Five Things We’ve Learned from the Lance Armstrong Scandal

1. Anyone is capable of doping.

Given the larger-than-life persona Armstrong inhabited for 15 years, his downfall should be a lesson in how we mythologize athletes.

In Armstrong’s heyday, he was hailed as 1) a champion, 2) an inspirational cancer survivor and 3) a family man.  Too often, these three attributes deflected attention from the real allegations made against him.  Any accusation could be swatted away with the do-gooder image Armstrong had cultivated over the years.  That was a clear logical fallacy.

For perspective, read ESPN writer Rick Reilly’s letter about Armstrong’s Oprah interview.  Reilly, who’d been a Lance defender over the years, blames himself for subconsciously overlooking the signs.  He writes, “It’s partially my fault.  I let myself admire [Armstrong].”

This is why I bristle when I hear media and fans proclaim, “Tennis is a clean sport because its players are good people,” or “Tennis players would never dope, because they are different from cyclists.”  While the cycling culture is different from other sports, there’s no inherent reason why tennis players are any less capable of doping.  The temptation is there, given the prize money available at tennis tournaments.

Good-faith comments about the moral makeup of tennis players (the common argument fans will fall back on) only go so far.  In fact, I’m inclined to dismiss those character assertions as white noise when it comes to this issue.

After Armstrong’s downfall, we should accept that a Grand Slam champion is capable of doping; so is the affable lower-ranked player we’ve spent many hours following since his/her junior years.  Our emotional investment in tennis players actually has no bearing on whether or not they will cross the line.

I’m certainly not suggesting that we cynically suspect every tennis player of doping.  Still, we should not be so averse to acknowledging the possibility of it.

***

2. Tennis Needs to Step Up its Doping Program to Protect its Integrity.

As Armstrong told Oprah, cycling’s out-of-competition (OOC) testing “theoretically existed” in the 1990s and early 2000s.  Since Armstrong reliably knew the chances of him being tested were so slim, he could exploit the loopholes.

Doping tests at tennis tournaments are poorly funded and the OOC statistics for tennis do not inspire confidence.  Top tennis players Djokovic and Federer have gone on record saying they are not adequately tested for blood.  That alone should put to rest the argument that “Tennis is clean because hardly anyone fails the tests.”  Current OOC testing in tennis seems to exist in the similar “theoretical” realm that Armstrong says it did for cycling in the 1990s-early 2000s era.

This hurts the image of clean competition that tennis wants to project, because lax doping standards are like academic grade inflation: If the whole student body aces their tests, that ideally serves as proof of the student body’s intelligence.  However, the trend of high grades may also point to the school’s lack of academic rigor.  Ultimately, doubts about academic rigor will damage a school’s reputation and unfairly diminish the students who would still ace a more rigorous class.**  If a 4.0 GPA is readily handed out to those who are unqualified or undeserving, the accomplishment rapidly loses its value.  Case in point: Wayne Odesnik, who in 2010 was suspended for importing HGH (and has recently been named in an investigation reported by the Miami New Times) was caught by airport security in Australia, not by an officially administered doping test.

This is why tennis needs to ramp up its doping controls.  There’s no better way to refute doubts/doping allegations than to pass a tough, well-respected doping program on a frequent basis, year-to-year.  Rest assured, clean athletes will pass the tests.

Until tennis enforces more blood tests and out-of-competition testing, no one is really entitled to make high-handed comparisons between doping in tennis and cycling.  In fact, if anyone is entitled to climb the moral pedestal right now, it should be current cycling fans: in the post-Lance era, cycling has adopted some of the most rigid doping controls in all of sport (the bio passport, frequent blood/urine tests, internal doping patrols, etc.)

The proof is in the pudding.  It’s time for tennis to step up.

** One notable difference between academic grade inflation and doping controls is that a forced bell curve could never be applied to doping, as it is in academics.  There should be no “annual quota” for reported doping violations, as there are for “C-” grades.

