What can football learn from Lance Armstrong?

Anyone with an above-average interest in cycling won’t be surprised at the evidence coming out of the USADA investigation into the US Postal cycling team and Lance Armstrong specifically. If you can’t bear to read all 1000 pages of the evidence, I recommend reading The Secret Race by Tyler Hamilton which is an excellent summary of this ugly episode in the sport.

More casual observers will probably write the story off as the predictable product of a sport gone bad. After all, cycling is synonymous with drugs. That’s a lazy assessment, cycling is the example of what can happen to any sport when it loses sight of its purpose. All sports, including football, can learn a lot from what has happened.

Firstly, rather than simply painting him as a Hollywood bad guy, look at Lance Armstrong and his motivations. He’s a roughhousing Texan from a broken home, an American outsider in a parochial idiosyncratic European sport, and most famously of all, a cancer survivor.

One thing you always hear from cancer survivors is how the experience makes you re-evaluate your life. It makes you rethink your priorities. When you’ve faced death in some form, the normal rules of life – work over family, money over happiness – no longer seem quite as important as the rules you want to live your life by.

Before his cancer, Armstrong was an outsider in the sport. His predecessor, Greg LeMond was similarly ostracised because of his innovations in bike science. The Europeans don’t like these infiltrators. Armstrong didn’t particularly like the scene he was in. Read any cycling book about drug taking (David Miller or Paul Kimmage, for example) and the stories stay the same. All drug taking starts with naive riders killing themselves trying to keep up with a doped-up peloton. Eventually, you have to take drugs to keep up.

So, Armstrong, already someone who had to learn to be self sufficient from childhood, was never going to be accepted into the cycling fraternity. His cancer made him re-evaluate his priorities; he scrubbed out the traditional rule book and re-wrote it to suit himself.

Cheating and drug taking has been part of cycling for over 100 years, in early Tours, riders would be caught taking trains during races. Tommy Simpson, the beatified British cyclist who died on Mount Ventoux in 1964 was found to have amphetamines, diuretics and alcohol in his blood stream. The testimonies say that Armstrong himself doped prior to his cancer.

The rule book that Armstrong wrote for himself had two components. The first was to do what Americans do; he corporatised doping in cycling so that he could reach his goals. He made it more sophisticated and efficient to keep ahead of others. His cancer experience seemed to reinforce his belief that nobody else was going to help, so he had to take responsibility for his own success. The second, which remains his defence today, is that if you weren’t caught (that is, tested positive), you didn’t dope. This is a very different interpretation to the belief that you didn’t dope if you didn’t dope.

What is particularly immoral about Armstrong is that cyclists have died as a result of drug taking. US Postal upped the doping game by some margin, others had to follow. In his eyes, his own scrape with death allows him the personal right to survive by any means necessary, even if it is at the expense of others. He forced young men to risk their lives, just to compete at a professional level. His ongoing denial is to avoid being sued, but he’s also missed the opportunity to become part of the solution as reformed dopers like David Miller and Tyler Hamilton have become.

This doesn’t have much to do with Oxford United, except to say that the US Postal saga provides some salient learning points. Every sport has cheating; spot fixing in cricket, bloodgate in rugby, match fixing in snooker. Football’s problem, in some ways is more worrying.

Roman Abramovich and Sheik Mansour have, effectively, financially doped their clubs. The Premier League and their Sky money have split the sport in two. Most recently Rangers have corrupted themselves to protect their success. Ashley Cole calls his ruling body a bunch of twats, and the ruling body pick him for his country because they can’t bear to risk losing some World Cup qualifiers. It’s a shrinking and secretive self-serving world. Like the Omertà of the professional cycling peloton.

Skewing the competitive field in football, something that has happened to one extent or another for years, is becoming increasingly organised. Just like Lance Armstrong professionalised doping programmes at US Postal. Sheik Mansour, Roman Abramovich, Ashley Cole, John Terry, Alex Ferguson, the whole Premier League and the EPPP which was bullied through when the EPL threatened to withdraw funding. So many people in football are not used to losing and are increasingly happy to push the boundaries, even re-write the rule books, in order to win.

The victims are you and me, and our club. As we progress one of two things will happen; we’ll either succumbed to the cheating culture prevalent at the top of the game, or we’ll hit a ceiling of success we can’t break through. I suspect that it’ll be the latter.

How long before football, like cycling before it, loses its moral compass?

I suppose the lesson, therefore, is to enjoy what we have when we have it. Some moan and grumble about Chris Wilder, Ian Lenagan and a lack of progress, but at the same time we have enjoyed Wembley, three wins over Swindon, a bona fide star striker, even relatively minor thrills like Tuesday night. Sometimes supporting Oxford can be frustrating, even a miserable experience, but I’d rather that than being duped into buying into something where the outcomes were all but pre-determined.

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Oxblogger is a blog about Oxford United.

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