authorities are two steps behind the doctors and coaches who administer the drugs. As long as that is so, given the immense rewards in money and fame that go with athletic success, athletes will be highly motivated to continue cheating.