Out and about July 2011

Everything seemed so simple and straightforward when I was a kid. America was the best country in the world, and the Soviets were the bad guys. We produced the finest products on earth, while “made in Japan” often indicated shabby copies of our consumer goods. Our manufacturing and military might had saved the world from Hitler and Hirohito, so we felt a justifiable sense of accomplishment, perhaps even superiority.

Then the Russians beat us into space, first with Sputnik, then with Yuri Gagarin. I can remember being bewildered by how that could have happened. Then we got entangled in the Vietnam War, and no matter how we tried to spin it, it was a debacle. German Volkswagens and Japanese Toyotas began outselling Fords and Chevys because the imports got better gas mileage and were less expensive, yet more reliable than their American competitors. Soon everyone wanted a Nikon, rather than a Kodak camera, and the television picture was better on a Sony than an RCA.

As a member of the U.S. Biathlon Team in the late 1960s and early ’70s, I traveled to Communist Poland and competed against Russians, Czechs, Bulgarians, and East Germans. I was surprised to discover that they were not all “The Enemy.” They trained hard, cherished the opportunity to compete, loved their families, and were cautiously curious about Americans. As a member of the ’72 Winter Olympic Team, I spent several weeks in Sapporo, Japan. One of my most vivid memories is of the dedication and hospitality of the hundreds of Japanese volunteers who organized and hosted those Games.

I can remember feeling a sense of pride in Jimmy Carter’s honesty, especially after the humiliating international embarrassment of “Tricky Dick” Nixon and the Watergate scandal. Then President Carter succumbed to playing international politics with the Olympics by boycotting the 1980 Moscow Games, as if keeping our athletes from competing was actually going to force the Soviets to bring their troops home from Afghanistan. Ironically, our troops have now been in combat there longer than the Soviets were three decades ago.

It may be an oversimplification, but I now believe that few aspects of contemporary life are clearly either right or wrong. What has reconfirmed this observation is the recent landslide of accusations from former teammates and confidants that Lance Armstrong routinely used performance enhancing drugs to achieve his unprecedented seven Tour de France victories. To his credit, Armstrong has never denied doping, but instead has maintained that he has “never tested positive for performance enhancing substances.” He has also responded to the persistent accusation of doping with the assurance that “neither he, nor any of his teammates have ever done anything illegal.”

While I believe in the concept of innocent until proven guilty, I have to confess that, for a long time I have had misgivings about Armstrong’s ability to achieve his international success without doping. The world of international cycling has been notorious for doping for decades. The idea that a totally clean rider, and an American at that, could so dominate the sport, especially when other competitors all around him were being busted for doping, simply didn’t make sense. Was Armstrong just better at playing the established “game” of international cycling, more skillful and resourceful in discovering training aids that had yet to be declared illegal? Probably. He wasn’t lying, when he asserted to the press that neither he, nor any of his teammates had done anything illegal, if the performance-enhancing drugs they were using at the time had yet to be identified by the International Cycling Federation and added to its banned substance list.

And how about the source of the latest accusations? Tyler Hamilton, the promising young American cyclist who won gold at the Athens Olympics, then tested positive for doping, finally confessed to his own use of performance-enhancing drugs, very publicly on a recent installment of CBS’s “60 Minutes.” Of course the big news was his firsthand knowledge of Armstrong’s doping while they were Tour de France teammates.

Meanwhile, Armstrong continues to raise millions for cancer research through his Livestrong Foundation and inspire a generation of cancer patients with his phenomenal story of recovery from cancer and subsequent domination of one of the most physically punishing endurance events on the planet.

Is Lance Armstrong an unethical athlete who skillfully used performance-enhancing drugs to achieve an astounding seven Tour de France victories? Probably. Is he also one of the world’s most recognizable and inspiring cancer survivors who has raised millions to advance the search for a cure? Definitely. Things just aren’t clear-cut anymore, everything seems to be shades of gray.

John Morton

John Morton is a former Olympic biathlete and Nordic ski coach. He lives in Thetford Center, where he designs Nordic ski trails. You can reach him through his website, www.mortontrails.com.