Scapegoating Innocence: One Drug-Free Elite Athlete's Thoughts On Lance Armstrong's Doping Sanctions
October 22, 2012Sportsmanship
By Rachel Crass of Rachel's Blog
Some backstory: A few years ago, the then-CEO of USA Weightlifting and I started a magazine for weightlifters. Unfortunate timing being as it were, not long after the magazine started rolling was the CEO called up into the ranks of the USOC, and the continuation of the partnership between USA Weightlifting and the publication was put into the hands of an interim Board Chairman.
This was around the time I competed in the 2010 World Weightlifting Championships. Upon my return from the competition, I decided to write an article about a steroid—a testosterone derivative called ecdysterone— that an Eastern European official (not athlete, but official) showed me while I was there. Accompanying the article was a chart listing how many athletes had been banned for doping from each country over the last several years.
The President of the International Weightlifting Federation and several ranking members lauded the article for its candor on the doping issue. Immediately upon the article’s publication in the United States, however, that interim Board Chair ordered the removal of my magazine from USA Weightlifting’s homepage and had a disclaimer posted on the site to inform the public that the magazine was neither published by nor in any way affiliated with USA Weightlifting.
I had, in effect, been issued a gag order by one of the cleanest weightlifting organizations on the planet on the grounds that new drug-free recruits may be discouraged from sticking with the sport if they were to discover too early the pervasiveness of doping by their international counterparts. (Needless to say, the magazine didn’t survive long after being dropped.)
Fast-forward to today: USA Weightlifting has a new CEO and new Board Chair, I’ve gotten my attitude in check, and things are looking very bright both professionally for the organization and for myself personally (although the magazine has been unable to regain its footing since the fallout). But my stance on why doping problems exist has been changed altogether and forever.
Large-scale doping violations cannot exist independently of an overarching doping culture. They are not the product of rogue athletes each spontaneously deciding to try to pull one over on their coaches, teammates, and competitors in order to grab a secret edge, but rather they are widespread attempts to climb onto the same playing field that everyone else has already long been on. Further, complex doping organizations are able to develop only within the confines of environments and cultures that both embrace their proliferation and actively assist in their cover-up by sweeping the truth under the rug to save the sport’s face to the public.
In short: cycling, like weightlifting, has a doping problem because they’ve created a doping problem.
You simply don’t generate 36 doping violations out of 45 podium finishes at the 1996-2010 Tours de France (20 out of 21 podium finishes from the 1999-2005 Tours) out of thin air. And once a sport has gotten to the point that EVERY. SINGLE. PLAYER. is doped like the Tour was (and still is, to a large extent) what choice do athletes have but to dope too if they want to have any chance at all at winning for themselves? Are the athletes to blame for trying to keep their head above water in a decades-old toxic environment they had no involvement in creating but are forced to deal with because it’s the only game in town? Is Lance to blame for playing on the only playing field made available to him?
We dedicate our lives to our sports. We postpone marriages, children, higher education, careers. You name it, we sacrifice it for excellence in our sport. Ostensibly, our organizations—be they local, national, or international—exist to provide a safe and fair environment for us to achieve that. If our organizations fail us, what choice do we have other than to try to save ourselves? And should we be held accountable for the actions thrust upon us by a system that has failed us?
In 50 years, no one will remember Rachel Crass the Weightlifter, because I never won anything. Because I made the choice to protect my reproductive health by declining to take steroids. Is this the Sophie’s Choice to which our generation of athletes should be relegated? Choose health or glory, because you can’t keep both?
No, international sports organization who has its entire field come up positive several years in a row but insists on making an example of a single athlete whose never even tested positive to begin with. The inundation of positive tests in your sport is not an indicator of your athletes’ moral ineptitude, but yours. You--the organization and the people who run it--are the problem. Not the athletes trying to survive in it. Your athletes’ last-ditch, desperate attempts to stay relevant and keep alive for one more day in the snake pit YOU have dug and thrown them into is not cause for their vilification, but yours. Athletes trust you to protect them, not to grow a problem so large that an outside organization has to come in and slap your entire podium for 7 years in a row with doping sanctions and scapegoat its biggest fish to make a point.
Lance isn’t the problem. He’s never tested positive anyway, and where I come from, doping tests are supposed to mean something. If we can be banned if we test positive and banned if we don’t test positive, then what’s the point of testing us in the first place? Maybe our better bet would be to send birthday cards and thank you notes to anyone we’ve ever ed off, lest they get the idea to have us banned for life from our sport by accusing us of walking out of a convenience store with a brown paper bag.