The news, reported by the New York Times, that Lance Armstrong is preparing to confess his sins reminds me of this passage from the Book of Daniel:
Thou, O king, sawest, and behold a great image. This great image, whose brightness was excellent, stood before thee; and the form thereof was terrible. This image’s head was of fine gold, his breast and his arms of silver, his belly and his thighs of brass, His legs of iron, his feet part of iron and part of clay.
Remember, however, that golden-sunned afternoon in Paris in the summer of 2005. On the Champs-Elysees Lance Armstrong, the undisputed titan of his era, stands atop a podium to deliver a message to the masses thronged before him:
“I’ll say to the people who don’t believe, the cynics and the sceptics, I’m sorry for you. I’m sorry you don’t believe in miracles.”
Miracles! Flanked by his vanquished rivals Jan Ullrich and Ivan Basso, Armstrong continues:
“This is one hell of a race. This is a great sporting event and you should stand around and believe it. You should believe in these athletes, and you should believe in these people. I’ll be a fan of the Tour de France for as long as I live. And there are no secrets – this is a hard sporting event and hard work wins it. Vive Le Tour.”
Out of the mouths of champions, thou hast perfected cynicism. In 2007 Basso was suspended from cycling for two years on account of doping and, even though never caught, Ullrich is generally considered to have been a doper too. Some of us never believed in the guy who beat them either.
I suppose, in my more charitably-minded moments, I don’t really blame those who wanted to believe. It was a hell of a story. Albeit one told by perhaps the greatest cheat in the history of professional sport. Certainly the most sanctimonious. How many others have offered themselves as a kind of redemptive Jesus? But this Jesus was just Barabbas in a Yellow Jersey.
Now, it is suggested, he is ready to confess. Brace yourself for more sycophantic guff praising Armstrong’s courage, his frankness, his willingness to reveal, for once and forever, the real truth behind cycling’s Age of Shame. Pass the puke-musette.
Armstrong, buttressed by an ineffable measure of self-belief, demanded we believe in the improbable. The improbable is part of cycling’s DNA; we crave the impossible. But there was never deception on this scale or accompanied by this quantity of cynicism. Armstrong asked us to believe in a kind of saviour. To their shame, millions did. From fans-with-laptops churning out an endless stream of hagiographical articles that even then reeked of bullshit to the easily-gulled boobs who just wanted a champion in which to place their faith, the Myth of Armstrong proved just the kind of thing in which men – and women too – want to believe. The Resurrection of Lance was too good a story to doubt.
Those who did – almost none of them Americans by the way – were heretics. Leprous too, frankly. According to no less an authority than Armstrong himself, David Walsh (perhaps Lance’s chief persecutor) was nothing more than a “fucking little troll”. Some troll. Some journalist too, mind you.
And yet almost none of the hacks who dismissed Walsh as just another bitter, little, anti-American euro-weenie have seen fit to apologise to Walsh, Pierre Balestre, Paul Kimmage or anyone else who poked and prodded at the Armstrong Myth. We can see more clearly now but for months (years, really) Armstrong boosters such as Rick Reilly (of ESPN) or Sally Jenkins (of the Washington Post) have chosen to ignore the story. It took Jenkins, Armstrong’s greatest propagandist, more than three months to address the confirmation that her man was a cheat. Her response? It doesn’t matter. Changes nothing. And anyway Lance was a victim. Blame the system.
As recently as August these people complained that USADA was engaged on a “witchhunt” designed to destroy Armstrong even though he’d never failed a drugs test (a claim which is most probably untrue and does not become less untrue the more it is repeated). But now, now that Armstrong is revealed as perhaps the greatest doper in cycling history? Nothing. Or almost nothing.
In August, when Armstrong announced he had no intention of contesting USADA’s findings, Buzz Bissinger – another fan armed with a laptop and nothing more than a keen sense of slavish devotion – wrote:
I still believe in Lance Armstrong. I believe his decision had nothing to do with fear of being found guilty in a public setting before an arbitration panel, but the emotional and mental toll of years and years of fighting charges that have never been officially substantiated—despite stemming all the way back to 1999.
He is a hero, one of the few we have left in a country virtually bereft of them. And he needs to remain one.
Did he use enhancers? Maybe I am the one who is blind, but I take him at his word and don’t believe it; he still passed hundreds of drug tests, many of them given randomly. But even if he did take enhancers, so what?
