Armstrong still cheating, still looking down

Sat, Oct 13, 2012, 01:00

ATHLETICS:If there is one last, sorry conflict to Lance Armstrong’s fall from grace it’s how he so emotionally drew in so many admirers, and how he was, and perhaps still is, such an inspiration to so many

‘NEVER LOOK down on anybody unless you’re helping them up.” The Rev Jesse Jackson said that – and it’s what Mark Rohan now says is one of the lessons of his sporting life.

Long before Rohan won two gold medals at the Paralympics in London, he vowed to put something back into his sport, help it empower people the way it did himself, which is why later today, he’ll be giving a presentation on handcycling at the Paralympics Ireland talent search event at UCD.

The purpose is not just to identify those athletes with a disability that might be capable of success on the world stage, ideally at the 2016 Paralympics in Rio, but also to inspire and motivate them, and ultimately help them rise above whatever unfortunate circumstances life has thrown at them, that perhaps had left certain people looking down on them.

Not easily done these days, not when we’re all left wondering if there really is such a thing as the true sporting icon anymore. I can still fondly remember when it felt like the entire sporting world was looking up to Lance Armstrong, and not just those of us cycling over the Wicklow Gap on a Sunday morning – using his tolerance for pain as our inspiration, while the wind hurled derision at our efforts.

Now it’s hard to know where to look for inspiration. Although after meeting Rohan, for the first time, handling his two gold medals, and talking about how he was handling the changes in his life since his success in London, it seems there is at least still room for the more modest sporting inspirations: the difference is in remembering that pride always comes before a fall.

It’s almost 11 years to the day now since Rohan fell off his motorbike, not far from his home at Ballinahown, in Westmeath. He was 20 years old, had a promising Gaelic football career, and in the impact of the crash broke several bones in his back, chest, legs and feet, and tore his aorta. When he eventually came to in the hospital he was told he was paralysed from the chest down. Sport then became his inspiration, only in a far deeper sense, basketball at first, then handcycling, where the freedom of the open road removed all sense of disability.

Then, when he returned home from the Paralympics last month, after his double gold medal-winning performance at the famous old Brands Hatch course, Rohan suddenly realised he had become an inspirational figure, emails and letters came from all over the country, praising what he had achieved, and the incentive he was providing for others to do the same. With dreams he knew begins responsibility.

“The thing is, I would never put anyone on a pedestal,” Rohan says, “and I don’t think anyone should. Not too much, anyway. I would just take different pieces from different people. And as a cyclist, I would have my inspirations. Like I’ve just been reading Seán Kelly’s book. It’s out of print now, written by David Walsh, but someone got it for me. I just think anyone who respects athletes has to say this guy was, you know, tough.”

Then, without, prompting, Rohan mentions somebody else. “And someone like Lance Armstrong. But I wouldn’t focus on one individual. Because I read lots of sports biographies, or people in general.”

If there is one last, sorry conflict to Armstrong’s now utterly scarred fall from grace, the now undeniable timeline that proves all the truths about his cycling career add up to one big lie, it’s how he so emotionally drew in so many admirers, and how he was, and in some cases perhaps still is, such an inspiration to so many.

“Unflinchingly documents a remarkable journey,” says one of the endorsements on the back of his first book, It’s Not About the Bike, published in 2001, and still the best selling sports book in the history of Amazon.

It’s not that long since it seemed that anyone who had ever read a book credited It’s Not About the Bike as one of their favourites, and presumably not just because of the way Armstrong recounted his battle with cancer. Because, as it turned out, It’s Not About the Bike was nearly all about the bike.

The only problem now is that his remarkable journey is similarly unflinchingly documented in the United States Anti-Doping Agency’s (Usada) “Reasoned Decision”, which like many people I sat up reading late on Wednesday night, scrolling through the PDF files with more grim fascination than even the mighty Knut Hamsun could have mustered.

To anyone who had already read Willy Voet’s Breaking the Chain, or more recently The Secret Race, Tyler Hamilton’s blazing tale of his days in the peloton, there was nothing particularly surprising about the “Reasoned Decision”, beyond the lengths Armstrong apparently went to stay one step ahead of the drug testers – so that those now labelling him a “serial cheater” are actually being generous.

On releasing the “Reasoned Decision”, Usada chief executive Travis Tygart warmly praised those who finally stood up to the Armstrong lie.

“It is not easy to admit your mistakes and accept your punishment. But that is what these riders have done for the good of the sport, and for the young riders who hope to one day reach their dreams without using dangerous drugs or methods,” he said.

“In some part, it would have been easier for them if it all would just go away; however, they love the sport, and they want to help young athletes have hope that they are not put in the position they were – to face the reality that in order to climb to the heights of their sport they had to sink to the depths of dangerous cheating. Lance Armstrong was given the same opportunity to come forward and be part of the solution. He rejected it.”

When former Clare All Star hurler Tony Griffin spoke about this on Thursday – a man who I know drew a great deal of inspiration from Armstrong during his 7,000km cycle across Canada in 2005, and actually managed to get Armstrong to write the forward for his book, Screaming at the Sky – the lingering regret isn’t so much the way Armstrong cheated so many others as it is the way he’s still cheating himself.

“My own personal belief is that we do not have the right to judge one another,” says Griffin. “We can comment on the actions but know that none of us have the right to condemn the person. Yet Lance Armstrong as an iconic figure to many, as a friend, father, son and as a man has a responsibility to clearly outline what is the truth here and set a precedent that will in time have positive ramifications across the world and strike a chord at every level of society.”

That, it seems, says it all, and what might be hounding Armstrong’s former admirers now – far more than the list of doping products he once abused – is that having once stood on that pedestal, embracing the inspiration he had become, defending an existence that reached out to help others, Armstrong was and is still arrogantly looking down.

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