Maybe you've heard about Sports Illustrated's exciting new Lance Armstrong feature. At bottom, it's a story about a corrupt man who gets away with cheating because the people who'd ordinarily police it have decided to look the other way.
Which is to say, it's a story about Jeff Novitzky, federal drug warrior.
Before we get to that, let's remember that the history of the sport we're talking about here is more or less the history of doping. From the end of the 19th century to the present day, competitive cyclists have injected, swallowed, or otherwise consumed for the purposes of performance enhancement wine, brandy, whiskey, Champagne, horse ointment, strychnine, cocaine, cocaine metabolites, cannabis, nitroglycerin, chloroform, aspirin, amphetamines, solucamphre, ronicol, nicotinyl alcohol tartrate, peripheral vasodilators, palfium, fencamfamine, coramine, cortisone, pemoline, tetracosactide, ritalin, probenecid, celestone, amineptine, HGH, HCG, EPO, bromantan, bronchodilators, clenbuterol, ephedrine, norbolethone, probenecid, norandrosterone, noretiocholanolone, Aranesp, heptaminol, nicethamide, phentermine, clostebol, carphedone, stanozolol, prednisolone, prednisone, triamcinolone acetonide, metelonone, benzoylecgonine, methylecgonine, triamcinolone acetonide, salbutamol, salmeterol, finasteride, dehydroepiandrosterone, methylhexanamine, methoxy polyethylene glycol-epoetin beta, and powdered boar testicles. To name a few.
Abusing any of these substances is probably very bad for you. So is pedaling a bike really fast up a very big mountain, day after day after day (an activity, incidentally, that is every bit as unnatural as anything on WADA's naughty list). As long as the sport requires its athletes to push themselves to the outer limits of their aerobic capability, those athletes will respond by exploring the outer limits of modern pharmacology. We know that 15 of the last 23 Tour de France winners, counting Armstrong, have "doped" in one way or another. So when Sports Illustrated asks, "Was the miracle a mirage?" it's indulging in a lot of sham naivete about the essential nature of Armstrong's sport (and about sports in general). Is there anyone over the age of 10 who truly believes that a multi-cycle chemo patient with one nut is steaming all over the Alps without some sort of "unnatural" help?
Jeff Novitzky's Scalps
Five sports figures whose lives have been touched by the federal agent (click images)
All this would be just another harmless tic of a sports media that exists in a perpetual state of violated innocence if the SI story weren't also propping up the work of Jeff Novitzky. If you're unfamiliar with Novitzky, he is the former IRS agent who didn't exactly cover himself in glory the last time around but who is nevertheless heading up the FDA's investigation into Armstrong. He has behaved far more atrociously than any cyclist poking himself with a needle, and he has done it with the implicit and explicit encouragement of a media that should be bird-dogging his every move. In another life, Novitzky would've been digging through Dalton Trumbo's garbage. In this one, he has walked all over the best parts of the Bill of Rights in a flagrantly illegal raid of a drug testing facility and then very likely leaked the famous names harvested in that raid to certain eager reporters, which is also flagrantly illegal. This isn't just about cheating in sports. There are real stakes. Thanks to Novitzky, and thanks to the Ninth Circuit cannibalizing itself, and thanks in no small part to the worst instincts of the Obama Administration, we're now well on our way to an Information Age precedent governing plain-view searches that pretends there's no difference between a dime bag on the kitchen table and the easily sorted cells of a spreadsheet. Madison wept.
You can reasonably argue that Armstrong's cheating is an important story, especially given the fierceness of his denials and all that Nike-sponsored self-martyrdom over the years. I can understand the logic, even if I don't agree. But why aren't Novitzky's crimes — which, you know, actually matter in real life — just as big of a deal? Why are sportswriters not only ignoring his cheating but essentially consecrating it under large headlines? If it wasn't obvious already, the War on PEDs is now a wholly owned subsidiary of the War on Drugs, and this one is likewise being covered by a captive media writing the same kind of stories featuring the same kind of Joe Fridays and the same kind of selective righteousness. Novitzky is running an old con on a grand scale, and Sports Illustrated and The New York Times and many, many others have willingly become the publicity arm of an operation that's more deeply crooked than Barry Bonds or Lance Armstrong ever were.
The Case Against Lance Armstrong [Sports Illustrated]
Top image by Jim Cooke