Truth, and winning at all costs.

In a sport often decided by thousandths of a second, competitors jockey for position to gain an edge in the women’s 1000-metre short track speed skating semi-final. Vancouver 2010 Winter Olympics. Photo courtesy of Andrea Sirois Photography.

Within the span of a week, Olympic speed skater Simon Cho has admitted to tampering with an opponent’s equipment, and cyclist Lance Armstrong’s history of denying use of performance-enhancing drugs has been undeniably laid to waste by the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency. And, as if these examples of cheating weren’t enough, the recently broadcast documentary film 9.79* has brought back memories of Ben Johnson, a 100-metre sprinter who became Canada’s hero in the 1988 Seoul Olympics, only to come crashing down with a nation’s hopes and dreams two days later with a failed drug test.

These men are examples of the extent to which some athletes will go to win. All three are now labeled as cheaters.

Although their exploits occurred at different times over the last quarter century, all represent not only the sad truth about what sometimes goes on in sport, but the equally sad truth about the choices some of us make, athletes or not.  It is hard not to be cynical, and many of us are. For me, it is equally hard to miss the connection between similar decisions made in both the corporate and political worlds.

All three cases present explanations, reasons as to why their impact against fairness and truth should be mitigated. Cho claims his coach instructed him to damage Canadian skater Olivier Jean’s blade, and the coach’s position as an elder in South Korean culture made it a fait accompli.

9.79* exposes the fact that most of those involved in the Seoul race were found to have doped previously, or were caught in later competitions. It helps foster Johnson’s own misconception that he is more a scapegoat, than the author of his own demise.

Lance Armstrong, 7-time Tour de France champion, iconic cancer survivor, role model and virtual demi-god to millions afflicted with the disease around the world, continues to deny using performance-enhancing drugs. Business advisors and a legal team second to none laud Armstrong’s position. Their platform is based on the premise that he never tested positive, and that their man is the victim of a witch-hunt that serves only to damage the reputation of someone who has done so much for the fight against cancer. In short, the allegations are nothing more than hearsay, without any evidence of truth. Many Armstrong supporters justify his actions by using a clouded rationale: at the time, everyone was doing it.

According to USADA chief executive Travis Tygart, speaking to the report implicating Lance Armstrong:

“The evidence shows beyond any doubt that the US Postal Service Pro Cycling Team ran the most sophisticated, professionalized and successful doping program that sport has ever seen.”

Accusations against Lance Armstrong are not new. Only this time, he has been implicated by no fewer than 26 individuals, 11 of them his former teammates, and one of them his most trusted lieutenant and friend, George Hincapie. The evidence is truly damning. So damning that it seems to be just a question of when, not if, he is officially stripped of his wins by cycling’s governing body, the Union Cycliste Internationale (UCI). This will leave cycling’s once undisputed king with a gaping hole in his palmarès, the cyclist’s résumé.

So, what have we lost in all of this? It is more than just the sense of fairness many of us are taught by our parents, which hopefully manifests itself in play, and then life, as some emulate their role models, and heroes. We’ve lost that basic tenet shared by many a society, regardless of their geographic location, or socio-economic standing. I refer to the truth.

Armstrong may become the Ozymandius of his sport. Like the fictional ruler in the Percy Bysshe Shelley poem, he was at the top of his game, while simultaneously establishing an earthly kingdom with an amazingly successful personal brand, rich in hubris, and built firmly on the back of the sport he seemed to transcend. Only now, like Shelley’s “king of kings”, his legacy is in the process of crashing down around him, and possibly disappearing. It remains to be seen what the ultimate impact of this will be on his foundation, and the support for it given by millions of those who are, or have been affected by cancer. His legacy could be relegated to what remained of Ozymandius’ once-great empire, a broken statue surrounded by “the lone and level sands”.

The saddest part of Armstrong’s story is his seeming inability to do the honorable thing, the right thing. Perhaps it is naive to think that someone as lawyered-up as Lance Armstrong would ever risk the financial fallout from admitting the truth – and I’m not talking about the planned, calculated, hollow, least damaging, and self-preserving type of admission suggested by legal and/or marketing teams.

Those who continue to believe in him and his foundation, regardless of the allegations, will continue to do so; those, including major sponsors who have disassociated themselves from Armstrong as a spokesperson, have separated the actions of the man from his foundation. They are showing you can support the troops, and still not agree with the war; they are showing the end doesn’t necessarily justify the means.

But, it is the men, women and children around the world that have regarded him as an icon, and a role model, who now sit in disbelief, crushed at the fall of their hero. Along with the millions of dollars his foundation raised with the help of his celebrity, there now comes a personal responsibility to all those people who truly believed in him. These are the real victims of his actions. They, above all, are owed the truth. And nothing should ever compromise that, least of all, winning at all costs.

“Those of us who doped and lied and those who were accomplices and witnesses remained silent for a long time in a misguided attempt to protect our jobs, our reputations, our teams’ sponsorships and the image of the sport. It was wrong. We followed a code of silence guarding an unhealthy culture. Riders, staff and officials must not fear speaking the truth. When they do, real reforms will follow.” 

–   Taken from an essay by Michael Barry, admitted doper, former member of the U.S. Postal cycling team, and teammate of Lance Armstrong. Published in the New York Times October 15, 2012.

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