It hasn’t been a good week for the Armstrongs. First Lance’s tours de force at the tour de France became something of a tawdry farce, and now Neil has gone to the great astronaut resting place in the sky. Again.
There must be a lot of pressure on the shoulders of the cheerfully Pointless Alexander to raise the spirits of the Armstrong clan. Maybe another appearance as guest host of Have I Got News For You will do the trick. It would certainly cheer me up.
For I too have been affected by the week’s upsetting news. Although Neil Armstrong’s last great step left me in predictable floods of geeky tears, it was Lance’s abandonment of his struggle against allegations of doping which got me particularly depressed. His argument? I’m tired of this fight and want to move on with the rest of my life. The conclusion? Hah! An admission of guilt – strip him of his titles.
That only really works in the sporting arena, doesn’t it? You couldn’t have told Samuel Taylor Coleridge off for drug abuse in quite the same way. “Sorry Sammy – you’ve tested positive for traces of opium. I’m afraid we’re going to have to rip up your draft of Kubla Khan and impound all those copies of the Rime of The Ancient Mariner. No more gold medals for you, my boy – have this albatross to hang around your neck instead.”
“Hate to do this to you, Andy, but analysis has shown that those portraits of Marilyn Monroe were done with a little bit of outside help. Should have guessed, really. I’m afraid we’re going to need your 15 minutes of fame back.”
“Amy, baby – you were only capable of plumbing your emotional depths under the influence of, well – you name it. There’s no good saying No, No, No, babe – we’re going to scratch your name from the record books. And yes, that does include that time you won five Grammys n a single night. We’ll put that one down to Cheryl Cole.”
Sporting fame is tied up with moral virtue to an extent that would be ludicrous in any other field of endeavour. You can’t pretend that Edgar Allan Poe never wrote The Raven, just because he might have been stoned on that fateful midnight dreary. Yet it has somehow become possible to pretend that a man never ran a sub-9.8 second 100 metres.
It is a peculiarity of modern life that achievements recorded on Eurosport must be accomplished within a context mercifully absent from those immortalised on BBC4. The playing field must be level, says the maxim, as though state-of-the-art training facilities, access to better coaches, physical characteristics or a home advantage all count for nothing.
The cloud which surrounds the use of performance-enhancing drugs makes it difficult to say just how dominant they would be in this heady cocktail of external factors. A good dose of Human Growth Hormone might make me faster than Tyson Gay; it might not. A soupçon of CERA could could allow Usain Bolt to shave 0.001 of a second off his fastest time; it could be less, it could be more. I cannot say. My expertise in harmful substances extends about as far as the Sweets aisle at my local Sainsbury’s.
What I can say is that the Olympics would be a great deal more interesting if drug use was universally permitted. The cost of administration and testing facilities would plummet, the illicit substance market would come under proper scrutiny, and the illusion of equality which currently exists could finally be put to bed. With so many of their products in use, the pharmaceutical companies might even agree to lend their sponsorship to the events. I’m not saying that the Panadolympics or the Paracetalympics would necessarily be marketing successes, but they would certainly go viral.
Because I’m not sure I buy the argument that a blanket ban on drug use is the safest option for world-class athletes. Just as there is a fine line between genius and insanity, peak physical condition and irreparable bodily harm are often a hair’s breadth apart. Olympians tread that line with a regularity not usually visible to the lay public – and which the media normally do much to sanitise.
In addition to the gym equipment and exercise routines that any couch potato can identify with, world-class athletes push themselves beyond the limits of what the human body was built to achieve. As anybody who witnessed Jonny Greenlee’s bright brown – I mean Jonny Brownlee’s bright green – evacuations could attest.
I don’t know if young Mr. Armstrong was guilty of doping, and I’m certainly not saying it was justified if he did. It would at the very least have been unfair to the other contestants. But life itself is inherently unfair. And while I understand the desire for a level playing field, attempting to impose restrictions on those types of unfairness which should be permitted strikes me, on occasions, as rather Pointless.