Wednesday October 24, 2012
Armstrong’s big and costly disgrace now fully complete
By JOHN LEICESTER
PARIS: There was an Armstrong who walked on the moon and another, Louis, who sang sweet jazz. But Lance Armstrong, seven-time Tour de France winner?
That never happened.
“He deserves to be forgotten in cycling,” the sport’s boss, Pat McQuaid, said yesterday as he erased Armstrong’s victories from the record books of the race that made him a global celebrity.
It felt - and was - truly momentous. The crash-landing in a spectacular plunge from grace. The moment of impact between the truth and years of lies. Official acceptance - first from the head of cycling’s governing body, then from the boss of the Tour - that the fairytale of a cancer survivor who won the world’s most storied bicycle race was, in fact, the biggest fraud in the history of sport.
“A landmark day for cycling,” McQuaid, president of the International Cycling Union, said at a news conference in Geneva. “Lance Armstrong has no place in cycling.”
In Paris, at another press call, Tour director Christian Prudhomme added: “Lance Armstrong is no longer the winner of the Tour de France from 1999-2005.”
Sports stars have imploded before. There were Marion Jones’ tears outside a US District Court in 2007 after the three-time Olympic champion pleaded guilty to lying to federal investigators about her use of performance-enhancing drugs. There are dark stains of doping on plenty of other big names, past and present, in other sports, too. Sports and doping have long gone together, because as long as people are trying to win, there’ll always be some who will do that by cheating.
But no sporting icon peddled a tale quite like Armstrong’s. The Texan from a broken home who became a world champion, then was struck down by testicular cancer that spread to his lungs and brain, but who still rolled up in 1999 at the Tour, a three-week endurance test so tough that it has defeated many men who didn’t endure chemotherapy and carry the scars of tumor-removing surgery.
The previous year, 1998, had been a disaster for the Tour - with a major drug bust and police raids at the race. Armstrong - bold, brash and, as it turned out, unbeatable - seemed a year later like a fresh start. His back-from-the-dead story brought new interest and life for cycling and the Tour that had been sickened by riders’ rampant use of a banned blood-booster, EPO, then undetectable. For other people affected by the disease he survived, Armstrong became the living embodiment of the idea that willpower can overcome any obstacle - be it cancer or an Alp.
Armstrong was, in short, a survivor and a winner. That combination made him appear like a monument to many, both in and outside of cycling. It made him rich, friendly with presidents and pop stars, and enabled his Livestrong cancer-fighting foundation to raise hundreds of millions of dollars. It also gave him influence and a moral high ground he used to silence and belittle critics who dared to suggest he was doping, that his story was too good to be true.
Because the doping doubts were always there from 1999, even if too few sports administrators, sponsors, journalists and other riders paid sufficient attention to them. “Witch hunt,” said Armstrong.
That became one of his favoured phrases.
It was the same one he used in 2010, when federal investigator Jeff Novitzky dug into doping in cycling and Armstrong’s role in it.
It was the phrase Armstrong directed at the US Anti-Doping Agency - the organization that eventually nailed him, succeeding where everyone else and hundreds of drug tests failed.
USADA did that by getting former teammates to talk.
USADA’s 1,000-page dossier, published Oct 10, was damning because it included affidavits from 11 of Armstrong’s former teammates - page after page of testimony about injections with EPO and banned blood transfusions, of being supplied with EPO by Armstrong and seeing him inject, of being pressured to dope and bullied by Armstrong and Johan Bruyneel, the team manager and brains behind Armstrong’s Tour wins. The weight, the detail, the precision of the testimonies was together so much more compelling than the fact that Armstrong, as he so liked to remind everyone, never failed a drug test. In fact, it helped elucidate how that could be. Former teammates explained how they used subterfuge to beat testers.
And USADA’s report looked so complete - the final word, really, on whether Armstrong cheated - that for McQuaid and his federation to ignore the evidence would have been almost unthinkable. There was speculation before his Monday press call about what McQuaid would say. In hindsight, however, it was clear he had little choice than to rubberstamp USADA’s conclusions, ban him and take away his Tour wins, white-out all that yellow - the colour of the Tour leader’s maillot jaune jersey - that Armstrong expropriated as his color and that of Livestrong.
Now, on the wreckage of the demolition of the Armstrong myth, cycling has to rebuild its credibility. There’s an Alp of still unanswered questions about who else may have facilitated doping in the Armstrong years, who else was involved, whether they should be encouraged to confess and how that might be done.
“Cycling has a future,” McQuaid said. He quoted JFK in saying that cycling’s biggest ever crisis is also “an opportunity.”
But this didn’t feel like the time or place for that. Not when the frightening enormity of the past is still sinking in.
Armstrong - a pariah in the sport that turned him from a nobody to a somebody and, now, back to a nobody again.
“This is the story of a real talent who lost his way,” said Prudhomme, the Tour director.
That downfall cannot, should not, be forgotten. — AFP