Lance Armstrong’s confession to Oprah Winfrey earlier this week that he’s been a drug cheat throughout his illustrious career was a mixed blessing for the sports world. On one hand, key questions have been answered and a perpetrator has been caught. We now know that cycling’s preeminent athlete over the past two decades managed to repeatedly best his competitors with the aid of banned substances including the hormone erythropoietin (EPO)—which stimulates the generation of red blood cells and boosts the oxygen-carrying capacity of the blood—as well as blood transfusions and testosterone injections.
On the other hand, the excitement, inspiration and achievement that Armstrong brought to his sport, crossing over into pop culture in the process, now rings hollow. Armstrong’s once-impressive career is now forever tainted with the stigma of having been achieved by means other than skill, hard work and dogged determination.
Scientific American has taken on the issue of performance-enhancing substances in sports many times over the years. Most recently we examined the World Anti-Doping Agency’s (WADA) efforts to implement its athlete biological passport (ABP) program at the 2012 London Olympics to keep the competition (and competitors) clean. Cycling’s international governing body, the International Cycling Union (UCI), has for years used the ABP to crack down on dopers, although Armstrong was never caught.
For more on the science of winning at sports, see our in-depth report covering last summer’s Olympics.
Resident skeptic Michael Shermer also provided a personal take on the dilemma of pervasive drug abuse in cycling and other sports back in 2009.
Image of Armstrong riding the prologue of the 2004 Tour de France courtesy of Denkfabrikant, via Wikimedia Commons