I have to admit to a certain fascination with the Lance Armstrong and the on going doping investigations. Some people think ‘well, it happened in the past, we should leave it.
But, I watched nearly all of Lance Armstrong’s seven tour victories. I watched in increasing dismay as he threw his weight around chasing down riders or freezing out journalists who spoke against doping or asked awkward questions.
It is ironic that after a decade of intimidating other cyclists and journalists, Armstrong feels he is now the one facing a ‘witch hunt’ - they say whatever you do tends to come back in some form. I just never thought it would be so soon.
In the US, there is still considerable support for Armstrong – though it’s not quite the sacred cow it once was. These days it is mostly along the lines of ‘who cares about doping allegations, he’s obviously a good egg because he raises money for charity’
It is a kind of admission that doping is OK in professional sport as long as you have the skill and money to avoid dope tests. Should we really accept this idea that you can cheat as much as you like, as long as you give some of your ill-gotten gains to a charity?
Sport is more than Winning at All Costs
Call me an old fashioned Victorian moralist, but I’ve always hoped and believed that sport was more than just about winning at all costs. To me sport means playing by a gentleman’s code. It means being fair to your competitors and enjoying the personal satisfaction from trying your best. Sport is not about winning at all costs, it’s not even about raising money for charity. It’s about a noble endeavour to do your best with good will. I do believe in the Olympic ideal.
Cynics may argue that is hopelessly idealistic for professional sport. Maybe it is, but that’s how I judge sportsman – not, did they crush the opposition, but can you also believe in their sportsmanship and sense of fair play? That is what I would like to see in professional sport anyway. At the very least, professional sport should avoid illegal doping and cheating. If the rules of the sport say don’t take dope – why should we turn a blind eye if people do cheat?
It does Matter
Recently a British cyclist wrote a BBC blog stating the Armstrong case was saddening for cycling – by raking up the past it reflected badly on the current generation of clean riders.
I don’t think so. I think it reflects well on cycling if we can clear out the skeletons in the cupboards. It doesn’t diminish my view of the current crop of riders. If we avoided difficult cases – I would think less of cycling. Because that was the attitude in the past – shove it back under the carpet.
Clean riders have nothing to fear from investigations into riders where there is overwhelming evidence of doping. In fact without investigative journalism and policing, there is no guarantee that the sport will remain clean. Dope tests are not always enough. The current generation of clean cyclists should be grateful for people like Christophe Bassons and Paul Kimmage; they should be grateful for the fact USADA is willing to investigate when other authorities would rather ignore certain inconvenient truths. There is no shame on today’s clean riders that we are catching the old generation who got away with it for so many years. Without this willingness to investigate cheats, clean riders may not be able to prosper. It’s not so long ago, that clean riders would have had no chance to win.
Doping Does Not Create A Level Playing Field
My old boss used to always say to me – why don’t you just let everyone dope – at least it would be a level playing field then. It was the kind of statement that annoyed me so much I wouldn’t even answer. But, reading the revelations of those living through the doping era, reminds you that doping does not create a level playing field.
There are huge discrepancies in the quantity and quality of doping products that riders took.
The more EPO you take the faster you go. But, when you get to a blood cell count of over 60 – you increasingly risk death. Do we reward the cyclist most willing to risk their life? That is what it was like in the crazy EPO days. In the EPO era, cyclists would have to set their alarms for mid night so they could wake up, stretch, and avoid a fatal blood clot) – Quite a few cyclists couldn’t deal with blood so thickened and died in this era, So yes, it does matter we catch dope cheats. And no, we shouldn’t ever give in to doping.
Who can forget the Gewiss 1,2,3 at the Fleche Wallon in 1994 (link), when nicely prepared by Michael Ferrari, they were so far ahead of the opposition, they could afford a nice long conversation about who should be 1st, 2nd and 3rd. Is this the kind of sport we want to watch? During this period, the reported haematocrit levels of some Gewiss riders reportedly went from 42% to 60% [link]
By the way Ferrari was later sacked by Gewiss for saying to L’Equipe “EPO is not dangerous, it’s the abuse that is. It’s also dangerous to drink 10 litres of orange juice.” [link]
However, despite his growing reputation as the man to go to for EPO, a few years later, Armstrong began a close relationship with Ferrari. When Greg Lemond public ally criticised this relationship, Greg Lemond suddenly found his business interests with Trek taking a nose dive. Armstrong was furious and Trek were caught in the middle. . Armstrong’s relationship with Ferrari lasted several years, until Ferrari was convicted of malpractise in 2004 (BBC) Italian authorities claim to have uncovered a $465,000 payment from Armstrong to Ferrari – Not bad for a bit of advice to pedal at a high cadence…
I could go on, but life’s too short. But, is this the kind of sport you would want to take up? where the winner is the guy who can afford to spend the most money on the best medical advice and willing to take the most risks with their health?
