Try though I might, I never really liked Lance Armstrong, whose interview with Oprah Winfrey will be aired this week. (I understand from listening to a lawyer on RMC’s Grandes Gueules today that everything he says will have been gone over with a fine tooth comb with his legal counsel.)
My English colleagues at the time talked him up endlessly. One of them lent me Armstrong’s autobiography, which was interesting and worthwhile reading for cancer sufferers. I felt some empathy for him as a child as he never got on with his stepfather, who didn’t sound very nice. However, he did sound self-righteous in painting such a virtuous self-portrait. I also did not appreciate his slurs about tobacco, later reflected on his website, although I understand that some of the bad science links have since been removed. For him, it was all about health, never faith in God, which he dropped early on in his life.
On the road during his Tours de France, he seemed aloof and antagonistic. Intimidating, even. I recall reading Le Monde‘s Tour coverage during the Armstrong years. Many French at the time believed he was doping. My colleagues assured me that it was merely France’s anti-Americanism showing.
Therefore, it was with some relief when I read last year that Armstrong was stripped of his titles and that he might have to pay back some of the money he later earned as the front man for various products.
It emerged late last year that Armstrong took EPO injections in small amounts at night. He appears to have received favourable treatment from the drug testers. Admittedly, everyone in cycling knows — even the testers — that it is possible for riders to pass drug tests as the techniques for doping surpass the ability to detect them in the bloodstream.
But you know all that.
What makes Armstrong’s case different is not only his cancer but also the way he used it as a lever with the public. Who is going to criticise a cancer recovery success story in endurance sport? It just didn’t seem right to do so. And it could be said that Armstrong’s supporters had a point at the time. I ended up keeping my thoughts to myself outside of the house.
Alex Massie, writing for The Spectator (UK), offered the best analysis of the Armstrong story thus far. Excerpts follow, emphases in bold mine:
Because Armstrong was worse than a cheat, he was a fraud. Sure, many other riders were taking EPO or using blood transfusions themselves. They did not, however, present themselves as some kind of inspirational saviour. They did not do their best to run riders who did not dope out of the sport.
And this is one of the differences between old-school doping and the new-school perfected by Armstrong and his foot-soldiers …
Armstrong’s case is different and not just because this first Tour victory was in 1999, the year cycling was supposed to have started again after the scandal of the 1998 edition during which the race was revealed to be a kind of pharmacy on wheels. We had always known there was drug-taking but the Festina scandal meant it could no longer be quietly ignored. The blinkers we’d chosen to wear had to come off at last and forever. No more nodding. No more winking.
So the 1999 race was branded as some kind of Tour of Redemption. And it was won by Lance Armstrong. Pretty good joke, that. Sure, Armstrong was only King of the Dopers and many of the guys he beat were juiced too and you can make a case arguing that the playing-field was relatively level. Between 1996 and 2011 some 36 of the 45 places on the Tour de France podium were claimed by riders “tainted” with doping. But it was still a fraud and Armstrong’s successes were a lie. The crime was one thing but, as the old cliche has it, the cover-up was much, much worse …
Apart from the “everyone was at it” argument, the most common defence of Armstrong has been that he’s still a hero because he had cancer and cancer is bad and lots of people who had cancer were inspired by Armstrong and this is a good thing because, you know, cancer is very bad. Which is fine but has nothing to do with cycling. It seems a bit much to expect those of us who love cycling to be persuaded by the plangent splutterings of those who’d never heard of the sport before Armstrong arrived to inspire the planet.
In any case, cancer became a carapace protecting Armstrong from the slings and arrows of outrageous criticism. Never mind the sport, face up to the fact he inspired so much hope. Maybe so. But the sorry truth is that cancer proved useful to Lance Armstrong. It didn’t just reshape his body and equip him with a startling measure of mental fortitude, it also made his critics wonder if they – I suppose I mean, we – were heels, scoffing sourly at the greatest inspiration of the age. What kind of person reacts to such a noble prospect by wishing to destroy it?
A wise one, as it turns out. Pace Christopher Hitchens, just as it suited Mother Theresa to keep her people poor, so it suited Armstrong to swaddle himself in the community of cancer sufferers. They were his human shields. A cancer-awareness-raising foundation can both be a noble enterprise and a useful insurance. There is no contradiction here, merely the ancient truth that even virtue is not always wholly virtuous.
Even now – even now! – Armstrong’s faithful ask us to excuse his sins on account of the money he has raised for cancer-awareness and the succour – genuine, for sure – he has offered cancer-sufferers. Set against such goodness, what is mere sporting disgrace? Only this: his disgraced success begat the goodness and the good works depended upon the success which was achieved by cheating. If charity is based on fraud does it remain charity or does it curdle into something closer to cynical buck-raking? …
The USADA report pays tribute to this. Consider this passage:
[T]he team staff was good at being able to predict when riders would be tested and seemed to have inside information about the testing. For instance, according to David Zabriskie, “Johan [Bruyneel] always seemed to know when drug testers were coming at races. His warning that ‘they’re coming tomorrow’ came on more than one occasion.” Jonathan Vaughters said, “[t]he Postal Service staff, including Johan and the soigneurs seemed to have an outstanding early warning system regarding drug tests. We typically seemed to have an hour’s advance notice prior to tests. There was plenty of time in advance of tests to use saline to decrease our hematocrit level.
Remember too that Armstrong’s relationship with Michele Ferrari – the trainer to whom he paid more than $1 million – began before he contracted cancer. Armstrong was working with Ferrari in the mid-1990s. Just as it seemed odd so many of Armstrong’s former team-mates suddenly failed tests when they were no longer racing with Lance, so it always seemed implausible that when Ferrari’s other clients were doping Armstrong was merely discussing power to weight ratios with his guru. A guru, moreover, who claimed that “Only excessive consumption of EPO is dangerous, as the excessive consumption of orange juice is dangerous.”
Not too many cyclists have died from a surfeit of orange juice. Too many have perished from using EPO. How else to explain the rash of cyclists who died from heart attacks in the middle of the night as their blood congealed to jelly? How else to explain their grim, death-avoiding, midnight exercise regimes designed to get the heart pumping. For a spell back in the 1990s, EPO was a kind of slow-motion Russian roulette.
… A three week race is a test of endurance. The ability to “heal faster from harder and more frequent workouts” cheats that test. Equally, in cycling the better the drugs the less vicious – and less thrilling – the thrills become. The spectacle of suffering is compromised. Its value is diminished too …
Like other great cyclists Armstrong doped; unlike the other great cyclists he exploited his life story to claim a degree of holy untouchability. There is all the difference in the world between an honest Hinaultesque cynicism and Armstrong’s lucrative and dishonest cynicism. He was – and remains – a fraud and a liar. That’s why his disgrace matters and why it is necessary.
Once upon a time, Armstrong asked a simple question:
“If I cheated, how did I get away with it?”
Because the Big Lie is bigger, more brazen, more dishonest than anything else.
Last year’s Tour de France, which resulted in Sir Bradley Wiggins’s victory, seemed more the way the race should be ridden and won. As I recall, one or two riders had failed drugs tests early on. I hope that future Tours will be conducted with the same vigilance.
It’s also time that other sports consider rooting out dopers. Baseball had its investigations several years ago. Online commenters say that football — gridiron and soccer — also has a reputation for doping. If so, it’s time to investigate.
We can also communicate to our children that cheaters never truly ‘win’ except at lying, which violates the Ten Commandments, specifically Exodus 20:16 and Deuteronomy 5:20:
You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor.
The same holds true for school and business ethics. Cheating on tests and using underhanded tactics are sins. If you don’t get caught in this life, you will in the next.