During the last few weeks and months, as the Olympics faded from view, the story of Lance Armstrong has distracted us from the political and economic headlines. For many of us, either as fans of cycling or as those affected by cancer, either as victims, survivors, friends or family–Armstrong’s story has been more than a distraction; it has been a frequent companion at the dinner table, in the living room, and in our daily engagements with our circles of friends and family.
For myself, the Armstrong story has been perhaps even more provocative. First—a blogger’s disclaimer: as someone who loves cycling and found inspiration in Armstrong’s earliest successes over a decade ago, I own and still display above my desk amidst other cycling posters and photographs, an autographed jersey, signed by Armstrong, from the 2001 Tour de France. But that souvenir does not blind me to the complexity of the story; indeed, it remains a source of inspiration against the challenges that life presents. In fact, the jersey only makes the entire situation more provocative—am I a fool for continuing to display an artifact of someone that cheated to win?
But the history of events and competing testimonies have never contradicted one important feature of the story: during the times Armstrong competed, the rules of the sport disqualified athletes on one basis, and only one basis: the return of a positive test result produced by qualified technical laboratories indicating the presence of quantities of substances in an athlete that exceeded specified levels. Those results could only be obtained from samples provided by the athlete under specified conditions, collected by qualified technicians trained to control the collection event.
The report published on October 10, 2012 by the United States Anti-Doping Agency, available here, documents substantial activity involving performance enhancing drugs, conspiracies, a “Code of Silence”, and many other activities that many consider offensive. But not once, across more than 1,000 pages of evidence and testimony, did USADA conclusively demonstrate that Armstrong violated the rules of the sport that were in effect and got away with it. Not once.
Many have observed that, with subsequent advances in technology, detection, and monitoring of the athletes, the conduct attributed to Armstrong (and acknowledged by others) would not go un-detected. Our tests are better; our equipment is more sensitive; our understanding of how doping and chemicals can enhance performance is more comprehensive; and our understanding of the potential roles trainers, doctors, and clinicians can play in manipulating blood values is more complete.
But, during the times Armstrong raced, those advances did not exist. Within the then-current technologies and rules, not once did USADA provide evidence that Armstrong violated the rules of the sport that were in effect and got away with it. Not once. Admittedly, the full report documents many “near misses”, including a back-dated doctor’s prescription, the smuggling of saline water into Armstrong while technicians waited outside the door to collect a sample, and the admissions of team members that they used doping techniques. But USADA never provided evidence of adverse test results that violated the rules.
So, for several weeks, following the conclusion of the Olympics, while the drumbeats by USADA became louder and the results of their report inevitable, I held off writing this post. The entire history places under scrutiny much more than one athlete, one team, or one sport. Instead, the story provoked for me different questions, for which I needed to think through my answers:
· What role do rules play in enabling sports (and commerce) to be played with enthusiasm?
· How do rules engage and inspire each of us to be cheering fans, taking sides, but ultimately enjoying the game itself?
· When conduct is not prohibited by the rules, are there any ethical limits to constrain the participants in sport (and in commerce) from engaging in that conduct if it yields competitive advantage?
· Under the United States Constitution, ex post facto laws are expressly prohibited. One cannot be prosecuted or convicted for conduct that was not illegal at the time the conduct occurs. In sport, should we prosecute and discipline participants on a different basis, allowing investigations and sanctions for conduct, however offensive, that did not result in a violation of the rules in effect at the time the conduct occurred?
· When are there enough rules? In any sport, the will to win will always inspire athletes, coaches, doctors, and sponsors to seek out and use any competitive advantage they can obtain. What limits, if any, should exist on how the balances between regulation and competition are to be struck?
· Should not innovation be encouraged if the innovation contributes to winning? When do innovations become unfair, and the target for regulation? When should we celebrate the success that innovation delivers? When should the innovation be protected against duplication, adaptation, and use by others who are trying to catch up?
Answering these questions serves another purpose, of course. As we look at the digital world that is shaping itself around us—becoming the global infrastructure through which human communication, knowledge, commerce, wealth creation and crime will be conducted far beyond my lifetime—how will we write the rules?
All of the preceding questions apply equally to how we construct our governance of the Net and the digital assets that fuel our existence. All of the preceding questions—and the answers that emerge—may provoke us to think differently about how we proceed to write the rules for the Net, and how we enable and govern competition on a global basis amidst unprecedented innovation and opportunities to achieve commercial conquests.
Obviously, instead of answering these questions in a single post, I think several will be required over the coming days. I welcome your interest, and encourage your comments. Now, instead of surfing any further, perhaps its time to go and get some exercise. Maybe even ride a bike! After all, as Albert Einstein said on the theory of relativity, “I thought of that while riding my bicycle.”