In the same week that Lance Armstrong’s challenge to USADA got tossed out of court, Bicycling Magazine released an in-depth interview with Jonathan Vaughters about his doping past. The irony was exquisite.
On the one hand, Armstrong is in the final throes of being ground down by a long, tortuous process that punishes drug cheats. On the other, Vaughters has escaped all punishment, been rewarded as a hero and spokesman for clean cycling, and continues to make a comfortable living at the pinnacle of the sport whose rules he once abused with abandon.
Is it justice? Or is it Memorex?
To be sure, Armstrong still has a few cards left to play, but they’re certainly not face cards from a strong suit. At this point, however, it’s hard to imagine his athletic career and sporting legacy ever reviving. You just don’t come back from a lifetime ban unless you’re a zombie.
There is, in the anti-Armstrong camp, a sense of jubilation, or grim satisfaction, or plain relief that the doors of the doping jail are closing shut. What there isn’t, and what there shouldn’t be, is a sense of justice having been done.
Vaughters proves it.
Unlike Hamilton, or Landis, or Basso, or Ullrich, or Pantani, or Virenque, or Millar, or any of the numerous riders sanctioned for cheating, Vaughters walked. The same system that has zeroed in on Armstrong and made sure that he gets punished for cheating has turned a blind eye to Vaughters. It has done more than turn a blind eye: It has anointed him.
How can this possibly be fair, even in the weird world of pro cycling? The sops at Bicycling can barely even raise the question, let alone pursue it with the rigor of a journalist.
Lips moving? He’s lying.
In the interview, Vaughters contradicts himself with previous statements so quickly that it’s as if he doesn’t believe in the Internet. Here’s Vaughters, a scant ten days ago in the NYT:
If the message I was given had been different, but more important, if the reality of sport then had been different, perhaps I could have lived my dream without killing my soul. Without cheating.
Here he is today:
Obviously, I’m not a victim. The decision (to dope) was mine and mine alone.
Which of these two versions would he like to have for dinner? They’re mutually exclusive. If a rotten system forced him to choose between cheating and quitting, he was a victim. If, on the other hand, the decision to dope was his and his alone, he’s not a victim, but rather a douchey cheat. Sound confusing? It is, even to Vaughters. That’s what happens when you’re a habitual liar: You can’t keep your bullshit straight even in the same article.
Immediately after telling us that the decision to dope was his and his alone, he describes the process through which his team director, a devout and principled man, told him that henceforth he would be put on EPO. Vaughters:
I quickly figured out he was talking about EPO. As much as I should’ve said no, and as much as I was intelligent and should have said, ‘Wait, this is bullshit,’ in my mind he’d just spelled out that I wasn’t going to dope; we’d just make my hematocrit what it would have been had I not been riding my bike so damn much.
In this scenario, Vaughters was either forced into it by his team boss, ergo victim, or he knew what he was doing and did it anyway, ergo douchey cheat.
Let the ends justify the means
Vaughters flips back and forth between “I’m not a victim” and “The system made me do it” over and over, and he does so with good reason. Not only is the interviewer, Joe Lindsey, a patsy, but these mutually exclusive explanations are the only way out of the dense forest of logic and morality that has him hemmed in on all sides.
To be a victim is untenable because no one would believe him. To have done everything of his own free will strips him of the moral high ground he’s so desperately seeking to gain in the eyes of the cycling public.
Vaughters plays his readers for fools, and his interviewer for a buffoon, by talking about what a difference doping can make. Here, in the NYT:
How much does that last 2 percent really matter? In elite athletics, 2 percent of time or power or strength is an eternity.
Then, a few days later, he patronizingly lectures his audience that the true evil of blood vector doping is that it gives certain users massive advantages that are far more than marginal:
“He [Vaughters] goes on to explain that the largest gains in oxygen transport occur in the lower hematocrit ranges—a 50 percent increase in RBC count is not a linear 50 percent increase in oxygen transport capability. The rider with the lower hematocrit is actually extremely efficient at scavenging oxygen from what little hemoglobin that he has, comparatively. So when you boost his red-cell count, he goes a lot faster.”
Vaughters’s point for Bicycling is not that dopers dope for an extra two percent, but that they do it for potentially massive gains depending on their physiology. Which is it? Two percent? Or the logarithmic increase depending on your body’s natural capacity for scouring oxygen?
Does it even matter?
In the context of pushing for cleaner pro competitions, we can and should excuse this mumbo-jumbo that’s easier for Vaughters to say than, “I’m a lying douchey cheat, thanks for all the money.” But in the context of fairness, he shouldn’t get off so easily.
Or, since he has, maybe we should take a minute and deflate for a minute now that Judge Sparks has sent the Armstrong legal team packing. If Lance gets hung out to dry, and Vaughters is deified as the admitted madman running the asylum, was justice done?
Are we good with calling one douchey cheat a douchey cheat, and calling another douchey cheat a role model and hero?
Doesn’t that stick in your throat?
Just a little?
Sure does in mine.