No doctor’s prognosis was too grim, no illness too debilitating, no Alpine peak too steep. Lance could conquer it all. Lance Armstrong never quit. Until now. In August, the man in the yellow jersey raised a white flag in the face of his doping allegations. Armstrong’s decision not to fight the allegations by the US Anti-Doping Agency (USADA) was the first time America’s great hero declined a battle.
The entire saga is shameful. It has tarnished Armstrong, Pat McQuaid and the UCI and the large section of the media that bought into the myth of Lance Armstrong, and allowed this to cloud their vision of the clear indications that Armstrong was a drugs cheat. The media and governing body allowed themselves to be enraptured in the web of lies, a web spun by a cyclist who morphed himself into a living myth. The UCI, the world cycling governing body, had the chance to clean up cycling and eliminate the doping culture in the sport in 1999. That year, Lance Armstrong was returning to the sport having vanquished testicular cancer. Within two weeks of the tour, urine samples belonging to Armstrong were found to contain a banned substance. The UCI, preaching at the time of the importance of a clean sport, decided not to ban Armstrong. Here was a cyclist who was the author of a fairytale, a man who could go from hospital treatment tables to podium. More importantly, here was a man who could make them rich.
The UCI, along with Armstrong, concocted a story that the banned substance was part of a cream to treat saddle sores. They even backdated a prescription so that the story would be clear of suspicion. The UCI continued to defend Armstrong, and why wouldn’t they? Yes, it was morally wrong and ruining the sport that they were the global guardians of, but Armstrong was making them rich. In a bitter, twisted case of irony, Armstrong donated enough to them to fund a drugs-testing machine.
The media also bought into the Armstrong legend. Despite the clear indications of cheating throughout his tour victories, most of the media were fain to perpetuate the myth of Lance. In doing this, they ignored the facts. In 1999, Armstrong came from nowhere to blitz a field of convicted drug cheats. Lazy Journalism’s genesis was based on the saying “Don’t let the facts get in the way of a good story”, and that’s exactly what most of its purveyors did. The Armstrong legend had no place for cheating. The few journalists that swam against the tide and wanted to expose Armstrong as a fraud, Ireland’s David Walsh and Paul Kimmage among them, were ostracised among other journalists and cyclists.
The reason most of the world fell to Armstrong’s feet was the American’s marketing abilities. He portrayed himself as the main crusader against cancer. Armstrong managed to mythologise himself as well as any poet could. Anytime Armstrong was accused of doping, he could hide behind the shield of his excellent work for cancer. His self-promotion and self-mythologizing seemed to make him bulletproof. Most of the media, the UCI and other cyclists were on Lance’s side. The Armstrong edifice seemed immaculate, it could never be torn down.
In recent years, fissures appeared. Teammates Floyd Landis and Tyler Hamilton accused Armstrong of doping, and USADA pursued a case against Armstrong. Armstrong’s decision not to bring the case to court was the best of bad options for Lance, in doing so he prevented further diminishing his character and bringing down the UCI.
In the end, it wasn’t about the bike. It was about Armstrong’s personality. His character was domineering, he sought control of everything. His self-mythologizing and selling of himself created the aura, the myth, the legend. He was cycling’s great puppet master, everybody danced to his tune. The UCI cried conspiracy when USADA began their pursuit of their hero. He was the hero everybody wanted to believe was true, a Texan comic book hero. Armstrong’s descent from the pantheon is truly sad. He fought, he cycled, he lied, he cheated. He staged cycling’s very own death of a salesman.