Everything under the sun is eventually revealed.
Okay maybe not everything, but eventually most things are. This one frankly came as no surprise. I am not an avid follower of cycling, and as such there are only two names I know. Alberto Contador, and Lance Armstrong. Both are successful cyclists. Both have reached the apex of the sport… and both have doped to do it. One of the stand out moments of Lance Armstrong’s interview with Oprah Winfrey for me, was when she asked this question:
In your opinion, was it humanly possible to win the Tour de France, without doping? Seven times in a row.
Lance Armstrong took all of two seconds and responded rather concisely:
Not in my opinion.
He gave a halfhearted tense smile, right after. The question, the response, and the smile that followed, said it all. In the aftermath of the Lance Armstrong doping saga, I’ve read a lot of articles and comments, as well as listened to a lot of people express their opinions on the issue. The prevalent response has been shock, disappointment, anger and a clamor for justice. However, there has also been a different contrasting response that questions the first. That contrasting response can be summed up in one imaginary yet highly realistic sentence. Did you really think it was possible to achieve such success without doping? Lance Armstrong’s smile seemed to be saying exactly this. Yes, this is a tragedy. Very much so.
What is it about an athlete that pulls us the fans to them? What makes some of us declare ourselves fans of Novak Djokovic, Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal, Andy Murray or anyone else for that matter. Is it their style of play or the facets of their personality we see? Is it their trials, struggles and triumphs? There’s something about a great story that has always appealed to us humans. We scream out in support for the underdog that becomes a hero or the budding talent that finally justifies his or her potential. We celebrate the success of these athletes because we can identify with or at least imagine the hard work and dedication that goes into achieving it. We know that talent can only take one but so far. These players become sources of inspiration to some of us and maybe even idols. Lance Armstrong was such an athlete. His story could have been written by Disney. When a man overcomes a life-threatening ailment such as cancer, starts a foundation geared towards helping others who fight the disease and goes on to win one of the biggest tournaments in his sport seven times in a row, he becomes more than a celebrity. He becomes an icon. As such, when catastrophic discoveries such as this are made, it isn’t just the athlete and those affiliated with him that suffer, the sport suffers as well. As much as people love to pull for those who rise from obscurity to become heroes and heroines, they don’t like being lied to either. For Lance Armstrong fans, kids who imagined themselves someday winning the Tour de France, one can only imagine the devastation.
As the dust settles on the corpse of Lance Armstrong’s image, and the microscope of doping authorities shift to figures such as Fuentes, us tennis fans may have to come to terms with an increasingly relevant question. What if tennis has a Lance Armstrong moment? Picture one of the big four seating in Armstrong’s chair, across from Oprah as the sun finally casts its light on the truth. Scary isn’t it? Is it possible to achieve success on the magnitude of Armstrong’s without doping or does that smirk of Armstrong hold more truth to it than we think? Students of the second school of thought, the one that accepts the reality of doping in any sport, will tell you that it is naive to think one can be so consistently good without some ‘help’. Recently Novak Djokovic had to deal with questions about his recovery process, in the aftermath of his grueling five-setter against Stan Wawrinka at the recently concluded Australian Open. Time and time again, Rafael Nadal has been accused at least by the fans of doping. In my opinion, all of these accusations are baseless and unfair. If there is no concrete proof then none are guilty.
It was not too long ago Yannick Noah was being crucified by the press for – at the time – launching a baseless accusation at Spanish athletes in general, attributing their recent success over the past decade in sports to doping. If it sounded like the crazed remark of a bitter former French champion then, operacion puerto is giving it a bit of an air of sanity. Dr. Eufemiano Fuentes has been linked to other sports beyond cycling, including soccer and tennis. One hopes that our top athletes have towed a straight line on their journey to the summit. One hopes that they have considered the roles they have earned themselves in the public eye as well as the responsibility to represent the sport positively. However as pessimists and skeptics will tell you while flashing an Armstrong like smile, you can never rule out the possibility.
Beware the Lance Armstrong moment.