Saturday, January 12, 2013

Lance to Admit Doping on Oprah. So What?

Calls for Lance Armstrong to "come clean" have been increasing lately (according to my own unscientific observation of media stories). I have no idea why people (if those who write in the media are, indeed, people) are so intent on Lance's confession, as if it would change any fact in the world. We already know he doped; he already knows he doped. Is some socially-demanded cleansing ritual, akin to going to church on Sunday? Actually, I think there's something to that, but I'll circle back to this point later.

Apparently, Lance is about to admit doping (how shocking!) before the nation's highest tribunal and chief confessor, Oprah Winfrey. According to several media outlets, he will admit doping but give no details. No surprise there. His lawyers must have warned him about serious legal liability he would face for perjury based on past testimony in various courts. Indeed, it's not entirely clear that he won't face legal action for merely admitting doping.

Aside from the stuff that only lawyers (and potential defendants) really care about, why is Lance doing this at all? And why now? One answer to the first question can be dismissed out of hand: he is not admitting doping out of remorse, to clear his conscience, or in an effort to "clean-up" cycling. Sometimes, cyclists (and other dopers) claim those reasons, but they are liars. (Have you noticed that none of them ever "comes clean" before they are either caught or many years out of the sport?)

I believe Lance is admitting doping because it is a necessary step in his eventual (uncertain but likely) rehabilitation as a champion. But is he doing it too soon? The timing strikes me as premature. The wounds (for those who chose to believe that Lance did not dope) are too fresh and raw. He cannot possibly expect that his confession next week will lead to forgiveness and resurrection in the near-term. Indeed, I'd wouldn't be surprised if it took at least 20 years for his name to be restored to a place of glory in the annals of sport.

However, I do believe it will eventually happen. In a sport where virtually have used performance-enhancing (as well as performance-detracting) drugs of one kind or another since money was first put on the table, it would be awfully difficult, as well as unfair, to single out Lance Armstrong (or any other particular cyclist) as a drug cheat. But society cannot possibly forgive Lance without making him suffer first. His "conviction" by the USADA and his upcoming confession are only the first stages in the kind of "cleansing ritual" I mentioned earlier that Lance must endure as part of his rehabilitation. It's like a 12-step program (although I can't tell you how many steps it actually involves) and, ironically, not unlike the kind of suffering he had to go through (drugs or no drugs) to prepare for a win the hardest bicycle race in the world seven years in a row. But where the suffering of training and racing was physical, the suffering Lance is required to endure now is moral and psychological. He has to become something he has never been: a contrite and flawed human (more like the rest of us than he has ever believed).

Once he does that, and a sufficient amount of time passes (as determined by unknown arbiters), Lance will once again acknowledged as the greatest overall cyclist of his era.

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