In 1963 the UK’s Secretary for War John Profumo resigned in disgrace after lying to the House of Commons about an affair with Christine Keeler, who was allegedly the mistress of a Soviet spy. The USSR was trying to gain British nuclear secrets by using this woman as a honeytrap for the Minister. After the scandal broke, Profumo left politics and spent the rest of his life working for a charity in London’s East End. There, he began by cleaning the toilets.
Now contrast this story with Lance Armstrong. The man many Americans called our greatest ever sporting hero was disgraced after revelations and an admission of doping that enabled a record 7 victories in the Tour. And then on the eve of its 100th anniversary, Armstrong told a French daily that “It’s impossible to win the Tour de France without doping”.
To put this another way: if something is really, really difficult to do – it’s ok to break the rules, because victory is all that counts. By this logic, thieves could justify their theft by saying: well getting wealthy by honest work alone isn’t easy…
In any case, can’t Armstrong go quietly and stop hurting the sport? The world’s most famous cycling race was the event that made his name and made him a global embodiment of courage. And now he wants to crash the wedding party like a drunkard, yelling out the odd insult at the bride during the church service.
Armstrong’s view is sometimes echoed by sports journalists, who suggest that a drugs free-for-all is the only way to level the playing field. And what then? Wouldn’t every winner’s personal achievement be consciously linked with their chemistry team in the background? In this context would we still crown individual sporting heroes? Once we remove heroes from elite sport, its spirit is forever altered.
And in 10 or 20 years’ time when we look back at the Armstrong era, we might be tempted to think: well back then they were all doping and he was the best of them. It wouldn’t erase his fall but it would be a public absolution of sorts.
Incidentally, after 12 years of charity work John Profumo was awarded a CBE by Queen Elizabeth II, which signified his pardon by the establishment. It’s possible that Armstrong could realise a similar redemption one day, but right now he should grab himself a mop and bucket.