The man who was an icon of courage to millions has exited the world of sport in ignominy, his spectacular achievements forever under a cloud. We speak, of course, of Lance Armstrong, who we watched with breathless awe as he overcame cancer to win a record number of cycling tournaments. Suspicions of doping have always followed the flamboyant American, although he never tested positive in his career. Having vehemently denied allegations, particularly from the French media and experts, the United States Anti-Doping Agency (USADA) finally seemed to have cornered him after announcing that his one-time mates have agreed to testify that Armstrong — an ultimate symbol of sports marketing — injected himself with prohibited substances along with some of his high-profile team mates. Although the USADA is still to explain what physical evidence it has against the cycling legend, it became clear Armstrong was hiding something after he refused to contest the USADA’s findings.
With Armstrong’s giant reputation in tatters, the age of innocence in sports is truly over. It is not that we did not know how wid-espread this phenomenon was. The mega-buck endorsements from corporates are a major incentive to sportspersons to try every trick in the book to corner them. The eastern bloc had institutionalised doping to project the superiority of their political ideology long ago. Although the avid sports fan has continued to celebrate the beauty of performances on the playing fields, she feels increasingly cheated as another one bites the dust. It happened with Ben Johnson, the Canadian sprinter who doused himself with a cocktail of drugs in 1988. It happened with woman sprinter Marion Jones who was stripped of her prizes seven years after winning five medals at the Sydney Games. That destroyed the credibility of sprinting (and athletics in general) almost forever, until Usain Bolt came along. While big money remained a preserve of the West, the menace of doping spread more evenly. Whether institutionalised or not, in the last decade or so, what is more disconcerting, despite stringent anti-doping laws, is that big names from advanced countries like the US, Britain and Spain have tested positive. Experts believe it’s the big pharmaceutical companies that have taken over and dope cheats will always remain a step ahead of anti-doping agencies.
Which brings us to the question how much human endeavour and spirit are we actually witnessing in sporting events like the Olympics? And also how much of a disadvantage poorer countries with little access to technology and superior drugs suffer when compared to the rich ones. The Armstrong saga must prompt a debate on how this trend devalues sport and also affects the health of sportspeople. The law may catch up with the superstars of sports, but with every one caught, many more get away. We, in India, need to take a long hard look at this before it becomes endemic, even if it means fewer medals.