What point is being served here besides the USADA’s own desperation to prove to the public that it is cleaning up sports? It’s a slam job, and Armstrong is the victim of that slam. It has been that way for 13 years, an almost pathological desire by a select group of haters to bring him down—either out of jealousy or a determination to make a name for themselves. If he was the only one in cycling suspected of doping, then by all means tar and feather him. But he is not. Not even close. He is a target, the biggest target there is, the perfect symbol for the USADA to prove its existence.”
So what? 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. Fausto Coppi said you took drugs when you needed to and that was often all the time. Jacques Anquetil and Eddy Merckx each failed drug tests. Bernard Hinault made it clear he considered hormonal “rebalancing” a useful, even necessary part of the sport. It was natural and it wasn’t really a big deal.
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.
Faith is definitionally an irrational thing. There are still those who do not want to believe in Armstrong’s guilt. If the sceptics were more charitably minded we’d bestow some sympathy upon the poor rump of remaining believers. At least we might if there weren’t so many of them.
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?
In one sense, however, we are all complicit. Suffering is the quintessence of cycling. Without suffering cycling is just a pastime and even at the highest level little more than an exhibition. Without suffering, mythic conquests are unachievable. Without suffering there is no glory. And cycling, more than most sports, is predicated upon glory. No pain, no glory. No glory, no sport.
And so we are in a sense responsible. We drive them to this too and they suffer for the sins of our expectations. There is a measure of guilt here, a degree in which all us fans are the assassins of legend. Ventoux. Tourmalet. Alpe d’Huez. These are just some of the stations of the cross on July’s tour of Calvary. Is it a coincidence that cycling’s ancestral heartlands are catholic places? Maybe, but the codes of omertà and penitence that have governed the peloton are not perhaps so very different from those we recognise in the church itself or, come to think of it, Italy’s erstwhile Christian Democrats.
This is not all new. Byron’s line on ancient gladiators is apt. They, grimly, were “butchered to make a Roman holiday”. If there were no innocents in the Coliseum there are precious few on the slopes of the Croix de Fer either.
Does any of it matter? Dino Buzzati, an Italian cycling journalist, once asked if “this strange thing called the Giro d’Italia” was “of any use”. He concluded, “Of course it is. It is a stronghold of romanticism besieged by the squalid forces of progress.” Remember this, however: in the Armstrong case the cynics or the skeptics were the romantics. They – we – were the ones who wanted something better, something more noble, something greater from the sport. Armstrong and his team represented the apogee of squalid progress. Their much-vaunted attention to detail was quite something.
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.
That’s worth a raised eyebrow or two, no? Something that the cycling authorities might wish to answer. Don’t hold your breath, however. The USADA report doesn’t quite say so but reading between the lines there’s the clear implication that Armstrong’s teams received favourable treatment from cycling’s discredited rulers. And why not? Armstrong was bringing millions to the sport and attracting – at least temporarily – new audiences for professional cycling in the United States and elsewhere. Why would you want to risk all that? And just for a measly failed drug test – allegedly – at the Tour of Switzerland? Sheesh.
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.
True, Tommy Simpson had died on the barren slopes of Mont Ventoux in 1967 but that was unusual and due to a toxic combination of amphetamines and heat exhaustion. It was shocking but it was also unusual. A dreadful one-off, not part of a pattern of healthy young men in their 20s going to sleep and never waking up.
It isn’t, you see, just about the drugs it’s about what kind of drugs too. Amphetamines to get through a packed calendar of post-tour exhibition races? Not such a big deal in the grander scheme of things. EPO, blood transfusions and Human Growth Hormone to transform all too human flesh into some kind of human-android hybrid? That’s a different deal entirely. Not everyone understands this. Here was Robert Lipsyte, former New York Times columnist, writing in the New Republic:
“Wasting funds, energy, and the attention of citizens, the anti-dopers generally stay a half-life behind the dopers, who are driven to keep giving us the bigger, faster, more spectacularly vicious thrills we demand. By now, even fantasy leaguers understand performance-enhancing techniques don’t promise success beyond the chance to heal faster from harder and more frequent workouts.”
Lipsyte admits he only knows anything about cycling because of Lance Armstrong and, to be frank, this shows. 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.
The justification for taking drugs in cycling is that stimulants are a necessary requirement for completing the course. This is, to some extent, true. Most of us can run a 100 metre race; none of us can contemplate, far less survive, the Giro, Tour or Vuelta. Even the one-day classics – a series of races disgracefully shunned by Armstrong – are pretty gruelling. We amateur fans might manage to haul our asses along the route but, by god, those of us who know anything about cycling know how tough – and how glorious – those races are. But a race can be dirty or clean; it cannot really be neither one thing nor the other. Armstrong’s fraud was to proclaim his races were the latter when they were actually the former. It made him millions.
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.