Not that everyone watches the Brat Pack films like I do, but those who do, would surely remember Lance Armstrong's cameo in the 2004 comedy Dodgeball - A True Underdog Story starring Vince Vaughn and Ben Stiller. The scene where the American cyclist makes an appearance has him telling a distraught Vince Vaughn, who is about to quit the game of Dodgeball, "Quit? You know, once I was thinking about quitting when I was diagnosed with brain, lung and testicular cancer, all at the same time. But with the love and support of my friends and family, I got back on the bike and I won the Tour de France five times in a row. But I'm sure you have a good reason to quit. So what are you dying from that's keeping you from the finals?"
In the last two decades, if there was one person in the world of sports who was a symbol of hope and die-hard attitude for people all around, it was arguably Lance Armstrong. The scene that was described above was possible only because a person like Armstrong exists and not the other way round. So one can imagine the level of irony when news reports from all over start pouring in about how Lance Armstrong has announced that he has given up. The person who known never to quit had finally succumbed to the pressure. But unlike other top notch athletes, the pressure was not from competition, old age or health issues. It was the constant poking and jabs he was subject to from the United States Anti-Doping Agency for many years now.
Armstrong released a press statement on 23 August saying that he had decided not to fight the latest doping allegations directed at him. Needless to say, this shocked the world. After all, how could a man who's a symbol of perseverance and hope for athletes all around, do such a thing? But are things that binary in this case? Is Lance Armstrong taking performance enhancing drugs the same as Martina Hingis testing positive for cocaine, which is a recreational drug? The funny thing about news like this, which carry headlines such as "Athlete caught doping", is that they sensationalize the act of taking drugs but they do not look closely at what type of drug it is that is under the scanner. There are different substances which, under the World Anti-Doping Agency are categorized as banned substances and quite frankly, the range is pretty big. For example, in mixed martial arts, Nick Diaz was held guilty for having smoked cannabis. Melvin Guillard, a fellow fighter, was suspended for a while for having tested positive for cocaine. These are in no way performance enhancing drugs. They were clearly taken recreationally.
On the other hand, an athlete like Marion Jones, who confessed to having taken steroids when she was a professional athlete, did so only so that she had a competitive edge over her rivals. That is performance enhancing doping. However, in the eyes of institutions like the World Anti-Doping Agency or the United States Anti-Doping Agency, they are all the same.
Coming back to the case of Lance Armstrong, his introduction to so called "drugs" began on a very different and tragic level. Armstrong, at the young age of 25, was diagnosed with stage three testicular cancer. Even after going through countless chemotherapy sessions and surgically removing his diseased testicle, the doctors gave Armstrong a 40% chance of survival. It was during this period of hope that he was prescribed etoposide, ifosfamide and cisplatin to help him get on the path of a possible remission. He also got his brain tumour surgically removed under the watchful eye of Scott Shapiro, who convinced Armstrong that he was best suited for the job because he was "better at brain surgery than Lance Armstrong was in cycling." The point I'm trying to make is, at no point till then, had Lance Armstrong used any drug to enhance his performance or for recreational purpose. At a point in your life when drugs can save you from certain death, what else can you do?
If you follow the career of this seven time Tour de France champion, you can see that unlike athletes who have had problems with drugs, Armstrong has had a tougher time with anti-doping agencies. His main beef was with writers in the media who wrote strongly against Lance's liberal views on the subject of doping. This is perhaps not the best stand to take if you're an athlete and that too someone who is as famous as Lance Armstrong. His feud with the media continued from 1999 and has continued till date. From 1999 to 2008, the media and the Anti-Doping Agencies have accused Armstrong of doping time and again. In fact, in a very unprecedented way, the anti-doping agencies have tested Armstrong unannounced 28 times in a single year from 2008 to 2009. Armstrong also maintains that he is the most tested athlete in the whole world.
None of these tests resulted positive for performance enhancing drugs.
It has been a year since Lance Armstrong has retired from competitive cycling. However, the USADA seems to have not gotten enough of him. This last time when they accused Armstrong of having used performance enhancing drugs, he put his foot down and said he did not want to fight the allegations any more. While the mainstream media rants on about how this proves that they were right about him doping, the matter is still inconclusive. Not fighting these allegations does not necessarily mean that he is accepting the allegations thrown at him. It's just that Armstrong is tired of the way the Anti-Doping Agencies go about doing their job.
Regarding popularity, not much has changed when it comes to the people's perception of Lance Armstrong. A lot of hotshots are talking about how he might lose his titles but quite frankly, the worst case scenario is that that is all he will lose. Most people still look up to him as a hero and some even applaud the way he has been constantly taken a stand against lop-sided anti-doping rules.
Follow Preetam Kaushik on Twitter: www.twitter.com/kaushikpreetam