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Why We Sport

In a cliché storyline, the sports world has been “rocked” by a doping scandal. Because of overwhelming circumstantial evidence and numerous first-hand teammate accounts, Lance Armstrong was retroactively stripped of his seven Tour de France titles. The ruling, administered by the International Cycling Union (UCI) seven years after his last title, was handed down after Armstrong refused to continue appealing the findings of a report issued by the US Anti-Doping Agency (USADA).

Lance Armstrong represents a classic hero who overcame cancer and went on to become the greatest cyclist in history. He single handedly made cycling a noteworthy sport. He represented a champion, hoisted to victory only because of a complex team of support riders. Head of a popular foundation, he made a great storyline and represented a role-model far beyond racing. His storied career ends with the president of the UCI saying “he deserves to be forgotten” by the sport.

To be clear, I am in no way condoning doping or cheating in any realm of life, be it sport or otherwise. However, before we condemn Lance Armstrong to the depths of sporting purgatory, it is necessary to understand what exactly we mean by sport. The objective of sport is to attain maximum human performance within a set of constraining rules. In effect, it creates an alternate world where new constraints force competitors to maximize their abilities based on limits of that world. It has an objective and stated regulations. It is to the advantage of each competitor to exercise every advantage at their disposal in order to reach maximum performance within those rules. Cycling, as with any sport, explicitly states its rules so that competitors may train to maximize their ability. This includes certain tests to make sure they are conforming to the rules; these tests in effect constitute the rules.

Lance won 7 consecutive Tour de France titles all while passing these UCI mandated drug tests. He maximized his performance within the stated rules. Now, if the UCI chose to overlook some circumspect test results, that is a problem. But doing everything in his power to maximize his ability while abiding by the rules (apparently or actually— I argue the distinction is moot), that is sport. Retroactively prosecuting an athlete is akin to changing the rules, or moving the goal posts.

There have been many moral arguments made about how “cheating is bad”, and “Lance is no longer a role-model for our kids”. Sport takes place in an alternative world, one where we sanction punches to the face and have to state that attacks “below the belt” are disallowed. Morals are not implicit in sport! We admire athletes for one reason: physical ability. We don’t ask them to solve engineering problems or draft peace accords, so why is that we chastise them for moral misgivings? Why do we expect athletes, who we routinely stereotype as scholarly inept, to serve as our moral beacons?

Babe Ruth could hit and pitch, all while smoking, drinking, and womanizing. Tiger Woods was winning ½ the tournaments he entered, even if he didn’t maintain the most wholesome personal life. It’s most likely that Lance took performance enhancing drugs to maximize his physical ability to compete. If he failed to meet the objectively stated rules, then yes, punish him appropriately. But if we are punishing him based on subjective criteria that we are superimposing on the most explicitly objective of human activities, then we are we are failing to understand why we sport.

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