The Blog

Is It Time to Forgive Lance Armstrong?

The World Anti Doping Agency (WADA) is forever chasing the so-called cheat, but without ever standing a realistic chance of beating them... Eventually, like it or not, we will come to realize that doping in sport can be managed but not defeated.

Speaking in his first television interview since admitting to taking performance-enhancing drugs, shamed cyclist Lance Armstrong has shown little of the contrition we expect from disgraced public figures seeking a way back into our hearts. He simply restates his case that, when he took dope, everyone else was taking it too. And he promises not to do it again - as if he would be given the chance.

Let me be clear from the outset: Armstrong, in my books, remains one the greatest pound-for-pound athletes of the modern age. He ranks with the likes of Michael Schumacher, Tiger Woods, Muhammad Ali or any of the widely acknowledged sporting greats.

The fact that he was stripped of his titles, demonized by the media and turned into a scapegoat does not change my opinion: he competed against grown men, capable of making decisions about whether or not to take dope in their effort to win titles.

On his account and, indeed, on the evidence we receive almost every week, his peers also took dope. Armstrong had the misfortune of being caught; not because of a positive dope test - he flew through these with flying colours - but because of witness accounts. He was, it seems, a hugely unpopular character who intimidated others (though he of course denies this).

Armstrong is now asking for forgiveness of sorts: he wants to be allowed to compete again. My view is that he should be allowed the chance to compete once more. I go further, it is time to recognize that, in many senses, Armstrong is not an aberration, but the epitome of the modern professional athlete: remorselessly determined, single-mindedly focused on winning and prepared to do whatever it takes to win. And perhaps I should add "at any cost." The Armstrong case reminds us that sport has changed and his cutthroat approach is much more in sync than the "Chariots of Fire" mentality that fans, it seems, believe still guides athletes.

It is time sport liberalised its policies: it should drop the banned substances list and allow athletes to make informed and intelligent choices as to whether or not they wish to take performance-enhancing substances.

Athletes from across the spectrum have made their intentions signally clear: they will continue to defy the most stringent tests and stay ahead of the curve, always leaving testers lagging in their quest to eliminate doping.

While the governing bodies continue to outlaw pharmaceutically produced substances, athletes are forced to engage in clandestine arrangements, procuring dope from unknown sources and taking it in amounts and for periods that may prove detrimental to their health. An honest policy would permit doping, but invite athletes to disclose whatever substances they have used. Sports organisations could then commission research and advise athletes on what is most effective and in what quantities and at what intervals it can safely be ingested. After all, anti-doping policies were initially designed to protect the health of athletes.

Armstrong's recent interview was packed with discussion points, perhaps the most telling being his appraisal of dope testing. The World Anti Doping Agency (WADA) is forever chasing the so-called cheat, but without ever standing a realistic chance of beating them. Armstrong acknowledges that there is dope currently being used for which there is no name.

Designer drugs are chemically engineered to escape detection. Athletes are constantly searching for ways to improve their competitive performance and evade detection. This is a never-ending mission. Well, perhaps it could end. But only if sport decided to become more congruent with reality and recognize that doping is now part of sport.

Why then do the likes of the World Anti-Doping Agency insist on extending this futile pursuit? Sport depends on the patronage and sponsorship of global corporations that would be horrified were their brands to be associated with activities that allow performance-enhancing substances. The word "drugs" itself invites images of crack-addicted mothers begging for help, Medellin cartels, or young men lying in gutters with track marks down their arms. Not supremely trained young men and women striving to push their bodies to, and even beyond, natural limits in physical endeavours.

The likes of Coca-Cola, Sony, and Kellogg wouldn't think twice about pulling out of sports sponsorship were this to happen: they want their products associated with health, wellbeing and wholesomeness. But, in time, they will be persuaded that doping in sport is not inconsistent with these qualities. Eventually, like it or not, we will come to realize that doping in sport can be managed but not defeated.