A few years ago, the athletic shoe company Adidas had this ad slogan that went, “Impossible is nothing.” It always seemed to be worn by people who I doubt adhered to that ethic, but certainly held their favorite athletes to that standard. More to the point, the slogan itself doesn’t make a whole lot of sense. For example, I have stared at a 10 foot basketball hoop since I was about five, all with the hope that I might someday grab it on the way down from a windmill dunk. That never happened. The closest I ever got was when we played on seven foot rims at the elementary school.
Now perhaps the argument goes that I never challenged the impossible, dedicated my days and nights to increasing my 12-inch vertical, slept in oxygen tanks, and all the stuff that turns great athletes into obsessive-compulsive narcissistic outliers. But I doubt I would have ever made the rim, much less the windmill. That was, by my body chemistry, impossible, a hard fast boundary, something any athlete becomes keenly aware of by virtue of effort.
Lance Armstrong himself reminded us of that just days ago. When asked in an interview in the days leading up to this year’s Tour de France, Armstrong said it is impossible to win the Tour without doping. After taking undo criticism for his remarks in a phenomenon known as piling on, Armstrong clarified he was speaking of his own cycling era. He said he has no idea if that still holds true today.
I doubt Lance was sincere in those final remarks. No one with an ego the size of his home state could assert that anyone could do clean what he did on drugs. And to be honest, history has supported that notion, with virtually every winner in recent memory testing positive at some point or another. Finding a clean winner is like that myth of finding a virgin at college graduation. Only there’s no statue that comes to life. So when Armstrong clarified his comments, he was simply mollifying the cycling establishment’s insistence that the sport has cleaned up, something that’s probably better understood in nuance than instance. And if you look at viewership for this year’s Tour, the American public’s not buying it much either.
Drug testing in cycling is certainly tougher than in was in past times, when teams traveled with a mobile pharmacy and enough syringes to halt a pandemic. Penalties are more public and pronounced, and teams are openly promoting an anti-drug rhetoric. We’ll take that with a salt mine, since it only took 50 years and a string of police raids to make that happen. The war on cycling drugs is self-preserving at best, and that’s being generous.
But before anyone denounces Lance as simply a media hog, which he is, and bitter, which he clearly is, it’s at least worth discussing the merit and foresight of his comments. First, as to whether you had to take drugs to win the Tour in his day, well, a recent report from the Dutch Anti-Doping Commission stated that up to 95% of Dutch pro cyclists doped in the late 90’s and early 2000’s. Virtually all of Lance’s serious competitors have been outed, including the recent admission by 1997 Tour winner Jan Ulrich, one of the few challengers to Lance’s throne. Alberto Contador, who won in in 2007, 2009, and 2010, doped, as did Floyd Landis who won in 2006. And a cynic might say that the others simply weren’t caught. So suggesting that someone could win clean in that light would also believe in Superman and the tooth fairy. Nice stories, but stories.
Now whether the cycling world has forever changed, as cycling officials suggest, and winners can be clean now-a-days, it all depends what you believe. Personally, I like to believe in history. And as history is our guide, we’ve probably had more men on the moon than clean winners of the Tour. That doesn’t change just because you excise one bad apple in Lance Armstrong and add some drug tests. The incentive to cheat and win is still there, as evidenced by some recent positives in the peloton.
Lance might be a cheat and liar, but it doesn’t make him an outlier, and it certainly doesn’t make him crazy. Give him this, he knows about drugs and winning the Tour, more than anyone in history. He also knows what it’s like to do the impossible, as his victory over cancer was described. And in this case, impossible certainly isn’t nothing.
Keith Strudler is chair of the communication department at Marist College and director for the Marist College Center for Sports Communication.
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