Putting the focus on clean athletes

When the news broke last week that Tyler Hamilton witnessed the Lance Armstrong doping in 2001, my first thought was, "veggie or pepperoni?" It was pizza night at our house. Important decisions loomed.

As a cyclist, I'm pretty tired of the topic of whether or not Lance used performance-enhancing drugs. On one hand, I'm a strong supporter of innocent until proven guilty. He just might be, after all, the most drug-tested athlete on the planet. On the other, I'm not so naive as to believe that such allegations are completely unfounded.

There could be a huge cover-up going on. Off the bike, what Armstrong has done for the world in terms of awareness, hope and fundraising for cancer couldn't be disputed by his worst enemies. On the bike, we'd lose one of the greatest sports' heroes if the allegations prove true.

Yet, the issues I have with the Lance Armstrong debate aren't with Armstrong or Hamilton or Floyd Landis or Greg LeMond or any other former cycling star coming forth with allegations of wrongdoing.

My problems are twofold. The penalty system in place for cheaters is about as outdated as the Sony Walkman, and the media is spending too much time reporting on scandals and cheaters instead of focusing on clean athletes.

Now, I understand the media -- and readers -- thrive on scandal. It is, after all, human nature. But for every page spent speculating about Armstrong's cleanliness, there should be an equal number of paragraphs devoted to male and female athletes who are winning, thriving and upholding the honor of their sport.

The whole "dark cloud" analogy that hangs over cycling is old. Frankly, it's also wrong. The cloud hangs over the cheaters. There's plenty of sun on the winners. All we need is for the media to see it and the public to embrace it.

As a female athlete and journalist, it's not exactly news that my gender receives one-tenth of the coverage of male athletes at best. I'm doing what I can to change that. As a cyclist, I just keep doing my thing: racing, training and going after my goals, whether the media pays attention or not. If I were in cycling for the media glory, I would have quit before I started.

But when the coverage -- specifically the Lance Armstrong issue -- becomes the same old "news" without physical, drug-tested evidence, I get a little cranky. Where's the mainstream news on the other Armstrong, Kristin, dominating the Tour of California time trial just eight months after childbirth? Her time also would have beaten 30 men in the field. Why is Tyler Hamilton's loss of an Olympic medal and his Armstrong accusations headlining "60 Minutes" instead of U.S. national champion Evelyn Stevens' rise to glory?

We can help stimulate the demand for publicity on clean athletes by reading, reacting and responding to the positive stories -- the ones about clean athletes, male and female.

Tired of doping scandals altogether, be it baseball or cycling or track and field, we can get rid of them two ways. The media can step up their game and cover clean athletes and USADA and WADA can enforce new rules. The penalty system must be revamped. Enough of these one and two-year "soft" bans, these tiresome lawsuits and the time and energy spent on "punishing" cheaters. As long as there are sports, there will be cheaters. But there will be fewer if we crack down on them with more than a slap on the wrist. Here's what USADA, WADA and all sports federations should agree to when it comes to catching cheaters:

1. Enforce a lifetime ban for a first offense.

2. Impose a minimum one-year jail sentence.

3. Make athletes perform a minimum 1,000-hours of community service in hospital wards where EPO and steroids are used for their true intention -- to treat cancer patients and the terminally ill.

4. Force athletes to repay or reimburse their annual salary, prize money and endorsement contracts.

5. Forfeit all titles and medals earned during a career. Asterisks are for writers. Not athletes.

Maybe Lance cheated. Maybe he didn't. Neither my life nor my pizza decision will change. But until the hard evidence against Armstrong comes in, there are better sports stories to be told.

There are athletes that deserve better media coverage. There are better ways to punish cheaters. There are better ways to make it all happen. And there is no better time to start than now.

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