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Q&A with Dr. Eric Zillmer: Lance Armstrong’s Legacy

August 27, 2012

Eric Zillmer
After years of speculation, Lance Armstrong has relinquished his seven Tour de France titles in response to accusations that he repeatedly cheated to become the world’s winningest cyclist.

“There comes a point in every man’s life when he has to say, ‘Enough is enough,’” Armstrong said in a statement, alluding to the barrage of claims made by the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency that Armstrong has used performance-enhancing drugs throughout his career.

But his surrendering is not exactly a clear case of guilt.

Armstrong never tested positive for such methods, but the USADA has claimed it has “overwhelming proof of doping” and has subsequently imposed a lifetime ban on Armstrong from participating in any sport that recognizes the World Anti-Doping Code.

Dr. Eric Zillmer, Drexel’s athletic director and Carl R. Pacifico Professor of Neuropsychology, talked to DrexelNow about why Armstrong—whose perseverance through cancer to athletic excellence has yielded him to many as an American hero—could ultimately be erased from the history books.

Does the USADA have the authority to strip Armstrong of his titles?

Yes. The landscape of doping enforcement in sports is still developing. But most international athletic associations are deferring to the athletes’ host nation to manage their doping eligibility. In turn, international sports organizations such as the Tour de France or the Olympic Games adopt—de facto—the verdict of those national agencies. It expedites and streamlines the complexities involved in athletes competing in numerous international athletic events. But it also places much of the burden of doping detection, management and enforcement on those national organizations, which may have different degrees of infrastructure and effectiveness.

Why has the organization been so vehement about pursuing the drug case against Armstrong?

Lance Armstrong has always polarized people. He has a strong, ultra competitive personality. During his prime he did not defeat his opponents—he crushed them. When he passed his archrivals in bicycle races such as in the mountain stages of the Tour he would set them up and then stare them down. It was incredible drama. Other than Eddie Merckx from Belgium, there is no bicycle rider who has ever raced like this. To the furor of the French, Lance was “made in the USA.” The bottom line is, you either love him or you hate him.

If the claims against Armstrong are false, what reasons would he have to give up fighting the USADA?

The doping claims against Armstrong are probably true. While Lance may have beat the system at the time, additional and subsequent tests have found his samples to be positive. A number of his teammates have been found guilty of doping, [and] his former physician and team chef have all been implicated in a doping conspiracy and other racers have testified against him. The evidence is mounting, and it may be a better public relations move by Armstrong to let the court of public opinion decide if he is guilty. His most recent decision not to fight the charges is symbolic of one of his famous racing “moves”—to let someone else win an individual race on purpose, only to later win the entire event.

What effect could this scenario have on Armstrong's legacy?

[The effect could be] mixed. One has to remember that Armstrong probably competed against his opponents that were all doped. In addition, race organizers are just as guilty as the riders. To the delight of the public, race organizers have made the Tour increasingly more difficult and inhuman, to the point that the competitors must have felt that they needed an illegal boost to be able [to] stay in the race.

However, at the basis of every sporting event is “democracy,” the idea of a level playing field. If Armstrong cheated, he violated this most basic principle of an athletic contest.

This most recent development leaves me divided, because the history books will have erased his magnificent run of seven Tour titles. I personally feel that Armstrong’s titles should not be forfeited. Otherwise, modern science can rewrite the history books of athletics retroactively. The beauty of sports is that it creates moments that can last a lifetime. If those moments get drawn out because of the controversy about an athlete’s performance, all of sports will ultimately lose.