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.
Subscribe to The Spectator today for a quality of argument not found in any other publication. Get more Spectator for less – just £12 for 12 issues.