***

3. It’s not just about steroids.

Given the physicality and stamina involved in competitive tennis, we should realize that steroids aren’t the only performance-enhancing drugs (PEDs) available.  PEDs are used for purposes beyond muscle growth.  Tennis is a sport in which speed and footwork demand a high level of fitness.  The margins of victory are so small that enhanced oxygen delivery to muscles (which EPO provides) could be the decisive factor in a match.

EPO for stamina, clenbuterol for weight loss, HGH and illegal blood transfusions are but a few examples of doping methods available to the tennis player who wants to gain the extra edge in competition.

While Armstrong’s interview may have forced some of the current discussion on anti-doping in tennis, this has been an ongoing subject for many years.  The issue of anti-doping is not simply going to fade away once people forget about Armstrong (who himself confessed to using EPO, testosterone, cortisone and HGH).

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4. False accusations and slander are wrong, but a frank discussion on doping is much-needed.

Many tennis fans treat the calls for increased testing as an affront, or a “witch-hunt.”  Such fans often resemble the helicopter parents who contribute to academic grade inflation at schools.  (Also, I’d be careful in referring to doping tests as a witch-hunt, as that was the exact terminology Armstrong used after the USADA released its report.  And look how that turned out).

As followers of tennis, we need to toughen up and grow more comfortable with addressing the occasional name that is mentioned in an article on doping.

Make no mistake, the spirit of the argument is important here: Slander, petty insinuations and baseless jibes are wrong.  The 2012 Canal+ ad spoofing Nadal as a doper was vile, cheap and borderline slanderous.

Apart from that instance, an informed discussion on doping should not preclude the occasional reference to a player (assuming the reference is made with relevant context and in the spirit of raising a valid question on the subject).

Take the Dr. Eufemiano Fuentes doping case that has now been re-opened, in connection with Lance Armstrong.  Fuentes, who was implicated in providing riders with now-banned substances during the huge Operation Puerto case of 2006, has publicly stated that his work extended beyond the world of cycling.  He reportedly worked with football and tennis players.

Fuentes’s compatriot Dr. Luis Garcia del Moral worked with Armstrong’s U.S. Postal team in 1999-2003 and in 2012, was banned for life for doping violations.  Del Moral is also known for his ties to the TenisVal Academy in Valencia (where notable players like Dinara Safina, David Ferrer and Sara Errani trained).  Each tennis player has since spoken to the media about this issue: Errani has asserted she’s since cut off ties to del Moral, while Ferrer and Safina deny any association altogether.  This is an instance where media scrutiny is fair-play, and more information is welcome, if only to clarify the nature of del Moral’s involvement with tennis players.

***

5. It’s time to stop complaining about the whereabouts program.

After WADA introduced its new whereabouts program in 2009, many tennis players have gone on record to complain about it (including Janko Tipsarevic, Andy Murray, Maria Sharapova and Rafael Nadal).

Perhaps the 4 years since the program’s introduction have given tennis players enough time to adjust their perspective, as the indignant tone of their complaints has simmered down somewhat.  Murray, in particular, has notably changed his previous views and is now in favor of a stricter program.

To the outside world, tennis is often seen as a sport where the players are molly-coddled. Andre Agassi’s recent comments about anti-doping in tennis were greeted with a fair degree of skepticism in the non-tennis sphere.

Given the rightful lack of confidence surrounding doping patrols in tennis, the last thing it needs is to generate headlines whenever one of its stars complains about the inconvenience of whereabouts testing.  Reporting your whereabouts for each hour of every day is similar to punching in a time card at work.  It’s similar to keeping a work Blackberry at your side for every day of the year (including vacations), in case your director needs you to revise a project for a client in the early morning.  Most importantly, the whereabouts system is currently the only feasible method to effectively monitor OOC doping.

Top players such as Federer, Djokovic and now, Murray, have openly acknowledged the benefits of this system.  Other tennis players should follow suit and just accept that the whereabouts program is here to stay.  After all, tennis isn’t the only sport subjected to WADA’s whereabouts system.

