Commentary: Armstrong biographer still doesn’t get it

Sally Jenkins says Lance Armstrong and other riders popped for doping should be treated leniently, but to Fred Dreier, that's a garbage take.

Fifty years from now, when cyclists zoom around on hoverbikes and wear chamois made from unobtanium, cycling fans will have a starkly different perspective on Lance Armstrong and the dopers from his era. Instead of scorning the drug cheats of the 90s and aughts, fans will see dopers as the true victims of an ignorant, morals-obsessed fan base.

This dystopian take comes to us from renowned Washington Post columnist Sally Jenkins, who went on the Sports Illustrated Media Podcast this week to discuss, among other topics, Armstrong and doping. As you may recall, Jenkins co-wrote the two Armstrong autobiographies, “It’s Not About the Bike: My Journey Back to Life,” and “Every Second Counts.” When Lance waved the white flag in 2012, Jenkins famously said she was not angry with him. 

In this recent interview with SI’s Richard Deitsch, Jenkins reaffirms her stance on Armstrong, saying she believes he made “terrible mistakes” during his career (well duh). But Jenkins still doesn’t really understand several important components of Armstrong and his impact on cycling. Jenkins said she also believes that, in the future, fans will look back on Armstrong and other disgraced athletes as the real victims in the doping story.

From Jenkins’s interview:

“I don’t have the moral clarity on doping that other people do. I don’t think it’s the crime of the century. I think we’re real paternalistic about it. I think we may look back someday, 50 years from now, and feel like doping was the sort of amateurism vs. professionalism of its day. We look back and feel like we did Jim Thorpe a real disservice for disgracing him over earning a little money playing baseball. I think someday we’re going to look back on the generation of athletes we hurled disgrace at for doping and say that maybe we were a little overly judgmental and unjust and our so-called purity code wasn’t the smartest, deepest thinking we did.”

Hoo-boy, how do we unpack Jenkins’s bad doping take?

The Jim Thorpe comparison seems like the logical place to start. As you may know, the International Olympic Committee stripped Thorpe of his two gold medals from the 1912 Olympics after learning that, for a short stint, he played semi-pro baseball. At the time, pro athletes were forbidden from the Olympics. Thorpe’s medals were finally reinstated 70 years later, after Thorpe was both dead and universally lauded as a hero.

Why is this a bad comparison? Well, for starters, doping impacts on-field performance, while the Jim Thorpe scenario does not. You’d be hard pressed to find anybody to say that Thorpe’s six months of semi-pro ball was why he won the pentathlon and decathlon and became an Olympic hero. By contrast, filling his veins with EPO, as we now know, transformed Tyler Hamilton from a mid-pack scrub into a grand tour contender.

Since the entire reason we watch sports is to see who won and who lost, PED use is a tad more significant to an athlete’s legacy than whether or not he pocketed a few bucks.

Plus, Thorpe admitted to his fault at the time, saying he just didn’t know the rules governing professional play. I have yet to see a mea culpa from Marion Jones, Barry Bonds, or Mark McGwire that says they didn’t know steroids were banned.

Finally, the Jim Thorpe comparison is predicated on the fact that the IOC eventually softened its rules and allowed pro athletes to compete. Jim Thorpe was a victim of rules that changed. What does this say about Jenkins’s perspective on Lance and doping? Does she secretly hope that 50 years from now, doping will be legal and universally accepted? Does she want future athletes to freely fill their bodies with experimental chemicals? What a godawful future.

The paternalistic comment is equally strange. Do cycling fans have a paternalistic stance toward doping in their sport? Probably, but this is not a bad thing. Unlike fans of the NFL or NBA, we actually participate in our sport. Many fans have children who participate in cycling as well. Sorry Sally, I cannot name a single cyclist who is dying to have his (or her) kid get hooked up to a blood bag and an EPO drip. I know, what a bunch of paternalistic ninnies.

Finally, Jenkins’s bad doping take ignores the athletes who competed clean, even though it meant sacrificing results and a bigger paycheck. Jenkins wrote about cycling during an era in which — we now know — the sport’s highest echelon was totally juiced. But not all cyclists doped, of course. If we transform Lance Armstrong, Jan Ullrich, and Ivan Basso into the victims of the doping era, then what does that make Christophe Bassons or Steve Tilford or Ben Jacques-Maynes or Derek Bouchard-Hall?

Jenkins’s opinion fronts such a cynical tone toward PED use in cycling and sports in general. Under her take, we shouldn’t condemn dopers because everyone is doping, and someday, doping will be accepted. I’m not so naive to believe that cycling has rid itself of doping. But I do think Jenkins owes it to herself to interview a collection of young, up-and-comers from cycling’s next generation, and to really ask them how often they feel pressured to dope.

Look, I’m not about to condemn Jenkins to sportswriter hell for this take. She’s one of the best sports columnists of this generation, and her writing has helped advance smart, reasonable perspective on a wide range of stories, from the Penn State scandal to “Deflategate.” But Jenkins’s allegiance to Armstrong, and the way in which it has shaped her perspective on doping, will always be a dark spot on her record.

Her doping take makes a lot of sense if you’re a mainstream sports columnists who occasionally dips your toe into cycling, or if you’re a doped athlete. I can also see fans of mainstream sports eating it up.

For cycling fans? It’s garbage.