Lance Armstrong

When future sports historians look back at the months following the 2012 Olympics, what they’re most likely to remember is surely the stripping of Lance Armstrong’s seven Tour de France victories, prompted by the release of USADA’s reasoned decision on 10 October.

Most cycling fans had begun to realise what was going on, but it’s still hard not be shocked (also if you read Tyler Hamilton’s book, The Secret Race) by the scale of the cheating, and by the assumption of invincibility among those who were doing it; also by the brutal control tactics Armstrong especially seems to have adopted; and by the uselessness of all the drug testing which clearly failed to detect all but occasional cases.

The whole affair is a pretty sobering counterweight to the more idealising vision of sport which was on show in the Olympics earlier in the summer.

Luckily for the much reported Olympics feel-good factor, none of the UK’s new cycling stars is closely involved: there’s general agreement that things have got better in the last few years.

Nevertheless there are many many people still involved in cycling as riders or managers who lived through the bad times. Many of these will be getting worried: clearly there are more relevations to come. Even Team Sky and their manager Dave Brailsford (who is also performance director of British Cycling) have had some uncomfortable questions to answer: see here or here. And the UCI, the sports governing body, is increasingly facing accusations of incompetence and even collusion.

Cheating in ancient sport

Cheating in the ancient Olympics has been one of the most frequently treated ancient-sport topics in the popular media over the last few decades. There are countless discussions on ancient Olympics web-sites too.

Most of these accounts cover very similar ground, relying on the same few familiar sources, none of which really takes us very close to ancient athletic experience.

That usually involves a fairly uncritical repetition of various anecdotes from Pausanias, usually with passing mention of famous heroic cheats like Pelops (who is said to have cheated in his chariot race against King Oinomaos: victory in the race gave him the hand of Oinomaos’ daughter, Hippodamia, in marriage).

The problem is that it is very hard to find alternatives to those often quoted sources.

Just to take one example, it’s hardly surprising that the evidence of the inscriptions (which provide some of our best evidence for ancient sport) are silent about cheating, given that their main aim is nearly always honorific: to honour prominent athletes and benefactors.

Philostratus on selling victories

Even so, I think there is more to say about the way in which ancient writers thought about cheating and talked about it, even if we can’t find any new evidence for what corrupt ancient sportsmen actually did.

The text quoted here (Philostratus, Gymnasticus 45; see Miller, Arete, 2004, no. 214 for alternative translation) suggests some striking similarities and differences between ancient and modern treatments.

This kind of luxury…started the habit of rule-breaking among athletes for the sake of money and the buying and selling of victories…A boy won the Isthmian wrestling after agreeing with one of his opponents a price of three thousand drachmas for victory. When they came the next day to the gymnasium, the defeated contestant demanded his money, but the other said that he did not owe it, since he had won the victory over an opponent who had been unwilling to lose. And since their argument remained unresolved they entrusted the matter to an oath and came to the temple of the Isthmian god [i.e. Poseidon], and the one who had sold the victory swore an oath in public that he had sold the contest of the god and that three thousand drachmas had been promised to him. And he admitted to these things in a clear voice, speaking without any hesitationAnd I do not absolve the trainers themselves from responsibility for this corruption. For they turn up at training sessions with money, and they make loans to the athletes at levels of interest higher than those which are normal among sea-going merchants, and they pay no attention to the reputation of the athletes but instead act as their advisers in buying and selling, out of a concern for their own profit, which they secure either by giving loans to those who want to purchase victories,or by taking repayments from those who have made sales.

There are some vague overlaps with the stories which have been emerging from the cycling world over the last few weeks and years.

Most obvious is the blatant, unashamed quality of the way in which the two boys talk about their deal, as if it’s an absolutely commonplace happening (again, Hamilton’s book is a good place to look for parallels: there are lots of stories there of professional cyclists referring to their doping in very casual, matter-of-fact fashion among themselves, even if they didn’t do so in public like Philostratus’ two boy athletes here).

Philostratus’ worries about trainers corrupting young athletes also look familiar: there are more and more stories coming out of young cyclists being pressured into doping by their teams.

Idealising the past

The obvious difference is in Philostratus’ treatment of the past.

For Philostratus, this corruption is a sign of the influx of money into the sport. He contrasts it with a glowing portrait of the old-fashioned virtues of the heroic athletes of many centuries before, who lived simple lives and ate simple diets. (I think the importance of Philostratus’ text in reinforcing the amateurist ideology of the late 19th and early 20th centuries hasn’t always been recognised).

By contrast there’s not much sign of this kind of idealisation of the past in relation to the Armstrong scandal.

That must be partly because of the disillusionment which is prominent these days in the professional cycling media. It’s becoming increasingly clear that these problems date a very long way back–into the 1960s at least–even if they were at their worst from the early 90s onwards.

But I think it’s part of a trend which is common in other sports too–a wider lack of interest in idealising visions of a past sporting golden age. It’s increasingly rare these days to find the language of moral virtue attached to the sports stars of the earlier ages. Maybe our increasing cynicism about some aspects of present-day sport makes us less inclined to look for perfection in the great figures of the past too…