I wonder, did Lance Armstrong bribe the United States Anti-Doping Agency? No, not so they would look the other way while he was competing on the cycling tour. But to bring charges against him now, seven years after his last victory in the Tour de France, and a year after his retirement from competitive cycling, just so he could keep his name in the marquee lights. I can’t fathom any other reason they might still be interested in whether or not Mr. Armstrong enjoyed the help of artificial physiological enhancements in his remarkable cycling career. Are there no statute of limitations in sport? Will we never be shut of Lance Armstrong, as capable a publicity hound as he ever was a cyclist? Won’t he please behave like a regular pro athlete who has passed his peak, and simply fade away? Won’t the sports-governing minions please let him?
I seriously doubt that Armstrong is innocent. But I also seriously can’t see where it matters. He may have been doping and drugging during his time on the tour, but he’s likely not the only one. It is a legitimate question whether any major cycling event in the last quarter century has taken place without at least a majority of its participants engaging in some sort of artificial performance enhancement. Though Armstrong was probably doping and drugging, so too were his competitors probably doping and drugging, so a finding by the US ADA that he was in fact doing what everyone else was doing should not taint his victories. Since everyone likely cheated, there was no advantage to be gained by cheating (but, there was, of course, a great disadvantage to not cheating). Cheating through artificial physiological enhancements in cycling seems sort of like bribing a judge in court. If only one side bribes the judge, that gives him an advantage over his opponent in the case. If both sides bribe the judge, and by reasonably equal amounts, the judge will decide the case on its merits. The real question for the cycling community is whether the doping and drugging was reasonably equal, or did some teams have an unfair advantage (due to size, resources, etc.)? Were some teams able to offer bribes to the cycling gods that far exceeded the average? If so, the race wasn’t decided on its merits, but was decided by pharmacological advantage, which means that cycling was only incidental to the competition, which is to say, the whole thing, parading as it does as a cycling race, was a fraud.
But sport is utterly rife with fraud these days, both on the playing fields and off. Soccer offers a prime example. Even if the Italian point-shaving scandal earlier this year is ignored, and the whole of Chinese football corruption as well, the sport is routinely decided by fouls that are obviously the product of flopping, rather than any illegal contact. This year’s Euro Cup has been remarkable thus far for how little advantage has been afforded by flopping—the practice of falling down as if having been fouled, usually discernible for the viewing audience when a replay of the action reveals there was little or no contact between players at all. Being a good flopper is often more important than being a good player. The Italians got to the World Cup finals in 2006 on a flop in the penalty area during the stoppage time of a game against Argentina that was tied 0-0. Instant replay revealed that the Italian actor soccer player rolling around in agony just inside the penalty area had not even been touched by the Argentine defender. It did not matter. Italy were afforded a penalty kick, and scored to advance to the finals, where they beat France for the championship. The Italians are again in a final, this time for the Euro Cup, which, excepting the absence of Brazil and Argentina, is not substantially different than a World Cup tournament. I wonder, have the Italians been working on their offensive and defensive strategies in preparation for the match, or have they simply been practicing their flops?
Incidentally, I don’t get why UK announcers calling soccer [football] matches consider that a team is to be considered as a plural entity. I just mimicked the manner with which they arrange their subject and verb agreement in the sentence “Italy were”. In the US, a team is assumed to be a single entity, except as its nickname or mascot is plural. So no sports announcer in the US would say the Alabama Crimson Tide are kicking off, but they would say the Crimson Tide is kicking off, or the Auburn Tigers are kicking off. Likewise, if a team is referred to without using its mascot, it is considered a singular entity, thus the announcer would say, “Alabama has a chance, if it beats Auburn today, to go to the SEC championship”, not “Alabama have a chance, if it beat Auburn today, to go through and play in the SEC Championship”. And they wouldn’t say “go through” either. It would more likely be simply “advance”.
None of this matters except when watching international soccer. For Americans, a UK accent is a virtual necessity for being taken seriously about the sport of soccer, and a UK accent alone is enough for Americans to believe that a person knows soccer (never mind the UK’s dismal performances on the international stage), so the announcers have to have a UK accent if the game is to be broadcast in America. Perhaps the American fetish for believing it takes a UK accent to know soccer explains something of how poorly America has generally fared on the soccer pitch, as the assumed soccer expertise for UK accents in the US carries over to the playing fields. I can’t tell you how many really bad coaches my kids had to endure during their club soccer days whose only real qualification for coaching soccer seemed to be their ability to speak English with a nearly incoherent accent from somewhere in the UK. For any unemployed Briton, Scot, Welsh or Irish, I would recommend you hop a steamer for America and find your way to a soccer club in a wealthy white suburb and apply for a job coaching. If your accent is good enough (i.e., unintelligible enough), you might even make club director in a couple of years. In the meantime, you can send soccer moms’ hearts aflutter with your worldly accent. The UK and the US remain two closely related entities separated by a common language.
