Time and truth finally catch up on Armstrong


TIPPING POINT:Cycling must learn from the galling thought that that the American almost rode into the sunset with money and reputation intact

Lance Armstrong is reportedly worth about $125 million. Maybe that will be sufficient consolation for him – maybe. More likely it will allow him a more comfortable misery. At the risk of verging into Hollywood schmaltz, it’s hard to put a value on being able to look at yourself in the mirror and feeling comfortable with what’s staring back. Armstrong is 40 now, hopefully at least only halfway through his life. That’s a lot of pretending not to care about what people are saying about you.

Maybe the money will provide him with enough privacy to not worry about that – maybe.

What that kind of money certainly allows Armstrong is the resources to be able to fight the US Anti-Doping Agency (Usada) through any courtroom he wanted, tie the thing up in knots for a long time, maintaining the pretence for even more years. But he isn’t doing so. And since Armstrong is famously thorough in his thought-processes, one can only conclude he has engaged in damage control, preferring this route and putting a brake on some of the evidence the Usada were prepared to unveil.

That he has raised such an ignominious white flag has been surprising but hardly shocking to anyone who has bothered to rationally look at the scale of cycling’s deception over the last 15 years and it has probably pleased the platoons of faceless suits in the sport’s administration as well as a corporate engine that gladly bought into the Armstrong myth for as long as it suited them.

Since the amount of money involved in that world makes Lance’s nine figures look paltry, the chances of the suits facing the sort of public opprobrium as Armstrong are about as realistic as hopes that those who finished behind the American in all those famous races were Aled Jones-like innocents when it came to being beaten up by the big, bad drug-cheat.

But you never know. After all, time wounds all heels. Groucho Marx said that. Some claim it for John Lennon but it was Groucho. And he’d have said it knowingly. The only Marxist ever worth following realised only too well how bogus dictums are.

Most heels don’t even get a scratch. But Armstrong has.

Maybe there are some out there who will object to Armstrong being described in such terms. He is after all a cancer survivor, an emotive achievement he has used for a considerable amount of good over the years but also employed as a sort of emotional blackmail. In America especially, his life-story allowed him to be portrayed as a near-secular saint, the blue-eyed son of apple-pie America getting ragged on by those darn “Yerpeens”. And yet it is the American authorities that have eventually caught up with him.

The result will be a lot of disillusionment in a country that likes its heroes clean-cut and uncomplicated, especially since Armstrong’s surrender comes on the back of Tiger’s tupping, Mark McGwire’s steroid abuse and any number of souped-up cheats in higher-faster-stronger land.

Already the hand-wringing has started, with much media coverage mostly revolving around the theme of what-can-we-believe-anymore? Say it ain’t so, and all that.

Regular readers of this space may by now have deduced an occasional acidity in tone, a glass-half-empty scepticism when it comes to the more ridiculously grandiose postures assumed by some sporting figures and their more excitable cheerleaders.

When it comes to drugs in sport, if something looks too good to be true, then it probably is.

That’s an attitude that provokes flak, basically along the lines of “if you think like that, you’ll believe nothing”. Well, there are plenty who never believed a word Armstrong and his entourage of lawyers, doctors and media fondlers said, didn’t pay any heed to the continually quoted flawless testing record, and still believed in the value of pointing out the tell-tale signs in the official Armstrong narrative. And thanks to that it is possible to examine what’s happening now, and find a glass that looks damn-near half-full.

For one thing, time has eventually caught up with Armstrong, too late by far, but better than if officialdom had been left to follow its instincts.

Journalism as an industry has been having a tough time, its practitioners often despised. But it is largely thanks to the old game, or more particularly a few individuals within it, that Armstrong has been unmasked.

It is certainly a victory for some old-fashioned journalistic virtues. Tenacity, persistent questioning and gaining the trust of those with stories to tell takes time, which in turn costs money, which in turn is the last thing available in a media environment that increasingly relies on opinion and online indignation to fill space: a bit like this for example. The old yarn is that paper never refuses ink: well, online infinity refuses nothing.

Very often even the biggest media organisation’s line on a story comes down to the individual hack on the ground. A few journalists, including the Irishmen David Walsh and Paul Kimmage, have persistently queried Armstrong and paid a price along the way. Swimming against the current can be a lonely exercise, especially when that current so powerfully allows everyone involved to claim normalcy – the old everyone is at it line.

But they stuck by what seems obvious to everyone else bar those embedded deep inside the sporting bubble: that winning at all costs is not acceptable.

Very often that becomes distorted for those too close to the action. Amidst the torrent of chat-room comment about Armstrong over the weekend, one contributor pointed out how doping in cycling has come to be regarded rather like hitting the plasticine on the take-off board in the long-jump; just part of the sport, a toss-of-the-coin, worth taking a chance on.

Facilitated by a gutless administration and bank-rolled by organisations with a self-serving interest in looking away, that is exactly what Armstrong did: tossed a coin, knowing it would be heads he won and tails someone else lost.

The upside is that he has eventually been revealed to be a fraud. The awful part is that it took so long. Even now there are those who will argue he was only doing what everyone else was. And sadly there’s more than an element of truth in that.

Of the top-10 finishers in each of the seven years Armstrong won the Tour de France, more than half of them have tested positive for drugs at some stage of their careers.

Despite that, the demand will be for us to get real. Even in the days of Anquetil and Merckx, no one did the Tour on water alone.

Change the names and the event and it is a logic that transfers to every sport. It’s the way of the world, and all that.

And it’s bogus.

Because sport isn’t the real world: that’s the whole point. In the real world rules and regulations get bent to breaking point and beyond.

Often those breaking the rules get away with it, which isn’t fair. And that is the way of the world.

But sport is supposed to be a little oasis where the word “fair” continues to be relevant long past childhood. Only the delusional believe it always is but those who cheat crap on the essential principle. Armstrong has crapped on it for longer, and more remuneratively, than most.

That he was allowed do so for so long, and almost ride off into the sunset with both money and reputation, is a stain that cycling and the wider sporting context must examine truthfully. What it certainly shouldn’t be doing is concerning itself with trivia about who will replace Armstrong in the record books.

Face up to it – there was no winner. Let the record book remain blank. It will be a salutary reminder.

Time has wounded this heel: it shouldn’t have to take so long next time.

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