***

Update: Nadal, who is scheduled to return to competitive tennis after a knee injury, has changed his position on anti-doping controls.  At a press conference for the VTR Open in Chile, Nadal said that after the Lance Armstrong scandal, he now wholeheartedly supports frequent testing in tennis:

“If we have to go through a test every week, I don’t see a problem with that if it’s useful to fight what happened in other sports.”

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About mariposaxprs

I play favorites with Juan Martin Del Potro, Rafael Nadal, Roger Federer, David Ferrer, Feliciano Lopez, Gilles Simon and the long line of mercurial talent that drives me to despair in front of the screen at odd hours during the week.
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6 Responses to Five Things We’ve Learned from the Lance Armstrong Scandal

  1. Doping controls in tennis are a joke. Most of the points raised again due to Armstrong were being talked about years ago, yet nothing has changed. They don’t want to catch dopers.

    • mariposaxprs says:

      Tennis’s introduction of the whereabouts program was a big step, but in all other areas, they fall behind. I think there’s this false perception that tennis is a sport where PEDs serve no purpose — but given the physicality of tennis, I’d say that’s a wrong assumption. If they could heighten up their doping controls, they would gain more legitimacy. It seems all the top players are now in favor of stricter doping controls, so I hope that prompts a change in the way ITF conducts its doping program.

  2. Candy says:

    After all the professional/ personal scandals of athletes/ sports organizations I saw in recent years, I have woken up and realized sports world, just like the rest of the world, is full of “ugly” things. To be honest, I wouldn’t surprise if some of tennis players did dope. I wouldn’t surprise at all if it’s involved some big/ good names. (I remain positive on this doping issue in tennis. But it’s not wrong that I have some negative speculations, thanks to the loose doping controls.)

    How could we tell if a person is a good person? How could people say “their players are good people”? Like you said, many people didn’t believe Armstrong doped because he’s a good person, a family man & an inspirational cancer survivor. Then how did it turn out? He did dope. Tiger Woods was a great example to many people & a family man. His image was very clean. Then? People were surprised he cheated on his wife. Yes, it’s his personal issue. It’s nothing about golf/ sports. But what I’m trying to say is that we could never judge a person just by their public image. No one can really defend tennis world by saying “their players are good people.” (The personality and emotions do play a big part as I’m reluctant to bring out the scandal that my favourite tennis player had a month ago. I’m more willing to give it “olvido” & “perdon”. Lol)

    Interesting comparison between academic grade inflation and doping controls. I hate when the exams are too easy that all students pass the exams and many can get “A” grade.
    Also, sometimes, people can easily and successfully cheat during exams because of the loose arrangements in the exam room + the supervisors just sitting there, not looking at the students at all and just “occasionally” walking around the exam room. And then, you know some people do cheat. But it’s difficult to collect evidence and show it to supervisors. So what you want are stricter measures so that no one can/ dares cheat. (Tennis world may be just like this.)

    • mariposaxprs says:

      Indeed, scandals like this remind us that top athletes are human too. A lot of what we see about tennis players (and other popular stars) involves marketing & media-training. In that sense, we get a very pre-packaged view, and I’m fine with that. I think at the end of the day, we see what we want to see in the players we like, while we pick out the things we don’t like in the players we root against. It doesn’t take away from the fun of watching the sport, since there are instances where players show truly admirable qualities in tough situations. But we can’t be sure that it’s a 100% reflection of their entire personality. It’s admiration or hatred, all from a distance :)

      It really is unfair to the clean players (the real “A” students) when the standards for doping are low. Given the technology available today and the rules in place for confirming a positive, the chances of a “false positive” are quite low. For that reason, I think the only real way tennis can protect its integrity is by making sure its standards are high enough. Like you say, stricter measures would also send a signal to those who’ve considered cheating. If they know the chances of getting caught are high, they’re less likely to cross over. In a way, it’s like having a law against crime. Just because a country outlaws crime doesn’t mean all of its citizens are bad people who are likely to commit robbery/etc. In fact, most people won’t. Still, people need to be reminded every now and then, and be aware of the consequences.

