Lance Armstrong: It Wasn't Just About the Bike - Spectator Blogs

24 August 2012

12:01 PM

24 August 2012

12:01 PM

In one sense, I have some sympathy for Lance Armstrong. He has been hounded by the American anti-doping agency USADA who, like other federal agencies, are remorseless foes. Once they have their hooks in you they never let go. The usefulness of their investigations is another matter.

Even so, Armstrong’s declaration that enough is enough and that he will no longer bother to defend himself against doping charges will doubtless be seen as a capitulation. Most people, I suspect, will take his silence as an admission of guilt.

So it really wasn’t just about the bike, was it? Apparently not. The evidence against Armstrong may still – as far as the interested layman is concerned – be circumstantial but there is now so much of it that only the remaining worshipers at the Cult of Armstrong can realistically deny the charges against him. They will, I’m sure, continue to insist upon his divinity. The rest of us know better and have done so for a long time now.

Robert Conquest, onetime literary editor of the Spectator, had the pleasure of suggesting a new edition of his epic The Great Terror might be given a fresh title: I Told You So, You Fucking Fools.  Long-time Armstrong sceptics can be forgiven for borrowing that line today.

This is not, really, a matter of demolishing Armstrong’s achievements. Rather it is a moment for placing them in some proper, human context. It always stretched credulity that Armstrong could be so much stronger than all his peers every year even as, one by one, they failed dope tests or were otherwise implicated in doping investigations.

Paradoxically, the fact that his opponents were caught “cheating” made it more important for Armstrong’s devotional followers to insist upon his own cleanliness. It added to his aura. Here was a miracle in flesh.


And so the sceptics were just bitter europeans motivated by anti-American animus (a nonsense to those of us who so admired Greg LeMond’s panache). Those team-mates who suggested Armstrong wasn’t as pure as he claimed were jealous little men too. And, anyway, how credible could they be when they were so often revealed to have been doping themselves?

Armstrong never seemed to appreciate that his own credibility was undermined, not enhanced, by the fact that so many of his erstwhile team-mates began failing drug tests. If everyone else in the team was taking stuff didn’t it stand to reason that the king might be too?

I see no need to strip Armstrong of his titles. He was, like all his predecessors, a product of his age. In the Tour de France,  (though, dishonourably, only in the Tour de France) Armstrong was better than all his rivals. That’s enough. You can quarry a legacy from that rock.

But, my, how all these denials have become wearisome. Even as he retires from defending himself, Armstrong insists he is the innocent victim of persecution. Yet if, as is alleged, no fewer than ten former team-mates were on the point of testifying against him is it really credible that they must all be lying?

Almost all the greats have acknowledged their drug use or had it confirmed by failed tests. Coppi, Anquetil, Merckx, Kelly: the list is a long one. For years this was fine. We knew it happened but pretended not to know or to care too much. Drugs were just another survival tool.

But then the drugs started killing riders and, when they weren’t dying in their sleep, transforming ordinary bicyclists into machine-like supermen. What had been a survival mechanism became, instead, a means of winning. The drugs became too dangerous and too good and it was no longer possible to pretend we did not know. We did. Once daylight was allowed into the peloton some of the magic was lost and the culture could not continue as if nothing had changed. It had.

For many – especially new fans in the English-speaking world – Armstrong seemed to offer something fresh, something miraculous. Something that might even atone, in some inchoate fashion, for cycling’s past sins. Just as he was given a miraculous second chance, so was cycling.

This was balderdash but the kind of myth many people earnestly wanted to believe. They continued to do so even as the evidence against Armstrong mounted. Nothing that can happen now is likely to change their minds.

As a long-time Armstrong sceptic who never much liked him anyway, I don’t actually think Armstrong’s achievements in the Tour are greatly diminished even if he is deemed to have won those races by “illegal” means. As I say, he raced in a doped-up era and there’s some reason to suppose he might have prevailed in the improbable alternative reality in which the entire peloton was “clean”. Perhaps it is time to move on.

If we suspect Armstrong doped then all that confirms is that he was a man, just like his competitors and not some brand of saint to be worshiped in ways that lie beyond all reason. If we now see through a glass, darkly, we may also, at last, put away such childish things.

