No Such Nonsense

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Monday, June 26, 2006

Lance Armstrong, American Hero

Lance Armstrong is arguably the greatest cyclist ever. I don't know all that much about competitive cycling. But you don't win the Tour de France - one of the most gruelling athletic endeavors in the world - seven years in a row without being a supremely talented athlete. Add that to fact that Armstrong first had to overcome testicular cancer that had metastasized to his brain and lungs. He overcame brain surgery and intensive chemotherapy to reach the loftiest heights of his sport. With his seven victories and the sale of millions of Livestrong bracelets, Armstrong brought untold attention to the Tour de France and much-needed funds to cancer research. Armstrong has thus been celebrated as an American hero and a sporting god.

Which doesn't mean he is a nice guy. Or that he played fair. Allegations of doping by Armstrong and his team have dogged him since he returned from his illness. During his triumphant reign as champion, Armstrong never once tested positive for a banned, performance enhancing substance (though there is some debate about one test that showed a faint positive in 1999). All around him, fellow riders on the Tour tested positive and were banned, and even fans of the sport acknowledged that cheating was rife on the Tour. But Armstrong continued to dominate - and to insist that he was clean. Critics could not believe that a man who had been a strong but not overpowering rider could return from cancer and proceed to dominate a dirty sport while staying clean himself.

Armstrong's defenders say he was the most tested athlete in the world, that allegations of drug use were really evidence of nascent anti-Americanism amongst European media and racing fans. But whispers of cheating grew louder when, last August, French newspaper L'Equipe reported that frozen urine samples from 1999, Armstrong's first Tour victory, had recently been retested and were positive for EPO. The reason for the new tests was that EPO was undetectable in 1999 but can now be detected with new, more sophisticated tests. An investigator, appointed by cycling’s governing body to investigate the handling of the urine tests by the French anti-doping laboratory, cleared Armstrong of wrongdoing on the basis that the tests may have been conducted incorrectly. Armstrong declared himself vindicated and demanded the resignation of world anti-doping agency chief Dick Pound, who has been one of Armstrong's harshest critics.

Over the past few days, new allegations have emerged from a French court case. First, the wife of a former teammate alleges that, during Armstrong's cancer treatment, she heard Armstrong admit to using EPO and other drugs. Then, cycling legend Greg LeMond stated that he testified on Armstrong's behalf in a doping-related case only after Armstrong threatened to destroy LeMond's business, family and reputation. In the past, LeMond had questioned whether Armstrong's achievements could be possible without the use of performance enhancers.

Sour grapes? Anti-Americanism? Legitimate suspicion? Armstrong loudly denies cheating (as, it should be noted, do Barry Bonds and Raphael Palmero). We can likely never know for certain. Do the allegations take the luster from Armstrong's achievementt? I believe that on some level, they must. But at the same time, I think back to Ben Johnson, the disgraced Canadian sprinter who had his Olympic gold medal stripped away after testing positive for steroids. In the subsequent 20 years, it has become clear that almost all of Johnson's contemporaries, including U.S. rival Carl Lewis, were juiced as well. So Johnson won on what was, in some sense at least, a level playing field. His mistake was that, unlike Lewis and Armstrong, he was caught.


  • At 4:58 p.m., Blogger Joe said…

    Just for clarification sake, Lance Armstrong is not the greatest cyclist of all time. He could have won the Tour ten times and he still wouldn't be the best. The best ever was Eddy Merckx of Belgium, who won over 500 professional races (including the Tour 5 times) during the 1960s and 1970s. Nobody else comes close.

    Good entry otherwise, though.


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