24 August 2012

Reality and Lance Armstrong

Consider the following list:
  • Alex Zülle (1999)
  • Jan Ullrich (2000)
  • Jan Ullrich (2001)
  • Joseba Beloki (2002)
  • Jan Ullrich (2003)
  • Andreas Klöden (2004)
  • Ivan Basso (2005)
When compiling a list of Tour de France winners from 1999 to 2005, one needs only one name:  Lance Armstrong.  The greatest Tour de France cyclist in history did what nobody at the close of the last century thought possible -- win seven consecutive Tour de France races.  The list above represents those who finished second behind Armstrong.

Lance Armstrong announced that he would no longer fight the United States Anti-Doping Agency's charges against him.  The possibility exists that Armstrong could lose his seven Tour de France titles.  If that happens, then what?  Will there be a repeat of 2006, the year Floyd Landis stood in front of the Arc de Triomphe donning the yellow jersey as the overall champion, only to be disqualified two months later by the International Cycling Union and see Óscar Pereiro Sío be awarded the win?  Will the above list be the new reality?

Of course, the 2006 Tour de France had other doping issues with famous cyclists like Jan Ullrich and Ivan Basso getting excluded before the race began.  The 2007 Tour de France had its share of doping woes, too.  Questions of reality marred those two races.

After the Armstrong news broke, several people asked me, "Do you think he did it?!?"  As if I know.  I've spent a decade modeling the Tour de France and predicting stage-winning times.  Beginning that line of research with Ben Hannas back in 2003, right in the heart of Armstrong's streak, launched my professional career as a sports physicist.  Chapter 4 of my book is devoted to Lance Armstrong and Tour de France modeling.  Does all of that somehow make me any more knowledgeable as to whether or not Lance Armstrong cheated to win all those Tour de France races?  Of course not.  Like many, many people, I was enthralled by his story of beating cancer and dominating his sport like no other.  But I never met Lance Armstrong, and I've no idea what he does when nobody's watching.

So, what is reality?  Surely that's a question pondered by great minds for much of human history.  I watched Ben Johnson run the 100-m sprint in the 1988 Summer Olympics in a time of 9.79 s, faster than any human had ever run 100 m.  Carl Lewis saw Johnson cross the finish line ahead of him, yet Carl Lewis is listed as the gold-medal winner because of Johnson's famous disqualification three days after the race.  The reality for Carl Lewis after that race was that he lost to Johnson.  Lewis never got to experience the feeling of having successfully defended his 100-m sprint gold as he crossed the finish line, a feeling Usain Bolt enjoyed last month.

I love college basketball.  I watched the championship games in 1992 and 1993 as the Fab Five of Michigan lost both games, yet Michigan vacated those Final-Four appearances -- like they were never there.  Imagine what reality shifts would have occurred if Michigan had won one or both of those title games.  I'm pretty sure I watched UMass play in the 1996 Final Four, but that school had to vacate its appearance in New Jersey that year.  I sat in Assembly Hall in Bloomington and watched the 1997 Final Four Minnesota team beat my beloved Hoosiers in overtime.  Oh wait, Minnesota must not have been in Indy that year for the Final Four.  Ohio State joined fellow Big-Ten school Michigan State in the 1999 Final Four, but the Buckeyes weren't really there.  The Florida sun played with people's eyes that year.  Kansas beat Memphis in a thrilling overtime game in the 2008 championship, but, alas, Memphis was really in Tennessee for that game instead of Texas.

Just three days after I turned 37, Alabama beat my Vandy Commodores in football by the score of 24-10.  My alma mater finished 5-7 that year and would've gone to a bowl game if just one of our seven losses had been a win.  Hold on!  In 2009, Alabama had its wins vacated for the 2007 season, as well as wins in a couple of seasons before that year.  Did my 2007 Vandy team deserve to go to a bowl???  The reality that year sure made me feel like we didn't deserve a bowl appearance.

College football was racked by awful scandals this past year.  Penn State topped the list.  Among the penalties Penn State incurred, they had to vacate 112 wins, all but one of which belonged to Joe Paterno.  The 2006 Orange Bowl had Paterno face Bobby Bowden's Florida State team.  Bowden lost a close one, 26-23.  Well, the loss didn't really happen.  In fact, Joe Paterno is not the college football coach with the most wins, as he surely thought he was before he died earlier this year -- Bobby Bowden is.  Bowden got that distinction three years after he retired.  Some reality.

Photoshop makes it possible to look at a picture and not know if it's real.  CGI can turn any YouTube video into pure fiction.  Basketball shots from helicopters and footballs flying into garbage cans from impossible distances are the norm these days.  Well, the images are real, but they don't show reality, or do they?  People pass themselves off as celebrities, wedding guests, etc. and others may never be the wiser.  Was Han Solo real?  He was for me when I was a kid.  Harrison Ford may have been standing in front of a camera dressed as Han Solo, but the idea of Han Solo was quite real in my head.  I knew he wasn't real, didn't I?  Harry Potter is very real for my daughters, especially my older daughter who has read all seven books.

Now everyone in the sports world wants to know what's real.  Did Lance Armstrong really win all those Tour de France races?  Or at least did he win them fairly, whatever than means?  Are all the home runs we see real?  Were they real in 1998?  Were the dingers hit by Barry Bonds real?  Some say they shouldn't count and that Hank Aaron is the true home run king.  Will the Hall of Fame not call Bonds next January, even though all his records are still intact?  What about Roger Clemens?  Will the home-run king (Bonds with 762), the Cy-Young king (Clemens with seven), and the hit king (Pete Rose with 4256) all need to buy a ticket to the museum in Cooperstown, just like everyone else, if they wish to visit?

I want to watch a sporting event and know that the result will stand.  I want athletes to play by the rules.  I want the great things I saw in the London Olympics to stand up for all time.  Queue music for my Pollyanna speech (and, yes, I watched Knots Landing when I was younger -- click here).  Putting aside the atrocious crimes at Penn State, recruiting violations, doping, and so forth, rewriting the past with new sporting results just stinks.  Lance Armstrong helped to set me on a new research path.  I really, really, really want Lance Armstrong to have won all his Tour de France races in an honorable way.  Do I have a guess as to whether he did?  No.  I've no idea what the true reality is.

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