LOCKERROOM:Recent revelations about the US Postal cycling team has put Lance Armstrong back in the spotlight for all the wrong reasons
THIS BUSINESS has a cruel way of separating the grands fromages from the small potatoes. My friend David Walsh, who has been the show-stealing Heath Ledger to Lance Armstrong’s unconvincing Christian Bale for some years now, first heard about last week’s developments “lying in a tent at Gorak Shep, 5,170 metres above sea level in the heart of Nepal”.
I, on the other hand, heard the news having just awoken from a nap in the car park of Tesco. Dublin 9. I should add that I was in the car and the car was my own. Still small potatoes.
(I have actually stayed in the tent which David mentioned. Nein, but I was supposed to be covering the Winter Olympics in Lillehammer at the time and the paper booked the place as an economy measure. Best relationship I ever had with a yak mind you. Not really. Yaks are the male of their species and quite prudish).
Anyway, Lance Armstrong. There is footage of a typical Lance moment on YouTube. Paul Kimmage, like David Walsh, one of the Sunday Timesgalacticos, has turned up at a press conference and asked a question. Armstrong knows Kimmage well, pretends not to know who is asking the question. Fine. He then chooses the fact Paul has used cancer as a metaphor for the baleful influence on his sport of Armstrong and the whiff of cordite he carries. Not a fan evidently of Solzhenitzyn's Cancer Wardhe berates Paul for having offended cancer sufferers everywhere. It's cheap, tawdry bullying stuff which draws not a demurring grumble from the other cowed hacks gazing up at Armstrong. And the question never gets answered. Yep, it's cheap but it takes neck, cojones, nerve.
Drug cheats are different. The rest of us fail morally out of weakness or stumbling or laziness, whatever our own Achilles’ heel. We fail because on the long road failing is easier.
Drug cheats aren’t men or women taking short cuts, however. The injection, the ingestion, the transfusion, whatever gets you to the podium, isn’t a short-cut. It’s a supplement to ferocious work. It allows you recover quickly. It allows you do still more. And in the mania to succeed that makes it justifiable in certain minds.
Talk to drug cheats and they will often say if their sport were entirely clean they would still be the ones on top. They talk of realities and smelling the coffee and opening your eyes. They tell you of the work they do. The blood, the sweat and the tears. They do so much and then get beaten? By somebody who could be a cheat. That’s for suckers.
Taking the needle, the pill, the patch just means you aren’t the victim when the medals are given out. Your Mama didn’t raise you to be no victim now, did she? You have got the most out of yourself, you recovered better but nature allows some people to recover quickly anyway (is that fair? No, you levelled the playing pitch).
I’ve sat in press conferences with people who have later transpired to be cheats and I genuinely think that at the time of speaking their sense of belief in themselves, in the righteousness of what they have secretly done, means they would pass any polygraph test. They don’t see themselves as cheats, they don’t see themselves as polluting an entire sport, they don’t see themselves as making the game toxic and bogus for every kid that comes behind. They see themselves as pioneers, out there, pushing the envelope. Always one step ahead of the regular Joe Schmo.
You’ve seen Marion and Linford and others hectoring the press, the moral indignation flaring in their eyes. You dare to ask? YOU DARE TO ASK! It’s a high-wire act but it has to be performed with chutzpah, without ever looking down.
You don’t have to still believe in Lance Armstrong to understand his ongoing presence within the sport of cycling is metastasising into something else week by week. His ego, his hectoring, bullying presence, his ability to call upon those who depend upon him to defend these things that hurt and divide the sport of cycling.
Whatever Armstrong has done away from that sport, however inspiring his Live Strong programme, he stands or fall as an icon on the authenticity of his achievements. Floyd Landis last week became the fifth member of the US Postal cycling team to open up about the culture of cheating and drug taking within the outfit.
As US Postal’s leading star (and also a shareholder), Lance Armstrong asks us to believe either he was unaware of the shenanigans going on all around him within his team or that Frankie Andreu, Manuel Beltran, Floyd Landis, Roberto Heras and Tyler Hamilton have decided individually or in concert to drag their icon down. The only other conclusion which can be drawn, and there is other steamy evidence to support that conclusion, is Armstrong is up to his eyes in duplicity.
The trouble with making the case against Armstrong is that the evidence is a spider’s web of stories and cases, a forensic whodunit which few people have the patience to sit through. There is no whisky in the jar. No Balco bust, no sensational failed test. Just a lot of shade and darkness and an increasing number of stories and testimonies which lead one to the same conclusion about Lance Armstrong.
Perhaps all those former team-mates and former friends and former employees who have denounced Lance have their motivations, but their stories are so detailed and their perspectives on things so different it is impossible to see a pattern other than disillusionment.
In the end Lance lives within the bubble of cycling, a world which must defend him because were he to fall nobody could believe in cycling again for decades. They must shield him and nod when he bullies people and they must honour him as if they have never had the slightest shred of suspicion. He is the meal ticket. You don’t ask if your meal ticket is counterfeit.
The story has momentum again now. One suspects Armstrong couldn’t stay away from cycling and now that he has returned things will continue to unravel, facades will continue to crumble, perceptions will continue to change. If the icon topples. There are a lot of men and women in blazers who will be joining us in the world of the small potatoes. Waiting has never been so fascinating whether you are doing it at altitude or in the car park at Tesco.