Purging Sports and Humbling Men: The Lance Armstrong Affair

The entire decade was one big bluff

— Filippo Simeoni, on the Tour de France

He was the superman of the sport, the untouchable product of well honed athleticism.  Precisely because he seemed to hum into cycling history, to purr onto the podium with feline ease, the critics grew in number, as did the questions.  Was Lance Armstrong taking something?

“There comes a point in every man’s life when he has to say, ‘Enough is enough.’  For me that time is now.  I have been dealing with claims that I cheated and had an unfair advantage in winning my seven Tours since 1997.”

The statement by Armstrong released in response to the charges of the US Anti-doping Agency is striking for its resignation, the white flag, the tone of surrender. But should this be taken as a confession?  A further reading on of the statement suggests otherwise.

For Armstrong, withdrawing from the process of confronting the USADA has been a conscious decision based on what he sees as a “one-sided” process of character defamation. “Regardless of what Travis Tygart says, there is zero physical evidence to support his outlandish and heinous claims.”  The suggestion by Armstrong, made more than once, is that they – the stuffed shirts, the paranoids, the governing class of the sport – are out to get him.  “I made myself available around the clock and around the world.  In-competition. Out of competition.  Blood.  Urine.”

The watching of cycling is one of the more peculiar pastimes for the sporting voyeur. If golf is the spoiling of a good walk, then watching cycling is the thief of time.  What probably saves the Tour de France from obscurity and total disgrace are the views that the cyclists weave past, the whisper of history to the blur of wheels.  Broadcasting stations showcase French gastronomy on route.  Move over cyclists, and let the audience feast on the local pork sausage cured in the village manner.

Then comes the decidedly false nature of the performance, the fear that those fit, colourful creatures on wheels might be conning their viewers.  That those who watch them expect a clean code of behaviour has always been ridiculous the more professional and more athletic sports has become, but that is the illusion the sporting public crave. If victory is privileged above all else, then nothing else, by virtue of that, matters.

Misplaced idolatry is a depressing thing especially for the idolaters, and Armstrong worshippers were and are many.  But the question mark was always there, because participants in international cycling have distinguished themselves not merely on the track, but in their urine samples. Doping is habitual, systematic and attractive.  The non-doped players excel as exceptions to the rule, the misfits but Armstrong’s sheer success placed him outside that category.

With all that said, the charges against Armstrong will have to be proven – something that has been impossible over the years.  Character assassinations can’t take place without appropriate ammunition, but more to the point, the act of stripping Armstrong of all his trophies has been brutal and also, curiously misplaced.  The USADA has assumed the prerogative to remove titles it did not grant to begin with, when that authority rests with the International Cycling Union (UCI), which controls the record books, and the Tour organisers.

What is striking in this alleged doping bonanza is that the UCI has been mum on the whole issue, awaiting developments from the USADA.  Supposition is no substitute for informed judgment, though that doesn’t seem to be bothering the officials of the Agency.  Nor can it be said that the runner-ups in the Tour de France can hope to have the trophies sent their way any time soon – suspicions are rampant lower down the cycling chain as well.

Pierre Bordry, former head of the French anti-doping agency, was not optimistic.  “When he’s stripped of his titles – if they do – from Mr. Armstrong – they’re not necessarily required to give them to someone else.  It’s very clear that the titles of Tour de France champion mustn’t be awarded to people who faced suspicion that they were doped, or who were.”

Immortality in sport has no royal line – it is earned, and even then, with enormous difficulties.  But its attainment is never a guarantee, whatever the pursuit, that it was somehow bought, that fate was somehow cheated in the bargain.  The awful sense in the case of Armstrong’s demise, is that fate was royally conned and for that, the purging forces will be out in force.  Armstrong’s innocence, now a small, fast vanishing footnote, will in time be irrelevant.

Binoy Kampmark was a Commonwealth Scholar at Selwyn College, Cambridge. He lectures at RMIT University, Melbourne. Email: bkampmark@gmail.com. Read other articles by Binoy.