The allegations against Lance Armstrong — and the ensuing fallout from the landslide of sponsors who are dropping him like a hot potato — could spell the death knell for the credibility of what was once the great sport of cycling. It could also be merely the tip of an even larger iceberg. Armstrong is arguably one of the greatest athletes of all time; the ramifications of these allegations, if true — and it appears they are — may well impact the way the world looks at the sport in its entirety.
At direct issue is the use of performance-enhancing drugs. The underlying and more pervading issues that put pressure on athletes to succeed globally, however, involve — at their very root — money, power and politics. To say that the use of performance-enhancing drugs in sport is problematic is naive, for many of those heroes of our “most sacred game,” baseball, have used chewing tobacco and other stimulants to chemically enhance their performances at home plate for decades.
A number of noted professional athletes have argued that they are not role models, and should therefore not be put on some higher pedestal to be judged. Taking the contrary view, however, one could argue that were it not for the average Joe or Jane who buys the tickets to watch them play, the cable services that broadcast their exploits and other forms of recognition, they would never have attained the notoriety and the wealth that comes with it. I join legions of the sporting public that believes that along with the notoriety and wealth comes an implicit obligation to accept that one is now a public figure.
The increasing emphasis on sport as business is certainly not something new. It is current society’s emphasis on — and glorification of — sport, however, that is both problematic and systemic. One need only read recent articles in academic journals, trade magazines and newsprint media to see the darker side of sport, a dark side that sees national organizations running monopolistic business practices in the name of sport and institutions trying to hide real-life problems for fear the true facts might come to light. The ramifications as a result of fallout from both — as we have only too clearly seen — can be immense.
Sport in its purest form can be the great equalizer, the cultural barrier breaker, the catalyst that brings people and societies together. Unfortunately, today’s pressure to win at all costs and the “big business” atmosphere that has invaded competition has led to the demise of some of our most idolized heroes in nearly every sport, be it baseball, golf or — in this case — cycling. The very public fall of Lance Armstrong, one of the world’s greatest athletes, speaks volumes to the message we send our youths.
Stuart McMahon, Ed.D., is associate professor of sport and movement science at Salem State University, where he teaches courses in sports management and in the legal issues involved in sports. He is also program coordinator for the sport management concentration within the department.