Note–I wrote this after a Facebook conversation where I said that one of the reasons I liked outdoor risk sports is that we don’t generally dope for “performance.” Then I started thinking about that idea, and realized it wasn’t exactly true… The following came out.
As you and likely everyone on the planet now knows, Lance Armstrong recently rolled over and basically said, “The evidence for my past doping is too strong now, I’m going to pretend to take the high road of the unjustly accused and plead “no contest” to the USADA’s doping charges.” Some of my friends are or have been high-end cyclists, and they all have an opinion on how much and when Lace was doping (none of my half-knowedgable cycling friends believe he’s anywhere near “clean”). After Floyd Landis and basically every other top cyclist I can think of got busted for doping I don’t believe any top cyclist is “clean” legally. How about clean morally? Are the demands of top-level cycling so great that you have to dope, and therefore it’s no crime to dope? And is it OK to lie about doping because that’s what the public and sponsors expect? To me this all boils down to a question of whether the means justify the end. Usually when people start invoking the idea that the end justifies the means used to get there they are about to do something immoral, stupid, or insanely short-sighted. Like climb Everest while sucking oxygen.
In my view every ascent of Everest or any other high-altitude peak done with oxygen since Messner climbed Everest without oxygen 30 years ago was done by dopers.Maybe those who climbed Everest without oxygen 20 years ago or more should get a “past champions” pass. It was a different era then, just as it was for legendary Tour de France winners back in the day (who have also admitted to doping back then). Give ‘em a pass, especially those who did new routes or otherwise pushed the game farther. But if Lance is getting busted going back 10 years then we might as well use that for high-altitude mountaineering too. If Lance is going to lose his 7 Tour titles for doping then there should be many thousands fewer ascents of Everest on the books as well: only about 170 people have climbed Everest without oxygen, which is probably about the same number who have ridden an international champion level cycling race “clean.”
But both cyclists and Everesteers want something so bad (winning or the summit) that they will use any means to get there. Lance might have an argument that winning the Tour de France was impossible without doping, but climbers don’t even have that argument as the highest point on earth has been reached by 170 people give or take. Diamox, oxygen, and a host of other drugs are commonly used in high-altitude climbing/walking up fixed ropes to make the summit lower; if you use drugs to get there then in my view you didn’t get there. I wrote about this for Explore magazine a while back, but as I listened to all the outrage in the outdoor community about Lance’s doping I just couldn’t stop thinking about all the dopers, and the acceptance of that doping, in high-altitude guided walking on Everest and other mountains. The Everesteers at least admit to their doping (it’s hard to hide that oxygen mask), but clearly they are using artificial means to reach a goal. That’s doping, that’s saying the means justify the end.
Last year two of my friends, Ueli Steck and Conrad Anker, both climbed Everest without oxygen. That’s where the bar is now (and realistically has been for 30 years), buck up.
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