Kontraband Know It All
This week: Shamed cyclist Lance Armstrong. From heroic hill-climber to scurrilous back-pedaller.
How good was Lance Armstrong at his peak?
Regardless of how future generations will judge Lance Armstrong, at his peak he was the best cyclist in the world, albeit for a brief time. It is believed the shamed cyclist starting doping in the mid to late 1990s, which negates his 7 Tour de France victories which ran from 1999 until 2005. However, before that, Armstrong was the UCI road race World Champion in 1993, managing to push the legendary 5-time Tour de France winner, Miguel Indurain, into second place.
Overall, Armstrong can be considered a very talented athlete (he is also a triathlete) and a superlative cyclist. He could have been up in the cycling heavens with stars like Indurain, Eddy Merckx, Jacques Anquetil and Bernard Hinault. He stunned the world by coming back from advanced testicular cancer which could have killed him to dominate the Tour de France for over half a decade. But now he will be lumped alongside infamous cheats like sprinter Ben Johnson, baseball player Barry Bonds, athlete Marion Jones and TV quiz cougher Major Charles Ingram.
How did he convince the world he wasn't a cheat?
Considering his feats, such as becoming a world champion when barely in his 20s, overcoming a deadly disease and winning the world's most famous bike race multiple times, Armstrong had a lot of the adoring public already in his pocket. He gained sympathy and admiration, his Livestrong Foundation assisted others suffering from cancer. Unlike many cyclists, he had a decent and engaging public personality and he was camera-friendly. Dating Sheryl Crow for a couple of years helped enhance his perceived star quality.
Behind the public scenes, Armstrong was known for his incessant bullying tactics, on other cyclists and support staff. He procured a strong legal team and would vigorously sue anyone who accused him of doping. Examples include his former massage therapist Emma O'Reilly who was sued for libel. Her story incriminating the cyclist had been printed by the Sunday Times which was later forced to pay Armstrong $1.5 million in damages, although his appearance on Oprah Winfrey's talk show has encouraged the newspaper into attempting to recover the money. Sports promotion firm SCA coughed up $7.5 million to Armstrong in an out of court settlement. Powerful sponsors provided huge teams of support and legal assistance to Armstrong and they cajoled and threatened his accusers into silence, knowing that any tarnishing of this cycling champion would have negative effects on business. Armstrong has stated that losing his sponsors has cost him $75 million, but as his net worth has been estimated at $125 million he won't be applying for jobs at Halfords just yet.
How did he eventually get caught?
It was mostly the tireless work of the USADA, the United States Anti-Doping Agency, which led to Armstrong's downfall. There had been so many accusations from people who had been close to Armstrong at various points in his career that a thorough investigation was inevitable. Armstrong described proceedings as a witch-hunt; a federal enquiry against him was subsequently dropped. Armstrong issued convenient donations, including ironically $25,000 to the UCI for an anti-doping programme and $100,000 for a blood testing machine, to help make him look honest and above such base accusations.
However, USADA continued to pursue the doping charges after the federal courts had dropped the case, and Armstrong was unsuccessful when he tried to sue them. USADA banned Armstrong and published a huge report full of witness testimonies incriminating the cyclist and the agency's reasons for coming to such a damning conclusion. The UCI, which had always seemed to support the American, accepted USADA's decisions, which left Armstrong pretty much high and dry. He failed to appeal to the Court of Arbitration for Sport (which for many was his silent admission of guilt) and then appeared on television with Oprah Winfrey listening to prayers and trying to get teary-eyed for years of insidious lies and aggressive litigious activities. Armstrong was not the only doper caught cheating in the Tour de France, nor the only winner stripped of his titles: Bjarne Riis, Floyd Landis and Alberto Contador have all lost titles. Armstrong demonstrates such arrogance in the admittance of his lies and confessions of using EPO and blood transfusions in his Oprah Winfrey interview that it is hard to feel any forgiveness for the man. He even tried to joke that he had never called Betsy Andreu, a woman who has been mercilessly harassed by his legal team, "fat". So he called her "a crazy bitch" but not fat. Lance Armstrong, the final graduate from the Roy Chubby Brown School of Charm and Comedy.
What effect will this have on the sport of cycling?
Most people had given up with Lance Armstrong before he tried to milk whatever remaining sympathy remained for him by allowing Oprah Winfrey to quiz him. When he failed to appeal against the USADA many realised it was the end for him, that he was finally admitting guilt. Thanks to the 2012 Olympics and Bradley Wiggins winning the 2012 Tour de France, cycling is enjoying a golden age in the UK and Armstrong is nothing but an unsavoury blip. The UCI, which governs the sport of cycling, will continue to be shrouded in controversy and will be seen as increasingly toothless and deeply corrupted, in the same way many sports commentators view FIFA.
However, cycling and the Tour de France have suffered from huge controversies before and have continued to flourish. For example, in the 1924 Tour de France the Pélissier brothers admitted using cocaine and strychnine to keep peddling over the gruelling route. Whole cycling teams, such as PDM, Festina, Telekom and even the 1984 US Olympic cycling team have been enveloped in doping scandals, but the sport has progressed. Obviously tighter controls and anti-doping regulations will be put into place, but cycling will always suffer from scandals as cyclists try and find different ways of keeping their legs moving. Armstrong will bounce back, such a skilful liar who is not afraid to bully the weak and take as much wealth as possible for himself without having really deserved it will always have a place in society: as a politician. All he needs is some gratuitous sexual kink and he will be in the cabinet in no time.
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