The Lance Armstrong Swindle

I’ve been an avid fan of the Tour de France for many years, especially since it used to pass right in front of my house in the French Alps every few years. As Lance Armstrong won his seven titles, I was amazed by his panache and his tactics; cycling races of that kind are both individual and team sports, and the tactics of a team, as well as of an individual rider, make the difference between making the podium or watching the winners ride by.

I fell for the hype and the excuses: the fact that Armstrong never tested positive, was, for me, proof that he wasn’t doping. Add to that the position of an American in France, watching as the French berated an American for winning their cherished sporting event; it all reeked of nationalism at the time.

My son was a big fan of Lance Armstrong. When we moved to the Alps, my son was ten years old, and that first year – watching the Tour roll by in person – was a huge event for him. Lance Armstrong became a hero to my son; he bought some Livestrong wristbands, and even got Lance’s autograph one day during a stage of the week-long Dauphiné Libéré cycling race that also ran near us.

But, as we all know now, Lance was swindling an entire sport. He wasn’t alone, of course; doping in cycling was a huge problem, and in the 1998 Tour, the year before Armstrong’s first win, six teams were disqualified after police raided some of the teams’ hotels and found drugs.

In many ways, it’s understandable that these guys cheat; three-week grand tours are exhausting, covering more than 3,000 kilometers in weather that can range from scorching heat to snow (yes, even in July, at the higher altitudes), with climbs that are not that easy to negotiate even in cars.

I recently saw a documentary on the BBC, entitled The Lance Armstrong Story – Stop at Nothing. (This will be released on DVD in September in the UK.) Here’s the description of the film:

Documentary telling the intimate but explosive story about the man behind the greatest fraud in recent sporting history, a portrait of a man who stopped at nothing in pursuit of money, fame and success.

It reveals how Lance Armstrong duped the world with his story of a miraculous recovery from cancer to become a sporting icon and a beacon of hope for cancer sufferers around the world. The film maps how Armstrong’s cheating and bullying became more extreme and how a few brave souls fought back, until eventually their voices were heard.

Director Alex Holmes tracks down some of his former friends and team members who reveal how his cheating was the centre of a grand conspiracy in which Armstrong and his backers sought to steal the Tour de France. Friends and fellow riders were brought into a dirty pact that no-one could betray, lest the horrifying extent of complicity be revealed. But the former friends whose lives he destroyed would prove to be his nemesis, and help uncover one of the dirtiest scandals in sports history.

It was fascinating to see how organized all this was, and how long Lance Armstrong had been “bending the rules” to win at all costs. He bullied people, cheated and lied his way to the top, then fell so sharply that it’s hard to think that he can ever come back. He lost a lot of money, though he seems to still have enough to live comfortably, and he hurt a lot of people.

I then read David Walsh’s book Seven Deadly Sins: My Pursuit of Lance Armstrong. (Amazon.com, Amazon UK) This tells the tale of one sports journalist who, from Lance’s first Tour win in 1999, knew there was something fishy going on. He spent 13 years of his life trying to prove Lance’s guilt, having his newspaper – the Sunday Times – sued for libel, and was finally exonerated when the truth came out. Walsh is a bit obsessive in his tale, and tells it perhaps a bit too subjectively, but the evidence he lays out is scathing.

Yet, in spite of all this, Armstrong fought hard in the Tour de France, as in other races. He rode those 3,000+ kilometers every year, and there are moments of these races that will remain memorable. When you think that he was racing against other riders who were also doping – the majority of the top ten riders in each of the years he won the race were found to have doped as well – one can wonder what would have happened if it had been a level playing field: would he still have won? It’s possible that his personality and his dedication to the sport would still have led him to the top.

I’m not apologizing for Lance Armstrong; I think it’s bad enough that he cheated and lied, and it’s worse that he fought so hard saying that he never cheated, harassing and suing people and ruining lives. But he did all this in a framework where cheating was the only way to survive. This highlights that it’s not just Lance who is wrong; it’s the entire sport. Everyone was complicit in his cheating, in one way or another: the race organizers, the governing bodies of cycling, and the press. Everyone stood to make money, so why spoil the party?

I still watch the Tour de France, but more the way one would watch professional wrestling. I know it’s a show, and it’s a beautiful one: it has tension and excitement, and goes through some beautiful landscapes, some of which – as you may see in the stage on July 19 – I lived in for a dozen years.

Just yesterday, the commentators here in the UK were saying about Tony Gallopin, who won yesterday’s difficult stage, how he has had such a great season, how he’s riding better than ever. Sound familiar? If it’s too good to be true, then it’s probably not.

I leave you with this, which may be the most memorable moment in a Tour de France stage in decades (since Greg Lemond beat Laurent Fignon by eight seconds in the 1989 Tour). After passing in front of my home, the Tour headed to Gap, about 45 minutes south of where I was. Just outside the town, the lead riders were fighting for position, and one rider, Joseba Beloki, who was just a length in front of Armstrong, hit a patch of melted tar or the road and fell. Watch what Lance does. It’s really spectacular. (Sorry about the ads at the end; it’s the best video of this I could find with English commentary.)