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Show comments
  • Toby H

    The aspect of this that has concerned me is the way that an investigation by an anti-doping organization appears to have been run like a criminal investigation into organized crime (of course, this isn’t completely strange because the cumulative accusations could appear to be an organized crime). But with doping the “plea bargain” approach isn’t commonly used or in my mind appropriate – whilst there would be a certain pride in anti-doping organizations catching the most high profile perpetrators, every rider who has admitted to cheating should be punished under the WADA charter, commonly a 2 year ban for a first offense plus removing any relevant titles/ prize monies. There seems to have been an approach that as long as Armstrong is incriminated this is not necessary, but he has been handed an instant life ban, which is also quite irregular (people who have been organizers of doping more commonly serve jail sentences than long bans, but a federal case against Armstrong has failed to justify charges being delivered). The UCI has expressed similar concerns over the case, and it will be interesting to see how it progresses.

    This probably all sounds like I am completely out of my tree – I realistically have no doubt he cheated, but there is still a little hope there that it is all untrue, him having been the cycling icon during my teenage years. Because the evidence is still all hidden it’s difficult to form a definitive position (unless, it seems, you already have a strongly held position, which I didn’t – I always thought he was clean but being so much stronger than everyone else on the Alpe d’Huez time trial clouded my mind. His time wasn’t as fast as the record for the Alpe, but those guys are now known to have been high as a kite!). Since this has all started, my though has been that we won’t truly know until either Armstrong admits it, or George Hincapie incriminates him. If Big George says he did it, there can be no doubt.

  • Richard Stanford Brown

    Of course, he was on drugs, blood doping too, but was he cheating? No. It cannot be cheating if every one of his elite competitors was doing the same. Had he not doped he would have been left far, far, behind. That is the reality. Is cycling the only sport where this is the case? Laughable. These practices are endemic in all professional sport. The Olympics, Premier League Football, Swimming, Running, Tennis, Rugby, the whole lot of them, it’s just business, big business. Whatever Armstrong, Wiggins or whoever would like us to believe, yes Spectator readers, British Athletes too. It’s not simply natural ability, dedication and hard work, it is that of course, but also it’s how good your ‘doctors’ are, that’s what gives the very top performers their edge. I don’t blame them. There are sponsors and endorsements for those who are going to do something amazing, win titles and break records. That’s what spectators pay to see. Cyclists are simply suspected and tested more than others, for reasons I do not understand, perhaps only so the authorities can present the rest of sport with a ‘clean’ image, but it’s a joke. Even with all the testing in cycling are the competitors caught through testing? No, not usually. Armstrong passed over 500 tests, was he clean? Clearly not. David Millar was not caught through testing either. How do you think these elite athletes are recovering so fast from injuries or breaking records year after year? You think football players are not on EPO? Please. Even the archers, racing car drivers, cricketeers and snooker players are on beta-blockers to lower their blood-pressure and enable them to focus and handle the pressures better. It’s time the public stopped living in a fairy-tale world and we all just admitted the obvious truth about sport. They’re drugged up like the rest of society. To pretend that because there is testing sport is generally ‘clean’ is like pretending shoplifting doesn’t generally happen because the supermarkets have security and CCTV. I don’t condone it, I just acknowledge it.

    • Baron

      RS Brown, sir, what’s EPO?

      Baron used to play ice hockey, sort of semi-prof, never used to take any drugs, didn’t even know he could, others didn’t either, he drank though, as did his teammates, but always after a match, the times have changed and changed for the worse, it’s no longer an ability to run or pedal but the ability to mask the drug taking that counts, sad really.

      • Richard Stanford Brown

        EPO is an expensive endurance increasing drug used by professional athletes.

      • Richard Stanford Brown

        EPO is an expensive endurance increasing drug used by professional athletes.

  • Austin Barry

    I wonder how many of the new secular saints of the London Olympics are dope-fuelled monomaniacs? One of the great mysteries of the Games was the disappearance of the female breast – almost a vestigial organ.

  • roger

    I always assumed that after the cancer he was on medication that masked the ‘drugs’ and never doubted the influence of biochemistry in cycling, peddle on there, nothing to see. If I go for a ride and rub in some ibuprophin gel on my left knee am i a doper?

  • Edinburgh/Highlands

    hmm…a bit confusing Alex, not quite sure what you’re really saying here other than you (somehow) knew all along and that you dislike Armstrong and now most people will believe him to be a cheat…I’m ambivalent towards Armstrong, whilst being a big fan of Wiggins and Hoy-like all of us I don’t know what the truth is, but if he’s been tested 500-600 times as suggested whilst others have been caught seems on balance to be rather odd or are you saying he was just lucky? I suspect today’s announcement is not going to change anything very much in the public’s mind-disbelievers, believers, ambivalent’s are likely to remain the same until harder evidence is presented-where I suspect you’re right is that was probably the ‘best’ rider in theses races