The on-the-field frauds, like flopping, are getting to be a bigger problem than the off-the-field frauds, like doping or drugging. The NBA has gotten almost as bad as FIFA soccer in the number of flops yielding fouls. Even NBA commissioner David Stern has proposed that the rules-making committee take up the issue at its next meeting. But an NBA game is rarely ever decided by only one foul. With scoring a regular, instead of rare, occurrence in an NBA game, it would be hard to pin the outcome of a game on one bad call for a foul that was really a flop. Soccer is a different matter. One bad call in the penalty box and there’s roughly a 2/3rd chance of a goal being scored on the ensuing penalty kick, and as the Argentinians found out in 2006, one penalty kick goal is often all it takes to win.
Professional football (of the American, oblong, variety) until recently had no flopping issues, as the essence of the game, i.e., blocking and tackling, involves delivering blows to the opponents in ways that would be considered fouls in soccer and basketball. Since blocking and tackling are, or were, legal (with stipulations), there wasn’t much leeway for pretending a foul had occurred when it hadn’t. But rules changes protecting the quarterbacks and receivers from what once were perfectly legal hits will surely induce a few players to attempt flopping their way to victory. How much it will cheapen the game when a team scores a touchdown because the ball was placed on the goal after the wide receiver flopped on a pass into the end zone and drew a pass-interference foul on a previous play? I don’t know of an instance where it’s happened yet, but it’s definitely coming, a by-product of the NFL’s attempt to defang the inherent violence of the game. Before long, quarterbacks will be recruited for their ability to look as if they are illegally hit as much as for their ability to sail a pass down the sidelines.
NBA Commissioner Stern has suggested that a potential way of dealing with flopping is to issue post-game fines if a study of the game film reveals fouls that were called because of acting. This is a dismally bad idea, but is unfortunately a quite common strategy among sports governing bodies. The NFL Commissioner has taken to issuing fines for hits that weren’t even penalized during the game, and an NFL game has eight referees watching over every aspect of play at all times. If the hit passed muster with the game referees, or if they somehow missed it during the game, the Commissioner should just let it be.
The idea of punishing players after a sporting event for what wasn’t punished during the event itself is a species of the idea that the outcome of sporting events can be retroactively determined by sport governing bodies. Thus, because Reggie Bush, an NFL running back, was found by the NCAA to have received some impermissible benefits during his college days that should have rendered him ineligible to play as an “amateur”, his school, the University of Southern California, was forced to forfeit its BCS Championship and Mr. Bush agreed “voluntarily” to return his Heisman Trophy. Yet Southern Cal won that Championship, and Reggie Bush that Heisman Trophy, on the football field. The time to object was during the season, not almost a half-decade later. The NCAA is smart like that, allowing questionable situations to carry on so long as the action on the field is compelling to the fans, then retroactively pretending it didn’t all along know what was happening, “shocked, shocked” that some rules violations had occurred. I expect Auburn University and Cam Newton might suffer the same fate as Southern Cal and Reggie Bush at some point in the future, as there was enough smoke in the wind during Cam’s recruitment that there had to be some fire, but the NCAA saw a good thing and just let it ride out, knowing it could later rewrite history if it so chose. Auburn might one day lose its championship and Cam his trophy, but long after anyone really cares anymore. And it won’t matter–real football fans know they won it on the field, and don’t care how much money might have changed hands off the field.
The idea that a sport’s governing authority can rewrite history is a notion as hubristic and vain as a political leader trying to wipe away all memory of his predecessor’s accomplishments, a strategy that totalitarian governments (and others) routinely attempt in order to solidify power. It doesn’t work any better in sports than it does in politics. People aren’t that stupid. They know who won on the field, and if they are to remain sporting fans, what happened on the field, the court, the track, etc., has got to be enough. Illegitimate competition has to be rooted out prior to or during the event. Retroactive changing of the score is itself illegitimate, and to be ignored.
Which brings us back to Lance Armstrong. I don’t like Lance Armstrong. I have never liked Lance Armstrong, mainly because I figure he is the inspiration for the legions of assholes who believe the world owes them something as soon as they climb on the back of a bicycle. I blame Lance for the hordes of middle-aged white guys in their spandex imitation uniforms pedaling slowly through towns all over America, ignoring as entitled by their superiority (this is how Lance does it!) every traffic law ever written, wondering in outrage why they so routinely end up in hospitals and ditches. Besides all that, for anyone not blinded by their adoption of Armstrong as their great white athletic hero, it’s easy to see that Armstrong is one of the most megalomaniacal sports figures to ever have graced the stage. Lance is to cycling what LeBron James is to basketball, a larger than life figure who reads and internalizes his press clippings.
But I don’t begrudge him his victories. He won the races. The time is long past to examine whether he cheated (by my reasoning, the time expired at the end of the races). I figure he probably cheated, but it doesn’t matter now. Just let it alone. Reexamining the matter just gives Armstrong another stage upon which to strut. And for guys like Armstrong , there is no such thing as bad publicity, which is why I figure he is somehow behind this new investigation by the USADA.