L’affaire Armstrong

In the post-Armstrong days, no one might actually cover the hairpins on the Alps at the pace with which the American did, and the races will have less of the melodrama. While this is perhaps the only positive fall out, the damage to the sport is surely long-term, writes N. Sudarshan.

“Twenty-plus-year career, 500 drug controls worldwide, in and out of competition. Never a failed test. I rest my case.” This was Lance Armstrong in May 2011. For close to a decade and a half, the once poster-boy of cycling, used different forms of such defences to erect a myth around him, become a hero much beyond cycling and stand as a beacon of hope to thousands of innocent cancer survivors.

Winning the Tour de France is no mean feat. To do it after having once been given 20 per cent chance of surviving cancer is almost unthinkable. Repeating it for six more years is impossible. But from 1999 to 2005 it seemed possible. In a sport so used to constantly re-arranging titles, he rode like a colossus. So much so that the colour yellow, so sacred to the Tour, was associated more with Armstrong’s cancer foundation Livestrong’s wristbands than the jersey itself.

His every word was believed. The written word especially, through two of his books — It’s Not About the Bike and Every Second Counts. Alas, these words now stand utterly discredited. In hindsight, they seem too good to be believed. But during his pomp it appeared so only to a handful of journalists, chief among them David Walsh, the chief sports writer of the Sunday Times, and the US Anti-doping Agency (USADA).

The first traces of clinching evidence appeared after his last appearance — the 2009 Tour de France. Starting 2010, the federal prosecutors probed Armstrong for the umpteenth time. The investigations were then closed in February 2012 without a reason being cited. The Texan said that it was a witch-hunt and the public as always trusted him.

But the bombshell arrived in October, when the USADA released its much awaited report that detailed the evidence collected so meticulously over the years and termed the doping programme “the most sophisticated, professionalised and successful doping programme that sport has ever seen”.

Anyone familiar with Armstrong’s history would have expected him to fight this tooth and nail. But, bizarrely, he didn’t, and instead said, “There comes a point in every man’s life when he has to say, enough is enough. For me, that time is now.” This seemed an open admission of guilt, for which he would turn remorseful in a later interview with Oprah Winfrey in January 2013. He finally admitted that through his seven Tour de France victories, from 1999 to 2005, he “took EPO, testosterone, cortisone, blood-doped and used illegal blood transfusions.”

Writing in his book Seven Deadly Sins: My Pursuit of Lance Armstrong, David Walsh narrates an incident which blew the whistle: “After his individual time trial at Metz earlier in the day, Christophe Bassons watched television coverage of the leaders in his hotel room. They travelled at a speed he couldn’t believe, for the race against the clock had once been his own speciality. He was especially interested in Armstrong’s performance because their physiological profiles weren’t that different: same height, same weight, Armstrong’s VO2 Max was 83 to Bassons’ 85. Regarded as a key barometer of athletic potential, the VO2 Max is the maximum capacity of an individual’s body to transport and use oxygen. Yet when Antoine Vayer did the maths afterwards, he told Bassons that he would have finished 6 kilometres behind Armstrong if they’d started at the same time.”

Now, in the post-Armstrong days, no one might actually cover the hairpins on the Alps at such pace and the races will have less of the melodrama. While this is perhaps the only positive fall out, the damage to the sport is surely long-term.

In an interview to Sportstar in March, the then International Cycling Union (UCI) president, Pat McQuaid, had this to say: “It is true that the Armstrong affair had a negative effect on cycling but one must remember that we are talking about activities that took place 10-15 years ago.” When the world of athletics still can’t come to terms with the “dirtiest race in history”, Ben Johnson’s 100m sprint in the 1988 Seoul Olympics, does it seem plausible to come to terms with this cycling saga?

That cycling was in the dark ages before Armstrong came was a common refrain. He has now single-handedly pushed it into the abyss. Every single race victory by anybody will now be viewed with suspicion. That 14 of the last 18 Tours have seen winners who were later penalised for doping doesn’t help. But seven of those are his. These titles are now nobody’s property. How can they be when a majority of those who could have been appointed champions in his place are already convicted dopers?

After Armstrong was caught, Bradley Wiggins, the 2012 Tour winner, said, “The anger is: I’ve got to pick up the pieces. He’s still a multi-millionaire and he’s not here to answer the questions. I can’t answer them because I’ve got to go and race.” This is the legacy that Armstrong leaves behind. Of a sport that cannot even come to terms with its tainted history let alone rectify it.