It's fascinating that I should return from a hiatus with this post, or perhaps not. I have plenty of other things to add later, but right now I want to get something else off my chest.
It's now been a week since all this business about Lance Armstrong hit the fan, the latest being that he has officially lost the seven Tours de France that he "won". A lot of the people who put this guy on a pedestal over the last decade or more are now lining up to bury him. From the evidence presented, including testimonies of a number of former team-mates, it's fairly clear that he probably had artificial assistance to win his seven Tours de France, although he still denies it. As far as I'm concerned, the allegation that he forced his team-mates to dope is far more serious than anything he himself might have taken. There are probably a lot of people still in shock, but if a cold, hard economist ever took a serious look at the situation, the question wouldn't be "How can he do this?", but more likely "Why is anyone surprised?"
Let's look at some facts about professional sports firstly -- and I'm not nearly naive enough to believe that this problem is limited exclusively to pro-cycling. Most professional athletes haven't had a great education. Granted, there are some exceptions to that rule, just not very many. Most of these people probably know just enough to realise they have limited career prospects of they don't reach the top of their chosen sport. They've spent most of their younger years trying to get a professional contract for this reason, and if they reach the top, there is suddenly a LOT of money thrown at them. I understand Armstrong grew up relatively poor, it's not hard to see why the temptation for 20-somethings with little education to cheat in this way is strong, especially as they can practically cheat at will and get away with it (more on that later).
Something else to remember is that cheating goes on all the time in professional sports. Most of us remember Thierry Henry handling the ball to help France reach the world cup of 2010, those of us in Australia remember the Melbourne Storm salary cap breaches between 2007 and 2010. I also recall former Canterbury Bulldogs CEO Peter Moore admitting his team cheated the salary cap to win the 1995 ARL premiership, and showing absolutely no remorse. With so much money involved, pro sports are not about the joy of competing or trying to win with honesty, but about simply getting to the top step of the podium and making a few dollars before a career ends. It's just that this particular method of cheating is somehow considered socially unacceptable for whatever reason.
And while we're on the subject of what's socially acceptable and what isn't, has anyone had a clear look at the rest of society in this regard? Most people's reaction to waking up in the morning with a headache is to reach for a pill -- a pill usually containing ingredients that would get the banned for two years if they were an athlete (remember Maradona being thrown out of the 1994 World Cup for headache tablets?). We also see other examples of cheating in day to day life -- people cheating on their taxes, people routinely ignoring traffic laws to get to work sooner, people trying to get away with underpaying their employees' entitlements, people are constantly trying to bend or break society's rules where they think they can get away with it.
For some reason, we all seem to want to put athletes and often other celebrities on a pedestal and imagine that they are somehow "different" that they are somehow perfect people. The problem is that there is absolutely no rational reason to believe this should be the case. These are just ordinary people who were born with a talent that is a more highly valued commodity by society, and they have many of the same character flaws the rest of us have. And please, spare me the sanctimonious whining about how these guys are "setting a bad example". The fact is, they are setting exactly the same example as the guy who pumps himself full of headache tablets or caffeine before work because he stayed out partying too long the night before.
As for what the answer is to this problem, I'm not sure there is one. With so much money in the game now, athletes and their employers will keep wanting to bend the rules, spectators still expect records to be broken, but perhaps most soberingly of all, it's virtually impossible to eradicate this kind of cheating. We're told that Armstrong had over 500 drug tests in his career, with not one positive. In fact, we were also told something similar about the sprinter Marion Jones who later admitted to doping. Fact is, the dopers are always one step ahead of the authorities.
They way these matters work is that the chemical companies that supply these drugs will work on a new drug (or masking agent) designed to perform a particular function, and the regulators will then spend a couple of years trying to find a way to detect it, by which time the chemical companies have come up with something else. Faced with this sort of time lag between the development of the drug and the time the regulators can take action, and athletes who know they can practically cheat at will because the risk of getting caught is so small, the testing agencies do the best they can to fiddle around the edges -- and occasionally they catch a big fish so the rest of us can still feel like there's hope. The question is, would anyone have caught Armstrong without the sudden outbreak of conscience among his former team-mates? I doubt it.
Incidentally, I remember my last year of school, talking to some teenage rugby league footballers who were hoping to win professional contracts. These guys were already taking steroids in a bid to improve their performance. That's a little insight into how deeply ingrained this problem really is.
One thing I will say is this: taking titles or championships off an athlete or team retrospectively is a complete waste of time. Everyone remembers who won, those people have already stood on the podium and banked their money. I still recall the comment of Peter Moore from '95 that "they won't be getting their f*cking cup back" in reference to the thought that his team might lose the championship they won "dishonestly". One of my closest friends is a life-long supporter of Moore's former team, and he wasn't terribly bothered at the time that their title had been won "dishonestly".
As I said before, I don't have a ready solution to this problem. It could be time to just acknowledge that professional sport is basically just a freak show anyway, and let them have at it, at the same time allowing the rest of society to benefit from whatever advances in medicine that might be a side benefit. It was actually slightly encouraging to hear USADA say they will now be relying more on witness testimonies than before after this case. But if anyone thinks this problem is going to go away with Lance Armstrong, they better think again.