  3. You bring up a lot of really good points in this discussion. While we can’t equate cycling and tennis completely, we also shouldn’t think what has happened/is happening with cycling can’t occur in tennis.

    My realization with the Lance Armstrong scandal is this: I started watching cycling during Lance’s 4th Tour de France. Even though I’m an American, I immediately decided I didn’t like Lance, and I rooted for Jan Ullrich. Maybe it’s because he was the underdog, the perpetual runner-up. Maybe it was because he wore a bright hot-pink spandex uniform, lol! But whatever it was, Jan Ullrich was my favorite cyclist. And as I got more into cycling, and started reading some blogs and forums, it became very clear that there were a lot of suspicions swirling in regards to doping. Even in the early 2000s, people were suspicious of Lance. But, there were also tons of rumors about Jan too. And so, it was this weird position, where I knew Jan was probably doping, but I liked him and therefore, it was okay. But Lance also had to be doping, but it wasn’t okay, because everyone was cluelessly venerating him and he was an asshole and I hated him!! It wasn’t like I was in denial about Jan. It was just that I was willing to almost give him a pass for it. And I think that’s where personalty and emotions come into the equation. And that is also true in tennis, as you touched upon. Its very hard to think about Murray doping, for example. But conceivably you can imagine some tennis player ranked in the 900s doping. Once you decided you like an athlete, and root for them, its very hard to be rational about them.

    The other challenge for tennis, though, is what happens if a big name IS doping and what happens after they got caught. I mean, Jan Ullrich and Ivan Basso were implicated in Operation Puerto before the TdF, but the show still went on. But, if the big 4 got caught before a GS, what would happen? I mean, it would be almost catastrophic for the media! Especially in this day and age where teenagers don’t break through anymore and unranked or wildcard players rarely make deep runs through draws.

    Anyway, the whole thing kinda soured me on cycling. I still really like Andy Schleck, but I just don’t know if I like him enough to willfully put blinders up anymore, you know?

    • mariposaxprs says:

      Thanks, Megan!

      You bring up a lot of great points. The personality and emotions play a big part in how we perceive players. I think that’s why it’s so easy for people to vilify Wayne Odesnik. If Odesnik had been more successful, good-looking and popular, I’m sure the reaction to him would’ve been a lot more varied. That’s why I think it’s important to step back and realize that it’s not just the Odesniks of the world who are capable of making this mistake.

      When it comes to cycling, I’ve gone through a similar back-and-forth. I rooted for Jan over Lance, even when I knew they were both suspected of doping. Even today, I enjoy watching Alberto Contador, in spite of his past (and some of the controversial comments he’s made). A lot of my tolerance has to do with the steps cycling has taken to improve its doping controls. When I see Team Sky and Team Garmin-Sharp, and their active measures to internally patrol their riders, that gives me hope that they’re carving out a new era for cycling. In spite of what Contador, Basso and the others did in the past, I do sincerely believe they’ve been forced to change as the doping program got stricter. I like keeping up with Jonathan Vaughters’ Twitter, b/c I think he’s taken a very evolved approach to openly discussing doping concerns with fans and journalists — I hope those involved with tennis follow Vaughters’ example. As for Andy Schleck, here’s one hopeful thing about his prospects: he’s no longer working with Bruyneel!

      That’s why I like to keep up with the efforts cycling is making today to control doping. Sometimes, it is overwhelming and I get tired of hearing about it in the news. But in the end, it helps sustain my interest in the sport too, you know? Otherwise, I would have lost interest a long time ago. I def think it’s important for tennis to step up its program too, so that it’s less vulnerable to the scandals that have rocked cycling over the years.

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