Wednesday, 17 October 2012

Armstrong leaves a nasty stain

ONE week Jimmy Savile, the next Lance Armstrong. Which popular icon, I wonder, will be next to be revealed as a mere human, and a nasty, sordid human at that?
The two cases are, of course, different in many ways.
Armstrong’s headstone is unlikely ever to be crushed and sent to landfill as it hasn’t been erected yet – though his reputation has suffered something similar.
While Savile isn’t around to defend himself, Armstrong has simply given up doing so. Which, as the head of the World Anti-Doping Agency has pointed out, is pretty much an admission that the 1,000-page dossier published by the US agency contains at least some damning truths.
Both may have been liars and bullies with egos the size of small planets but no one, as far as I know, has ever accused Armstrong of sexual impropriety.
And if Savile did drugs, well, frankly, who cares? As long as he didn’t administer them to anyone else.
Which is, effectively, what several of Armstrong’s former US Postal cycling team-mates have accused him of.
The man who dominated the peloton for a record seven straight years of victories in the Tour de France is said to have dominated his colleagues by sheer force of personality. And then some.
As the USADA report puts it: “His goal led him to depend on EPO, testosterone and blood transfusions but also, more ruthlessly, to expect and to require that his team-mates would likewise use drugs to support his goals if not their own.”
The way team masseuse Emma O’Reilly has described being used as the team’s drug mule, carrying packages across borders, is sickening. As is her claim that Armstrong borrowed her make-up to disguise needle marks.
The testimony of Tyler Hamilton – who might himself have been team leader if Armstrong hadn’t been around – about keeping bottles of blood and drugs in hotel fridges “with the milk” is jaw-dropping.
But not exactly eye-opening, as so many people knew all the time – or at least very strongly suspected – that such things were going on.
It’s an interesting fact that Armstrong’s first Tour triumph came in 1999 – the year after the infamous Festina Affair supposedly cleared all the drug-users out of the big race.
Or, as we might see it now, took away the other main users, leaving the field free for the team that did it most effectively.
In some ways the most interesting person in this whole sorry story – certainly the one to have most sympathy with – is Christophe Bassons.
Roll back to a couple of years before Armstrong’s long reign began and put yourself in Bassons’s cycling shoes.
Here is a young man with a string of amateur titles to his name, recently crowned time-trial champion of France.
Turning pro with the Festina team, he is offered two alternative contracts. One is worth 4,500 euros a month, the other ten times as much.
The difference is never spelled out, but he knows what it means. He signs the 4,500-euro deal.
In such a situation, how many of us would be that strong?
In 1998, when Festina became the first team to be thrown out of the Tour for organised drug-use, Bassons was the only team-member not to be arrested or charged.
He went on to ride three more Tours for other teams but found himself shunned by most of the other riders.
His 1999 team, Francaise des Jeux, pooled their winnings but excluded him from the share-out.
Armstrong confronted him, telling him he should “go home” after he mentioned drugs in a newspaper column.
Even without such antagonism, it must have been hard to go on, knowing you had no chance ever of winning, and why.
Today all the indications are that top-class cycling is as clean as it’s been for several decades.
It is just two years since Alberto Contador was stripped of his third Tour title over a doping violation. His technical infringement, though, was not of the same nature or scale as the allegations levelled against Armstrong and co.
And there is a plausible argument that such action over one doubtful test shows how far the sport has come in cleaning up its act.
It was also in 2010 that Floyd Landis was stripped of his 2006 Tour title. Not because he was caught but because he owned up. A former US Postal team-mate, he also provided some of the crucial evidence now stacked up against Armstrong.
I well remember Landis’s procession to his “victory”, which was stunning – and suspicious – because he seemed to come from nowhere.
Six years on I sincerely believe Bradley Wiggins’s claim that his own brilliant success this summer proves it’s possible to win the Tour riding “clean”.
But cynics will remain, as they are bound to. For what can you do to cleanse a stain like the one left by the Armstrong generation? 

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