Monday, 21 January 2013

"The biggest cheat sport has ever known"


I've developed late as a fan of road cycling. I registered the seven consecutive victories of Lance Armstrong in the Tour de France as notable feats in a gruelling competition. But doubts that clearly existed at the time about the validity of his first and subsequent achievements passed me by. Indeed, like many I bought entirely into the story of a supreme athlete who had overcome massive odds to beat cancer and then to land the tour titles. Superhuman, I thought. A genuine good news story. The Armstrong myth had taken flight and I wanted to ride it. A few years ago, I even suggested Lance as the subject of my daughter’s school topic on sporting heroes. How duped I feel now. 

Drug abuse has been a well known blight on the tour throughout his (now) discredited reign and since. I suppose I cynically thought that the whole road cycling game was so riddled with doping that Armstrong was no worse than the others. To the extent that I had given it any thought at all, I had concluded that EPO use, blood transfusions, cortisone injections and the like were so widespread there was a hideously warped but bizarrely level playing field.

So thank God for the campaigners, the doubters and the whistle-blowers. In the early days, there were very few. The Sunday Times journalist, David Walsh was amongst the first and the most vociferous. He has waged a tenacious 13 year battle to expose Lance Armstrong’s cheating, lying and systematic abuse. His story is remarkable because of the intimidation and manipulation he suffered at the hands of Armstong and his organisation. And also because of the link to a personal tragedy when his son was killed in a cycling accident at the age of 12.

Walsh was everywhere after the pantomime of Big Tex’s Oprah Winfrey confession last week. He was seen and heard refusing any inclinations to triumphalism and yet calmly pointing out the limitations and omissions of the Winfrey charade. He also said he would accept an apology from Armstrong though he felt it had been "hesitantly offered" during the show. The best of Walsh, highlighting the obsessive nature of the investigation that almost consumed him is here . It is lengthy, but well worth a read. And in an interview with the World Service News Hour programme last week, Walsh becomes emotional at the personal nature of Armstrong's vilification, finally uttering the words"probably the biggest cheat sport has ever known." Well worth a listen.

I share the widespread reaction to the Winfrey interview as a shallow and stage-managed stunt. A mate commented in the pub afterwards, it was “more Alan Carr than Jeremy Paxman”. I still felt as though I was being manipulated by the myth: here was a calculated show of contrition, a shaky foothold on redemption, a tentative brand relaunch.  Does he still retain political ambitions? It wouldn’t surprise me.



This photo of a sign in an Australian library went viral. It wasn't placed there by library staff, apparently, but it made me laugh anyway.



Ironically, the profile of road cycling has never been higher in the UK than right now. Wiggins’ Team Sky has adopted a zero tolerance approach to doping which has already led to the departure of two of the management team. It will take many more such deep cleaning operations before the spectre of doping is convincingly dismantled.

However, with the leviathan Leveson enquiry leaving the reputation of press ethics lower than a snake’s belly, it is reassuring to see an example of investigative journalism take the moral high ground. David Walsh, take a bow.

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