This commentary was written by Scott Tinley, a retired professional triathlete and 2- times Ironman World Champion, who writes about fallen heroes and teaches sport humanities courses at San Diego State University. His book "Racing the Sunset: An Athlete's Quest for Life After Sport" explores the world of pro athletes in transition.
Floyd Landis was the unlikely winner of the 2006 Tour de France. And as a quiet, unassuming kid from an even quieter, less assuming Mennonite family, he appears as an equally unlikely, under-the-bus-throwing, drug cheat. But Landis tasted the fruits of the pro sports garden--the money and fame fed to him by the wide collective of sport consumers--and now, for reasons that only reason knows, his late coming mea culpa falls firmly between Canseco-istic whistle-blowing and pathetic desperation.
Questions abound, none of them easy. And the resultant answers of which, will be even harder to accept. Will Landis' cooperation with WADA finally save cycling from itself or hinder any current rational march toward purging the sport of its ubiquitous drug culture? How many lives and relationships will necessarily be expunged in the wake of cycling's version of MLB's Mitchell report? It's going to get ugly, it seems, and the only person who's happy about the whole affair might be Tiger Woods.
Landis, at face value, cannot lose much more than he has lost. Divorced, he has few family close, little education, and no real career prospects in the only job he knows. Any friends who stuck by him in his heated denial must now feel the burn of deceit. The good news about hitting bottom, he must know, is that you cannot fall through the floor into the next ugly world. Guilt is a heavy cross to bear. But after all your inner torture, we wonder, Floyd, why ask others to share your sins through the indictment of your hand alone?
At face value, Landis' accusations look bad. He's not Lance and knows that he can never be Lance. Armstrong is postmodern sport's version of Mickey Mantle and Jack Johnson--impenetrable from the outside, culpable from within. But Lance is a smart kid and has read sport history. He's kept his head through tougher things than a disgruntled former teammate. Even if WADA and the BALCO-breaking scrapper, Jeff Novitsky can mount a case against Armstrong and others, millions of cancer survivors might flock to his corner for what he has done to inspire a movement of tectonic proportions. Floyd Landis might have thought about this for some have argued that he has entered a war based not so much on what might be won but how little he might lose.
Category 2 bike racer and Professor of Educational Studies at Claremont Graduate University, Dr. Scott Thomas, points out that, "it's like trials with jailhouse snitches--the prosecutor better have a whole lot more than a convicted felons' word before moving ahead with their case."
The sport of cycling has been tainted by the use of pharmaceutical agents since it was thought that nicotine would boost performance. Many cycling pundits feel that it will take more than a few sacrificial lambs to expose the rotten meat; several of their own best to shed truth and set their people free from the shackles of deceit. Lest we forget, Jim Bouton's "Ball Four" is still a best-selling work 40 years after it exposed the obscene underbelly of baller's moral compass. But as with most things polemic, timing can run roughshod over content. Had Floyd stopped lying to himself before lying to the world, he becomes more Buddha, less Beowulf.
Sport is complicated. It is played for mortal stakes. You can wish for all the sandbox purity of play to be retained at the highest levels you want. But the public has asked for and is bearing witness to the most amazing feats of human achievement. We wanted to see 75 home runs hit in a season and we're willing to make that man a king for doing it. We also coveted Manifest Destiny and were willing to turn a blind eye to Native American genocide and illegal and immoral land grabs. Moral relativism is not limited to the athletes.
If we want to see a human being run under 9 seconds for 100 meters, perhaps we might not just pay them a million bucks but ask them to teach children the joy and benefits of running for free.
Americans can and should be very picky with their heroes. Even a hero with the name of Floyd, most feel, is better than no hero at all. Okay, so we let young Floyd into our fraternity and recast his likeness and our own expectations. For the briefest of periods, the Madison Ave image-makers photo-shopped, and PR-schlepped the soft-spoken kid with a sister named Charity.
And Floyd Landis, the unlikely champion, couldn't quite see what all the fuss was about. He knew he had a chance. His teammates knew. Insiders and competitors alike had covered his every move from the opening prologue. And drugs? Well, everyone in pro cycling used drugs. It's part of the milieu; essential to wining; de rigueur. No one gets caught because no one really cares. Or do they?
This is where the story of Floyd Landis and his Technicolor Dream gets curiouser and curiouser. This is where the lessons and the liabilities begin. This is where pro cycling become more of a chess game than a pack sprint, a sporting mise-en-scene. This is where Floyd asks us to make a choice. And then the lawyers and legislatures take it from here.