Was Lance Armstrong the Greatest Athlete?
I used to always feel that since most other cyclists of that generation seemed to dope too – the same guys would have won – even if cycling had been clean. I think that is how dopers justify it. If everyone is doing it, then my victory is deserved because I’m only doing what everyone else is.
However, I no longer believe that. Doping was such an art, it made such a difference to performance that I don’t think you can say with certainty Armstrong would have won. Other riders may have doped, but did they dope with the same proficiency, skill and aptitude of the US Postal riders? If you read Floyd Landis, Jonathan.Vaughters and Tyler Hamilton’s description of doping practises, you realise that as much thought was put into doping as the actual cycling.
The revelations of Floyd Landis, Jonathan Vaughters and Tyler Hamilton are tragically reminiscent of Willy Voet’s account – Breaking the Chain (remember the Festina scandal of 1998 and how this was going to clean up cycling?)
The Denial Process
It is revealing that after Landis failed his dope test he received a call from Lance Armstrong. According to Landis, Armstrong’s advice to Landis after the failed dope test was:
“You have to learn how to say ‘no’ better. Just say no and stop talking,” Or say ‘Absolutely not.’ There is a guy who did well in the Olympic road race whose a good student of Armstrong’s philosophy.
Armstrong has been very good at sticking to his guns, but even he seems worn down by the decade of denials. I doubt we will ever hear Armstrong’s admission of guilt. He has too much vested in the process and too many people wanting to believe him.
The Good, the Bad and the Ugly
Everyone is a mixture of good and bad qualities. Armstrong is no exception. The tragedy of the Armstrong case, is that underneath the lies and doping, there is a really inspiring story. I read Armstrong’s book many years ago ‘It’s not about the bike’, and I was inspired by his inspirational story. I didn’t particularly warm to his personality, but I thought fair enough – to get through that, you need a single-mindedness and stubborn determination. Armstrong is actually somebody that you would like to admire and appreciate. I think this is why so many people want to believe Armstrong is a clean rider or if the isn’t clean – justifiy it.
After being suitably inspired by Armstrong’s come back from cancer, it was then a long and continuous process of discouragement and gradual disenfranchisement. This was the sport’s hero, but I couldn’t enjoy any of his victories. To me the Armstrong years were wasted years- meaningless. The only joy I got from the Tour de France in those years was seeing Fillipo Simeoni single-handedly attacking Armstrong on the Champs Elysees breaking the obtuse peleton code of ‘morality’ – in response for Armstrong’s refusal to allow Simeoni to race.
It wasn’t so much the realisation that Armstrong was taking drugs. It was how he dealt with other people. Chasing down Fillipo Simeoni, speaking against Christophe Basson, using his power to freeze out any journalist who asked difficult questions or didn’t tow the ‘Armstrong party line’. It left the feeling of not watching a cycle race, but some political party imposing a three line whip.
Can you tell who is lying?
When Landis and Hamilton issued their denials after their failed dope tests, I had the unmistakeable feeling that they were lying and concealing the truth. When they write their full admissions, I have the feeling that they are now telling the truth.
I’ve always felt an ability to tell when people are telling the truth and telling falsehood. Yet, other people come to different conclusions.
I believe in the ideal of being non-judgemental. But, I’ve failed regarding Armstrong. Like everyone he’s a mixture of good and bad qualities. It’s just that for some reason I’m passionate about promoting clean cycling. Armstrong and Michael Ferrari are on one side of the doping issue. I’m on the other. If the UCI asked me to nominate cyclist into the hall of fame. I would, amongst others, choose Paul Kimmage and Christophe Basson. That would go down like the proverbial track tyre riding over a bed of nails. But, who cares about winners, when the sport was so riddled with doping?
It’s Not About Armstrong
At the end of the day, it’s not about Armstrong. Recent tours suggest that results are now believable. Cycling has perhaps turned a corner. Dope tests are tougher in cycling than any other sport. Now there are riders succeeding on hard work and talent, not on the skill of the medical team. Yes, we have to move forward and not remain stuck in the past. But, at the same time, we can’t airbrush out of history the unfortunate mistakes and actions of the past. It is only by continued vigilance and awareness of what happened in the past, that we can make sure cycling doesn’t slip into a future dark hole.
Yes, we should be grateful to those who have been willing to risk ostracization to speak up about doping, when everyone else wanted to turn a blind eye.
I’ve thought so much about this issue, writing is almost a form of therapy. But, after writing all this, I’m almost tempted not to post at all. Who needs another useless opinion on doping and L.A? Well, I might as well inflict it on you, but don’t take anything I say too seriously… Because at the end of the day, you might be better off to go and watch all the exciting racing at the Vuelta Espagne and let’s hope Contador doesn’t eat any more dodgy steaks.
photo top: Richard Masoner – CC. flickr