With the astonishing 5 million spectator turnout along the route from Leeds to London at this year’s Tour de France, and with vigilant drug testing regimes now in place, cycling commentators have good reason to avoid telling the story of the doping scandal that dominated reporting of the event in recent years. But a timely second look at a hero’s fall from grace tells us something interesting about fan psychology and the ethics of play.
To win cycling’s premier event—perhaps the world’s most punishing athletic contest—seven times, and then to win following a grueling treatment for metastatic cancer, is the stuff of legends. Now we know that performance-enhancing drugs enabled the superhuman feat, and that Lance Armstrong and his pharmacists cleverly cheated the system of testing meant to enforce a drug-free regime. But what do we make of this morally? What can we understand from this massive cheating about our relationship to play?
Armstrong’s deceit carried with it several important moral nuances, not the least of them that 28 of 35 contenders in those years also fell under suspicion for having doped. The Tour de France may well be the cleanest, most scrutinized professional sport at this moment, but in the wake of the Armstrong debacle, when Tour officials tried to award the winning yellow jersey to a reliably drug-free contending rider, they could not find even one who qualified unquestionably. In those years, as Lance Armstrong has since insisted, it was not possible to win without performance-enhancing drugs. As far as this competition went, pervasive doping leveled the competition.
To observe that a rough measure of fairness obtained in a corrupted contest is not, however, to also excuse lying or to condone suborning of other riders. Dishonesty merits condemnation of itself. Just as plainly, this conclusion cannot make taking performance enhancing drugs any less dangerous.
Yet the really interesting point develops over fan psychology. Despite mounting and increasingly convincing evidence of cheating in cycling, fans stuck by Armstrong and then professed shock at the champion’s damning admission. That Armstrong also marshaled his extraordinary personal devotion to raising nearly half a billion dollars for cancer-patient care clearly helped him retain the loyalty of his fans and the indulgence of the press. But something else besides heroic good works kept fans and sponsors looking the other way.
We can only pick apart both the puzzling loyalty and the shock by recognizing a fundamental thing about play. Players always find or designate a special place, a magic circle, to play in—the playground, the playing field, the baseball diamond, the ring, or the race course. And inside this magic circle special rules apply. Breaking the rules is one thing, but to step outside this magic circle and deny the game itself and bring it down seems a greater offence.
For most of the 110 year history of the Tour de France the cyclists themselves determined the few rules of this arduous contest—they drew the outline of the magic circle themselves. For most of this time, exhausted riders also resorted to dangerous cocktails of performance enhancers that included wine, “horse ointment,” caffeine in large doses, strychnine, chloroform, cocaine, amphetamines, and more recently corticosteroids, growth hormone, bronchodilators, and red blood cell boosters.
These intense competitors who operated at the limits of human endurance tended to regard the modern apparatus of drug testing as an intrusion from non-competitors and hangers-on—wimps meddling from the sidelines. Drugs seemed like just another technology, innocuous in this dangerous sport like carbon frames or aerodynamic helmets. Fans, for their part, reacted with suspicion of the regulators; Americans chalked up complaints from French race officials about Armstrong to anti-Americanism and sour grapes. At base it seemed, officials seemed bent on spoiling the fun.
The reaction may seem curious in retrospect. But here we do well to remember that Johan Huizinga, the great Dutch philologist and scholar of play, observed in his brilliant study, Homo Ludens, that we’re very likely to regard the cheater more leniently than we do the spoilsport. “This is because the spoilsport shatters the play world itself. He robs play of illusion.” (The scholar reminds us that “illusion means 'in play.'") The spoilsport who shatters an illusion seems a kind of coward, Huizinga notes. Meanwhile the cheat, for his part at least, still plays at playing the game.