Back in 2007 when USADA chief executive officer, Travis Tygart said, "We are pleased that justice was served and that Mr. Landis was not able to escape the consequences of his doping or his effort to attack those who protect the rights of clean athletes," it sounded more personal than judicial, more "what you were you possibly thinking, Landis?" than straight reportage. But USADA had done their job and done it well. We can say that now, can't we?
Landis' bizarre and extended romp through the exigency of his fall from grace, let alone the public court of opinion, says more about the general public's relationship with pharmaceutical agents than about the current system of checks and balances in high level sport doping. Seven times Tour de France winner, Lance Armstrong was implacable under his cloak of cancer survivorship and his ultra-savvy lieutenants. Landis, the Mennonite-raised farm boy seemed an easy target for WADA henchman, Dick Pound. The ensuing drama, replete with a former Le Tour champ's confessional cast in Greg LeMond's admission of childhood abuse, tossed the entire affair into daytime soap territory. And while the cycling public sat perplexed, pondering how their high brow history had been derailed into a reality TV realm, Joe bag-of-donuts silently ingested his caffeine and cabernet.
You see, people love their drugs. But like a cured case of STD, they don't like to be reminded of the circumstances that predisposed the spread. Where Armstrong's fortified and feel-good parry to any claim of drug use is clear, clean and palatable, Landis' became the perfect opportunity for cycling to do its best Pontius Pilate, to admit that there were struggles, yes, but it was ridding itself of the evils of doping one simple, unprepared winner at a time. American cycling fans, at first incensed over WADA's accusations about our American heroes, gradually rolled over, tired of the whole thing. It went from sending checks to Landis' defense fund to questions of his guilt to "what a shame."
And now..."I knew it, dammit!"
But did we?
From the beginning, the true tale of Floyd Landis should have never been just about whether he cheated or not. Hell, everybody bends the rules. Before the Floyd Affair, the general rule in cycling was that if you didn't use High Octane then you didn't want it bad enough. UCI knew it. Team owners knew it. Tour de France owners knew it. But something changed and WADA and USADA capitalized on the newfound morality in sport. No one can fault WADA and USADA for wanting to level a very conflicted playing field. But when you make a big deal about cleaning house but in fact have only begun to dust the shelves, can you land on the aircraft carrier and claim "mission accomplished?"
The whole affair is as lamentable as Nancy Reagan's "Just Say No" anti-drug campaign of the late 80s. We live in a world that glamorizes tobacco, mythologizes the 60s experimentation, loads every beverage on 7 Eleven store shelves with legal amphetamines, introduces "responsible" social drinking to eight graders, and easily dispenses prescriptions for every physiological challenge from clinical depression to chronic flaccidity. And then we reward every sports hero with royalty status.
Cycling wants to be given a chance, wants to put thirty years of substance abuse behind it in one clean swipe of the guillotine. But how can we pretend that the kids who grew up with one set of rules will simply walk away and let UCI administer the sport under a new one?
UCI, the organizers of the Tour de France, the cycling media, public and every commercial team or sponsor that has invested a single Euro into cycling has Floyd Landis' blood on their hands. He walks not alone. When Pat McQuaid, president of cycling's international federation said, "The only sympathy I have is that he didn't accept the first decision and that it cost him a huge amount of money" suggests that cycling is more concerned about bottom lines than just fairness.
Still, in the current transition the rhetoric is thick with chest-beating. "This case is a further sad example of an athlete who cheated but persisted in denying," WADA president John Fahey said. "I hope that athletes who may be tempted to cheat will take this lesson to heart and that this case will serve as a strong deterrent."
"But therein lies the rub," Dr. Thomas continues. "If there is a smoking gun buried underneath all of this, either way, cycling and sport more broadly take another deep bruising for behavior that is rabidly, albeit implicitly, encouraged by the public at large. Bigger, faster, stronger, more violent--it all allows us to pimp more light beer, $250 athletic shoes, and car insurance through the rise and fall of real humans with already extraordinary abilities."
WADA and UCI and the Tour organizers will all take the credit for the cleansing. But what will they ultimately gain and what will they defer? Professional cycling will soon enough be successful again. Fans will forget the smell of deceit, light up a thin Galois and feel the smoke change their mood. The wine will get poured and the dishes rinsed. Without a John-the-Baptist purge though, the mold will grow again. And the broke and divorced red-headed kid you see riding his bike alone down the narrow stretch of Pacific Coast Highway will never be crediting with anything other than making bad choices. Very, very, bad choices.
"Obviously, I'm not the only one in the sport with some issues," Landis said.
Accusations aside, perhaps Landis is on to something here. One significant issue is between people who race for money and those who race for everything else. The money will find you out one way or another. And it will force your hand at the crossroads.
And the only jury will be your conscious.