Saturday, 21 July 2012

Armstrong - Legacy or Liability?

June 15th 2012

As I read through the quotes and predictable responses from Lance Armstrong concerning reports of the decision by USADA in the cycling online press on Wednesday 14th June, it brought two particular things to my mind. The first was that I had been procrastinating about writing a letter to Procycling to comment on the article by Jan Van Gestel in the June 2012 issue, "Enforcing the Rules" which had read as pure - if inadvertent - "LiveStrong" PR to me. The second was that every article and report for about the past decade or so on the subject, was invariably rubber stamped with the disclaimer, "Armstrong, who has never tested positive…".

When Lance made an unexpected return to the Peloton in 2009, it was interesting to watch him suffer like an amateur, barely able to follow a wheel properly, in the Tour of California. His colleagues likely observed Armstrong's humbling purgatory with wry amusement, although I surmise round about none of them were brave enough to invoke the legendary wrath of the former Tour de France 'Patron' by making this known. Mortal, Lance Armstrong might have become, but I'm willing to bet that most of the Peloton were still S*** scared of him. Still, by the time the Giro came around, I was starting to be impressed. Not by his performances, which were modest by his standards and most of his peers, but by the fact that he was there at all after such a long break from the sport, almost 4 years older and weaker. He appeared to be suffering himself into contention for the Tour with that same obsessive determination that had aided 7 straight victories.

It therefore comes as a disappointment (if not a surprise) that some of his blood samples from "Comeback 2.0" were "fully consistent with blood manipulation including EPO use and/or blood transfusions" according to a report by the Washington Post detailing a letter apparently sent to Armstrong by USADA. Like many others, I'd been prepared to "move on" as far as Armstrong was concerned, and accept his brief return to the sport at face value in terms of his insistences that he was clean, even if I didn't believe the suffix that he had “never doped”. Surely I thought, he wouldn't be stubbornly dumb enough to dope the second (third?) time around, especially since his departure from the Tour in 2005 looked more like a getaway than a retirement, as his past appeared to be rapidly catching up with him, courtesy of "L'Equipe", Pierre Ballester and David Walsh among others. Planet Armstrong it seemed, couldn't get out of France fast enough.

There were early signs that this benefit of the doubt for the 'new' and 'transparent' Armstrong was wishful thinking though, not the least being the brevity of his relationship with a prominent anti-doping expert. Possibly Armstrong had found himself to be far weaker than he himself had expected for his second sojourn into the Grand Boucle, or perhaps he had simply been doping, lying and cheating himself and everyone else for so long that he no longer knew how to ride confidently and competitively without it? We may never know, and Lance is perhaps more likely to disown his mother before confessing. Still, if you read between the lines of his tedious, scripted, responses that we've all heard a thousand times before, you can feel a faint hint of death-bed type repentance, straining to break free. But only just. Maybe seething inside is that Jack Nicholson moment from "A Few Good Men" when he rages at an astonished Cruise "You're goddamn right I did!" Perhaps Armstrong is even more sick of sticking to his mantra than we are.

Nevertheless, sticking to it he is. Never mind the fact that for the majority of his tenure, the drug of choice, EPO was first undetectable, then barely detectable, by which time Armstrong and his Entourage had, by numerous accounts, moved onto even more undetectable blood doping techniques, then around the time tests or at least preventative measures were appearing against these methods, Lance was shuffling off into retirement 1.0. Since we would be hard pressed to find a protagonist for the "Mellow Johnny" (Maillot Jaune) from the period of Armstrong's dominating run who wasn't implicated in a doping scandal, if not actually sanctioned for an offence, and considering the very real evidence of how great an effect blood manipulation has on performance, Armstrong's insistence that he was clean while running rings round all these top athletes who were doped - as one US lawyer put it - "doesn't even pass the straight face test".

Still, it's not all about Armstrong is it? As the aforementioned observation affirms we're left with the conundrum that will undoubtedly be faced by USADA and the UCI if matters progress to the point of stripping Armstrong of his 7 Tour victories (not to mention his 3rd place in 2009 and his wins in races like Bradley Wiggins current title, Criterium du Dauphine), which is: who on earth do they award the titles to? Perhaps they would simply have to label them "Result Void". Lance may well be counting on the whole thing "going away" as abruptly and unexpectedly (to some - not to me) as the original Federal investigation into the practices of Armstrong, Bruyneel and their associates. Armstrong has friends in high places - the kind that can make such charges disappear - to the obvious consternation and outrage of those investigators and law enforcement officials who had diligently done their jobs and unearthed many a sordid secret from the nineties/noughties peloton. But perhaps Lance didn't need to call in a favour from one of his connections and here perhaps, and in my view, we come to the crux.

Armstrong's story of a poor, fatherless Texas boy made good, his determination to succeed and most importantly, his triumphant return from cancer to win the Tour seven straight times, sticking it to those "Old Europe" dinosaurs at the same time is the epitome of the myth that Americans propagate and perpetuate about themselves. It is the myth of the "American Dream" wrapped up in "American Exceptionalism" which the United States uses as a licence to enforce its will on the rest of the world. The late American Comedian and Satirist, George Carlin said "They call it the American Dream, because you have to be asleep to believe it". If the Armstrong story is proved to be a fake, if Lance is forced to make a tearful confession, or perhaps even worse retreat into silence and seclusion in the face of overwhelming evidence against him, it will be shattering for many who cling onto that dream, and perhaps even damaging to the US psyche as a whole.

In essence, the true meaning of the toppling of Lance Armstrong from sporting's Pedestal, (and I'm restraining my temptation to be political here) is that it will epitomise the corruption at the heart of the United States, which like all Empires in terminal, economic and moral decline, becomes more rotten at the core as it descends. Those who aren't comfortable with accepting this rationale should for an example, take a long hard look at the amorality in the US Finance industry in recent years, with not one single conviction in a court of law that I'm aware of. (I could comment about Drone strikes and Rendition, but this is a cycling article so I won't). It therefore becomes institutionally and instinctively prudent, for decision makers in the bureaucracy, to sweep things under the carpet. That's already been done once and it might well be done again. The USADA is likely to come under intense pressure from the same quarters of influence that buried the Federal Investigation in the first place, with or without a private phone word from Lance's retinue.

Armstrong's persistent declaration that 2+2=5, despite continually mounting evidence to the contrary, is one of the main aspects of the Texan that his French critics dislike about him and the very 'American' culture he characterizes. The doping they could perhaps forgive, his attitude however, was more problematic. Jeremy Whittle, in his seminal book "Bad Blood" in which he revealed his own deteriorating relationship with Armstrong in the face of the latter's tendency to blacklist those who raised the doping issue in the sport, concluded that blaming young riders for surrendering to doping practices in such a culture, was akin to blaming factory chickens for getting fat. However, for over a decade, Armstrong has been the primary promoting face of the Peloton and therefore his behaviour and attitude to Cycling's problems, not to mention his bullying of riders like Christophe Bassons and Fillipo Simeoni, would translate as the image of the sport to the watching world.

And it wasn't a pretty picture.

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