I don’t often get emotional over sport. I’ve been around the block a bit now and the wide-eyed wonder I held my sporting heroes in many years ago has been replaced by a pragmatic acceptance that some of these idols, sadly, have feet of clay. But occasionally, someone gets through to me and reignites that boyhood passion for believing in sporting miracles and superhuman deeds that so inspired me through my childhood. In 2005, one of the biggest heroes I’ve ever had in sport delivered these lines on winning his last ever race, prior to his retirement; “I am sorry for you. I am sorry you can’t dream. I’m sorry you don’t believe in miracles. But this is one hell of a race, and there are no secrets, this is a hard sport, and it is hard work that wins it.”
The race was the Tour de France, the words were by Lance Armstrong, and the secrets appear to have now been revealed as lies. I actually cried when Armstrong delivered those lines because for the previous seven years I had witnessed a man come back from the edge of death to not just compete again at the highest level of his sport, but to reign supreme above it and transcend it in the manner of an Ali, a Pele or a Nicklaus. By the time Armstrong made that speech, and the real reason for my tears, vultures were circling and calling into question the validity of his triumphs. People were trying to taint his extraordinary seven Tour de France victories and were questioning the very integrity of this man, this hero. I was furious. Armstrong was undeniably clean, a serial refuter of scurrilous claims over his doping, who had set up the world’s biggest independent cancer charity in his image to underline his commitment to the positive aspects of life, and to help people less fortunate than him. Why would a cheat and liar do that? It was beyond comprehension, he had too much to lose.
When he took to the microphone and gave his impassioned speech back in ‘05, the tears rolled because he was leaving the sport on his terms, but also standing up for its name one last time and speaking in praise of the two men he had beaten, Ivan Basso and Jan Ullrich. As Armstrong left the podium in his yellow jersey to match his Livestrong livery, I felt proud, proud that men still existed in sport who were willing to broach the difficult issues head on and deal with them with such forthright honesty, on the highest possible stage, such a rare quality. Yet still people still criticised. I was incredulous.
I felt proud, proud that men still existed in sport who were willing to broach the difficult issues head on and deal with them with such forthright honesty, on the highest possible stage, such a rare quality
Two of the vultures that were circling highest were Paul Kimmage and David Walsh, both writers of the highest quality. Kimmage in particular had made a massive impression on me when I read his award winning 1990 book “Rough Ride” where he laid his own life as a jobbing professional cyclist bare, exposing his low level involvement in performance enhancing drugs, poignantly, just to finish last most weeks. It was a depressing tale, brilliantly told, but of an era way before Armstrong, in the bad old days of the sport. But now Kimmage was starting to annoy me. Forever questioning Armstrong, trying to suggest that his sporting gains were ill gotten and that basically, his “never failed a drugs test” claim was a sham. I turned away from Kimmage and reasoned that he was just a bitter old hack who just because he had required drugs to compete, now needed to prove that all were like him, cheats who would regret their dishonesty for the rest of their days. Walsh was similar, a brilliant journalist, but a man on a misguided crusade going so far as to writing a book “L.A. Confidential : Lance Armstrong’s Secrets”, an expose so detailed and spiteful, that for legal reasons was only ever published in French. These two journalists epitomised to me the difference between the muck rakers and the “dreamers”. I was a dreamer, they were the muck rakers.
Up until yesterday afternoon, I was still a dreamer, yet admittedly, one whose dreams had become damaged and scarred by the continued accusations emerging from the thorough investigation over the past year by the USADA into the systematic drug programme allegedly followed and organised by Armstrong during his “Tour de France years”. Despite the weight of the evidence stacking up, I still hung on to a small shred of belief, largely based on Armstrong’s continued denials, but also to the fact that I believe in human nature 100%, and if you get caught with your hand in the cookie jar that you’ll be man enough to hold up the other one and say “fair cop”. Surely that’s what Armstrong, a man of the greatest integrity, would do if these allegations were ever shown to be so strong as to be incontrovertible. Sadly, yet, not so.
Well Lance, I have to tell you, I’m not unaffected. I’ve fought to defend your good name for many years, arguing your case against good friends, no doubt losing their respect, because I believed in you. And now, your only response is that you’re “unaffected”
I have just read the USADA report, or the “jaw dropping” report as described by British cycling guru Dave Brailsford, and am stunned to the extreme. Amongst the litany of allegations and corroborating evidence, the most damning within the document comes from the affidavit of Armstrong’s closest cycling foot soldier, George Hincapie, a man once described as “a brother” by Armstrong, and one of the few cyclists never to have been criticised by Armstrong. In the report it states;
“Hincapie has testified that he was aware of Armstrong’s use of EPO and blood transfusions. He reports that Armstrong even provided EPO to Hincapie for Hincapie’s own use. Hincapie explains how he, like Armstrong, was a client of the doping doctor Michele Ferrari who incorporated EPO and blood doping into Hincapie’s training program.”
I agree with Dave Brailsford, jaw dropping. Hincapie has been one of the sports most respected and uncontroversial members of the professional peleton for over 15 years – 11 of which he cycled alongside Armstrong – and it is his testimony, above all others, that gives such weight to the allegations aimed at Armstrong. Hincapie has no axe to grind with Armstrong whatsoever, unlike serial liars Floyd Landis and Tyler Hamilton, so of all the evidence provided, it is Hincapie’s for me that provides the smoking gun.
Armstrong’s response to date has only been through Twitter, “What am I doing tonight? Hanging with my family, unaffected” Clearly, he’s not going to follow my cookie jar analogy and hold up that hand.
I used to dream, and I used to believe in miracles, but once again, I have been denied by idols with feet of clay
Well Lance, I have to tell you, I’m not unaffected. I’ve fought to defend your good name for many years, arguing your case against good friends, no doubt losing their respect, because I believed in you. And now, your only response is that you’re “unaffected”. Your arrogance upsets me as much as your brilliance used to inspire me. I hope one day, eventually, you can show contrition if these extremely weighty and apparently credible allegations are proved. Then, maybe when you do, you might just think of Mr Kimmage and Mr Walsh, lambasted and bullied by your legion of followers for many years, only to be apparently completely vindicated by the USADA report. I would like to apologise to both men for doubting them, and congratulate them for the fortitude they have shown to never waver from attempting to expose what they believed to be the truth and what the USADA report appears to confirm.
I used to dream, and I used to believe in miracles, but once again, I have been denied by idols with feet of clay, or perhaps, according to George Hincapie, that should read idols with EPO.
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