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October 20th, 2012
09:21 AM ET

Letters to the President #1370: 'For love of sport'

Reporter's Note: President Obama and Mitt Romney both seem to like sports. And that is no easy trick these days…

Dear Mr. President,

The news of Lance Armstrong’s latest troubles put me into something of a foul mood this week. My wife was aware of it, and even though she watches much of the Tour de France with me each year, she was puzzled by my feelings about this turn of events.

“Why does this make a difference?” she asked. “If he cheated, I am disappointed in him, but so what? Life goes on.”

She’s right, of course. What difference does it make to me, you, or my Uncle Bob what happens to a bicycle racer, no mater how famous he may be? Her question left me pondering my own feelings. I knew that I could not I can’t defend someone cheating to win a championship.

Then it came to me: What bothers me about this, is the way that it undermines the very essence of sport…and by that I mean both his actions and the investigation.

One of the unspoken tenets of any game is supposed to be (yes, yes, I know I’ll sound hopelessly old fashioned here) a sense of honor and honesty. A golfer is not supposed to lie about his score. A basketball player is supposed to admit that he fouled. And a bicyclist should avoid banned drugs, not because he might be caught, but because winning dishonestly is really not winning at all.

On the other hand, I think one of the reasons we are attracted to sports (especially men) is because our lives are full of so much gray. We often don’t know why we prosper or languish in our careers; we can’t quite put our finger on why personal relationships flourish or die; we face an endless landscape of uncertainty where clarity is hard to come by. The attraction of sports is that each contest produces a clear winner, and the score tells us who it is. We can gripe about the referees, we can complain about cheap shots, but in the end, the time expires, the winner is the winner and that is that.

When we start allowing investigations to reach back across the years to re-referee what happened in any given contest, we make sports like everything else; a mushy, confusing, sea of gray areas. Winners are no longer winners. Losers no longer losers. And the crown may end up in the hands of someone who didn’t even know he was in the running. Sure, the guy who finished 15th in the Tour one year may have been the only “clean” athlete. But if even he didn’t know he was in contention, was the contest itself valid?

I have opposed the idea of making performance enhancing drugs permissible, but now I wonder if maybe I am wrong about that. I’m beginning to think that the rule should be more like this: If you can’t catch a cheater during the contest, the case is closed. Otherwise, won’t every championship comes with an asterisk that has to remain there until ten or twenty years has passed and all the investigations have come up empty?

So now I know: What upsets me about the Lance Armstrong mess is not merely that he apparently cheated, but that we’re allowing sports to become like all the other things in life…just a great big business that is all about litigating the bottom line.

It’s depressing. I think I’ll go for a run. No competition. Just me. I won’t cheat and afterward, no one would care if I did.

Regards,
Tom

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