Giants of sport cast shadows. None have been bigger than those cast by Lance Armstrong and Tiger Woods. They are era-defining sportsmen. Since the late nineties they have dominated the sporting landscape. In a recent memoir by Tiger Woods’ coach Hank Haney, the golfer was painted as miserly because he never even offered the coach a ‘popsicle’ from his fridge. In contrast Armstrong’s fridge door was always open for team-mates to dope. Tiger has seen his off course exploits strewn all over the headlines since his brush with a fire hydrant outside his Florida home which demolished his squeaky clean façade. But Tiger’s achievements on the course are undiminished. No cloud hangs over his 14 major championships. Armstrong’s legacy is now rubbished.
Lance Armstrong’s memoir depicting his redemptive struggle against cancer and his subsequent unprecedented seven Tour De France titles was called, ‘It’s Not About The Bike’. Armstrong was right. It was never about the bike. It was about the most elaborate doping scandal in sporting history. Armstrong was its leader according to the United States Anti-Doping Agency’s (Usada) report which was released last night.
I was once a supporter of Armstrong. Having read his books and followed events I bought into his propaganda. It was naivety on my part; a want to believe in a neat sporting hero story, a miracle comeback from the de profundis of cancer to the peaks of the Alps. When Armstrong announced that he would no longer seek to defend his name those who previously fought for him had to re-evaluate events. Anyone who has followed his story knows that he never gives up. So his resignation was a clear white flag, an indirect admission of guilt. Armstrong still hides behind a proclaimed innocence clinging on somehow to the fact that he never failed a drug test on the tour. Of course that is not entirely true as he did fail a test in 1999 but the UCI, cycling’s governing body, accepted a backdated medical prescription as evidence and the positive was struck from the record.
On the 24th of August Lance publicly withdrew his fight against the Usada. Armstrong is a master tactician, he knew that this fight was too big even for him. But expect a retort from the ‘Livestrong’ camp. For the moment he seemed willing to accept the guilt that has come from the Usada report rather than fight it in public. But the game is up for Lance. His seven Tour De France titles, won from 1999 – 2005, were stripped from him and he was given a lifetime ban from the sport. Fighting the charges would have led to a public trial where all the evidence would be fleshed out. It seems that even by giving in he couldn’t prevent the public humiliation. However he knows that a sentimental few will not be swayed by this overwhelming proof. Even that crowd is thinning. Nike, his sponsors, have stood by him. But the litmus test will come when he has to fulfil public appearances for them. If he is booed Nike will face a public opinion dilemma.
Over the years the Sunday Times correspondent David Walsh fought a public battle against Armstrong in his search for the truth. Walsh was the original whistleblower. On the day Lance won his first Tour title in 1999 Walsh was a lone sceptic. He wrote in his column, “This afternoon I will be keeping my arms by my side because I’m not sure this is something we should applaud.” His questioning at the time was just an instinct from someone who was immersed in the tour. Initially he lacked the evidence but he built his case. Written off as a cynic he saw himself ostracised by his colleagues who had too much to lose by alienating Armstrong. For instance, he was excluded from a press van by fellow journalists for fear that Lance would see him riding with them and they’d miss out on copy. We have recently seen this type of behaviour, from the Catholic Church to the BBC, whereby the institution is protected rather than the behaviour condemned. Armstrong’s legal machine fought a libel war quashing any allegations that surfaced. He took action against Walsh and the Sunday Times and won a settlement. Yesterday’s report is a vindication for Walsh who spent a decade rightfully questioning the biggest name in cycling.
The damning 1,000 page Usada report states that Armstrong not only doped but actively promoted the use of doping amongst his US Postal and Discovery teams. The mantra went that cycling was a dirty sport and Armstrong’s team were going to be the best at those dark arts. If racers didn’t comply they were excluded and there would be no place for them on the team. Nobody is trying to say Armstrong acted alone in this. He needed the active support and collusion of his Italian team doctor named Michelle Ferrari. Ferrari ensured that Lance and his doping team were always ahead of the testing. Extracts online show details of Armstrong depositing large sums into Ferrari’s account. At times they seemed to mock the authorities lack of sophistication in chasing them.
Cycling’s omerta has been lifted as eleven former team-mates of Armstrong gave sworn testimony against him and detailed their involvement in the conspiracy. In return for this cooperation they have had their bans reduced. George Hincapie, who rode with Armstrong for his seven tour victories, admitted his role in the doping. Those previously put off by Armstrong’s litigation monster will find voice. With the publishing of this report we will no longer see evidence surface as though through a drip instead reams will appear buoyed by the mountain of evidence.
For many this report is just confirmation. For those who asked, “where’s the evidence” it’s all here. For a brave few it’s vindication. One question remains, will Lance Armstrong ever come clean to the world and those loyal fans he has duped for so long? But might there be a bigger question here. Where is the rehabilitation for those who abuse performance enhancing drugs in sport? Armstrong has no incentive to break his own silence, what would be his motivation for confessing?