Hard to find winners if cheats prospered

Lance Armstrong
Lance Armstrong
With exams just around the corner (tomorrow, in fact), cheating is on my mind.

And no, I don't mean academic fraudulence in the form of trips to the bathroom to check notes folded into socks, or the age-old case of tattooed upper arms, not to mention whatever new technological tricks kids are using these days ...

Seriously, I've never cheated in an exam. The cheating on my mind is that of the sporting kind: super-humanising, body-boosting, performance-enhancing, drugs. Erythropoietin (EPO), testosterone, whatever else the United States Anti-Doping Agency has decided to add to Lance Armstrong's list of cycling-champion-creating concoctions.

That affecting first line of the infamous Nike commercial is now suddenly ironic in the worst way: "This is my body," says Armstrong, "and I can do whatever I want to it." He's right, of course, but that doesn't mean you'll get away with it.

In August, the seven-time Tour de France winner announced that he would no longer contest charges brought by the USADA. Affidavits from former team-mates accused him of not only using performance-enhancing drugs, but of demanding that his team also dope up to allow him to achieve his goals.

Evidence from more than a dozen witnesses (including 11 former team-mates) has revealed, according to the agency's report, "overwhelming" evidence of a massive doping scheme, attributed to a "win-at-all-costs culture".

Unfortunately, the evidence against Armstrong appears more substantial than the likes of Contador's tainted beef, and Tyler Hamilton's testimony on the 2000 Tour de France conveys an entirely autonomous sense of guilt: "Kevin Livingston and I received our transfusion in one room and Lance got his in an adjacent room with an adjoining door ... Each blood bag was placed on a hook for a picture frame or taped to the wall and we lay on the bed and shivered while the chilly blood re-entered our bodies." Just like that, somewhere between "adjacent room" and that image of the cyclists' small pale bodies studded with needle pocks, bleeding in and out of plastic tubes while spread supine on hotel-white sheets, lies the imagination-tapped reality of the case.

Anecdotes and witnesses: This constitutes the evidence leaving USADA with "no doubt that Mr Armstrong's career was fuelled from start to finish by doping". No doubt, they say, despite the fact that the case against Armstrong doesn't involve any definitive failed drug tests.

Of course, it's fair to mention that Armstrong's blood samples have caused more than a little suspicion among specialists. His results have demonstrated cell-counts so unusual that the chances of them occurring naturally are "less than one in a million," according to the anti-doping report.

However, let's not forget that we're dealing with no ordinary man. On top of being the most tested athlete in the history of sport, Lance Armstrong's physiology is surely rarer than one in a million; rarer than one in a billion; for no other cyclist, indeed, no other human at all has ever committed physical feats of his calibre.

And what of Armstrong's humanitarian feats?

His Livestrong foundation is estimated to have raised $US500 million towards the fight against cancer. But who wants to support a foundation in the name of a lying cheat?

If Armstrong is indicted, then Livestrong will undoubtedly suffer. Would this be a huge setback in the war against cancer?

That's another debate entirely.

In a time when reason and science reign over the realms of thought and knowledge, the nature of this debate - a controversy largely based on rhetoric - is rather intriguing. It appears to be a battle of storytelling: Armstrong's ability to inspire, versus unflattering testimonies and mass cynicism.

Regardless of the Armstrong outcome, one thing is clear: Cheating - whether academic or sporting, whether wrongfully or rightfully accused - always pertains to dishonesty, the least redeemable of flaws.

Katie Kenny studies English at the University of Otago