The evidence is damning, yet still a part of us is in denial. Systematic doping on a scale unparalleled in professional sport and, yes, we knew, deep down, that it was happening. We are all accessories, all complicit, and that’s why we still cling to the forlorn hope that they’ve got it all wrong. In a previous post, It Never Was About The Bike, I expressed my concern about the unfolding Lance Armstrong revelations, not because I was attempting to defend what I already suspected to be indefensible, but because the process of ascertaining guilt was deeply flawed, and in fear of the wider ramifications this would inevitably have for the sport of cycling. Even now, it is not enough to accept the case against and move on, as some are already trying to get away with. A seven times Tour de France winner cannot be airbrushed from history, and nor should he be.
To begin with, Armstrong has always seemed to be a pretty dislikeable character, both before and after his well-documented battle with cancer. I recall reading his ‘inspirational’ book and being struck by my inability to warm to him despite everything. It is hard now not to see this tome as an integral part of an elaborately created fantasy with himself cast in the role of superhero. Beating the affliction undoubtedly gave him an inner strength and determination few could match, but it also wrapped him in an aura of invincibility. Perhaps because of what he had endured, it was easier for us to fall under his spell. He manipulated this power to devastating effect.
But that is incidental. The report made public by the United States Anti-Doping Agency (USADA) chillingly catalogues a decade of pharmaceutical deception. Am I shocked? Not at all, for Matt Rendell’s acclaimed work, ‘The Death of Marco Pantani’, reads more like a medical textbook in places, so to say we were unaware that this was going on would be criminally disingenuous. Ironically, the yellow jersey won by the Italian rider in 1998 was so overshadowed by drugs scandals that the following year’s event was dubbed the ‘Tour of Renewal’. And guess who won that? It was also the year that Armstrong produced an allegedly backdated prescription for a steroid cream to treat saddle sores in explanation for a testing discrepancy. No action was taken and there were no more positive results. In 2002 the governing body (UCI) accepted a donation of $100,000 from the Texan to help cycling’s ‘development’, supposedly after doubt was cast on a sample provided at a race in Switzerland the previous year. Any connection is vehemently rebutted.
As I have already outlined though, none of this has been placed before a court of law. The US Attorney’s office dropped their investigation into Armstrong in February. USADA’s case contains nothing from the Federal files and is essentially comprised of the testimonies of whistleblowers. Surely, in light of what has been revealed, the original proceedings deserve to be reopened, particularly since it now seems likely that Armstrong committed perjury when he stated under oath in 2005 that he had never used performance enhancing substances. In addition, he stands accused not only of doping but of trafficking and witness intimidation. Such serious allegations cannot be allowed to remain a matter of conjecture; a prison sentence is wholly appropriate should the burden of proof be accepted. And a trial of such magnitude would almost certainly cast the role of the UCI in a decidedly dim light. At best their procedures for uncovering foul play would be exposed as grossly inept and, if some evidence is to be believed, actually farcical. At worst a collaborative part in a hoax of staggering mendacity might be waiting for disclosure.
Cycling needs this. Its many followers need to know the truth once and for all. How much was really known about the scale of the problem? If, as is widely suspected, it was endemic, did its rulers abrogate their responsibility for its eradication? So many riders were not quite so adept at the dark arts perfected within the US Postal squad that significant numbers within the peloton at any one time had served bans for various violations. Clearly many felt it a risk worth taking. Why was more not done to counteract this scourge when rumour and supposition was everywhere? Was it just accepted as part of the landscape for a professional bike racer that a culture of a nod and a wink became entrenched? Such a purge could tear the sport apart, but wishing it all away would be infinitely worse.
Neither should we be lulled into using the past tense. The genie is now out of the bottle but the debris is scattered all over the road. Both first and second in the recent Vuelta have black marks against their reputation. Olympic Champion Alexander Vinokourov is a former convicted cheat. Those riders who co-operated with the USADA enquiry, thereby implicating themselves in the wrongdoing, have accepted six month suspensions. Yes, six months. Most depressingly, young British star Alex Dowsett thinks the fall from grace of Armstrong, who he calls ‘a legend’, is ‘not really important’. He rides for Team Sky whose avowed zero tolerance policy now looks holed beneath the water as it transpires that Michael Barry, who rode in their colours this year, lied about his previous disreputable activities. Team Principal Dave Brailsford, who also employed on his roster a Dutch doctor with dubious connections, might in future be more reticent about his evangelical quest for cleanliness. In this crazy world, things are never quite so straightforward.
It is difficult to know how to play this one. There is a feeling of loss blended with relief, the kind of emotion you feel in the aftermath of bereavement when you realise the suffering is over. But, realistically, we know it is not. There is more to come. And we knew, of course we did, that the day of reckoning could not be delayed forever. We would be naive in the extreme to believe that the environment which fostered such mass dishonesty does not linger still. Not until it has fully confronted the eviscerating convulsions of its past, can cycling even begin to think about moving on in good faith. Armstrong will not be swept under the carpet. He is a leviathan, looming over everything in his compass, just not necessarily in the way he would have intended.
Post title “An intelligent hell would be better than a stupid paradise” -Victor Hugo