Is there a lesson in Lance?
I’m not sure about that, but there certainly is a lot of poop to clean up.
With all due respect to three-time Tour de France winner Greg Lemond, Lance Armstrong was the first cyclist to become an American household name. His Q rating had to rival that of all but a few of our best-known team sports athletes. It was right there with the name of Tiger Woods, our other venerated solo artist.
But Armstrong’s comedown has far more impact than Tiger’s fall. As much as Tiger meant to the PGA Tour, his personal decline does not reflect on the nature of his sport. Tiger has hurt Tiger. The Tour is being replenished with great young talent, even as we speak.
Over and above the personal prestige and financial damage he has done to himself, Armstrong has besmirched the entire sport of cycling.
Of course, he’s not alone. The reason the Tour de France will have no winner in the years 1999-2005 is that the officials would have had to go to absurd lengths in order to crown a champion. It turns out that, Armstrong included, 20 of the 21 spots occupied by the top-three finishers in those seven years were by riders who have had proven associations with doping.
So for those seven years, at least, cycling’s premier event really was a Tour de Farce.
What’s so sad about all this is that the Tour really is a wonderful event. I had a taste of it in 2004, and it was one of the most interesting and fulfilling experiences of my career. My memories of covering the end of the Tour are all positive.
The Tour is difficult to cover under any circumstances, and it is particularly challenging when you attempt to join it in progress. I had come to France after covering the British Open, and I caught up with the proceedings in the town of Le Grand-Bornand, a pretty village near the Haute Savoie city of Annecy.
The Tour de France is the equivalent of 21 miniature Super Bowls. Having a Tour stop is a great honor, and it involves far more than putting up a tape at the finish line. People start taking their places along the route as early as 7 a.m. in anticipation of a midafternoon conclusion. There is entertainment and a festive aura that permeates the entire town. As the day progresses, sponsors’ vans and trucks arrive distributing freebies. The race itself is viewed on big screens. And overriding everything is a sense of history. This is the most important sporting event in the country.
This was Year 6 in the reign of King Lance I, and he obliged the fans with a thrilling stage victory, winning with a furious sprint that made the long wait well worthwhile. He had pretty much wrapped up the Tour victory, and it really was an ongoing coronation that would be consummated with his triumphant entrance into Paris two days later.
Yes, there had been attacks on him from aggressive segments of the French media, who were sure this cancer survivor was not entirely on the up-and-up. But most people believed Armstrong when he said he was innocent of the charges and that he had never failed a drug test, and that’s all there was to it.
We all know better now, and never mind Armstrong’s pathetic denials. The Everest of evidence is irrefutable.
Does it matter that he was not the only doper, just the best one? Does it matter that the entire sport was populated by dopers? Does that excuse him? Some would say yes. He was only keeping up with the Joneses.
What I do know is how I feel after being immersed in the Tour de France euphoria for those few days. I feel the same way I feel about having covered the Mark McGwire assault on the Roger Maris home run record in 1998. I feel deceived.
I cannot overstate how much fun it was to be in St. Louis that Labor Day weekend 14 years ago when McGwire arrived home needing three home runs to break the record, and got the job done. It was a festival of baseball outside the pennant race, for none of the three teams — the Cardinals, Cubs or Reds — were having good seasons. But none of that mattered. The focus was on McGwire and Sammy Sosa, and everybody was into it, so much so that Cincinnati manager Jack McKeon, who had routinely walked McGwire as a matter of policy, said he would pitch to him every time up, no matter the circumstance.
I promise you I was not alone in my enthusiasm. There was something completely uplifting about the whole affair. It was a total feel-good experience.
I feel deceived.
But at least the McGwire-Sosa shenanigans of that weekend took place outside the realm of championship play. None of those teams were going anywhere.
Armstrong and his cohorts have ruined their sport’s marquee event, calling into question the viability of the entire enterprise. It was even necessary for IOC chieftain Jacques Rogge to state that cycling would continue to be an Olympic sport. Keep in mind that the road cycling winner in London was Aleksandr Vinokurov, fresh from a two-year suspension for, yup, blood doping. Nice sport.
Drug cheats distort and pervert everything. They should never be given a pass.