“Pain is temporary. It may last a minute, or an hour, or a day, or a year, but eventually it will subside and something else will take its place. If I quit, however, it lasts forever.” The words of Lance Armstrong, taken from his best-selling autobiography It’s Not About The Bike in 2000, take on a haunting resonance in light of the revelations of the past few weeks. They show a man to which failure was not even a consideration, let alone an option. The pain of an EPO injection or a blood transfusion was insignificant compared to the feeling of achieving his dream. Indeed, reading through the mammoth USADA report released on Wednesday, you get the feeling that nothing short of disqualification would have stopped Lance Armstrong from winning the Tour de France. Systematic cheating, lying and bullying were all commonplace in a US Postal team geared towards success for Armstrong at any cost.
Reactions to the report have been wide-ranging and often emotional. As a child I was given It’s Not About The Bike by my dad, and found it incredibly inspiring – imagine the story of a boy growing up, dreaming of being a champion, being diagnosed with cancer and given less than a 40% chance to live and then coming back to win the Tour De France, arguably the toughest race on the planet, seven times in a row. It showed a man with a desire like no other, fear of nothing but failure and a heart of gold. He was a bona fide sporting hero. So to find out that not only had he been cheating, but lying through his teeth at every opportunity, makes it hard to not feel an emotional response, be it disappointment, resentment or anger.
There are, of course, Armstrong apologists who will continue to defend their champion. They will claim that everyone was at it, and he was doing no worse than other riders. The first part is undoubtedly true, but the claim he was just another ‘doper’ is rubbished by the testimony of his teammates, who clearly paint Armstrong as the ring-leader of the operation. Christian Vande Velde tells of an irate Armstrong telling him to “use what (team doctor) Dr Ferrari had been telling me to use” or he would be dropped from the team. Others would perpetuate the myth, started by the man himself that he passed over five hundred random drugs tests. This is simply not true. According to USADA the figure is closer to half that amount, and in fact Armstrong did fail tests – a fake prescription was provided to UCI, cycling’s governing body, in 1999 to excuse the EPO in the rider’s system.
A more nuanced argument is that without the exposure that the victories gave to his story, Livestrong , Armstrong’s foundation to help cancer survivors, would not being doing the fine work it is today. The argument goes that the reported $500m that Livestrong has raised excuses any petty sporting offence. The ends justify the means, as it were. Naturally, it’s impossible to argue that this money is not a good thing. It is still brilliant philanthropic work and credit must go to Lance Armstrong for this. That said, it’s hard to justify Armstrong maintaining his position as Chairman after this scandal, and I would urge Livestrong to take the necessary measures to protect its reputation and not dissuade people from making future donations to such a worthy cause.
A final thought must go to the world of cycling as a whole, rocked by these findings. The poster boy for the sport throughout the last decade has been proved to be a fraud. An even more damning statistic is that fourteen of the last seventeen winners of the Tour have either tested positive, been sanctioned, or admitted doping. There will be some who claim this to be the final nail in the coffin of cycling. They will say that if the great Lance Armstrong was a cheat, then how can anyone else be trusted? Anyone who has watched the last Tour De France and the exploits of Bradley Wiggins and Team Sky will know that cycling can be done the right way, and remains as thrilling and inspiring as ever. Wiggins has admitted that there is a cloud over the sport that he will have to deal with, and if the likes of Wiggins, Mark Cavendish and the Team GB cyclists such as Chris Hoy are found to be doping then it will be hard to believe again. But it seems that a new dawn of drugs-free cycling is coming and that can only be a positive thing.
So is Armstrong a hero or a villain? For me, the damage that he has done to the sport he loves is so immense that many will never accept that riders can win without drugs again. This is a terrible crime against the sport and it is hard to find any excuses short of ego and selfishness. Yes, he is now doing good things in philanthropic areas, but we must separate Armstrong the sportsman from Armstrong the philanthropist, however hard it may be. And even then, the disrespect he showed to everyone around him during his doping days hangs a question mark over his human character.
The last word will go to an internet sage – “Such a shame. He was a great musician, gotta love a bit of What A Wonderful World”.