“I assert my innocence. Certainly I have never tested positive. I have never been caught with anything.”
-Lance Armstrong, 26 July 1999
Around the time of Lance Armstrong’s first retirement in 2005, there were rumors that a movie was going to be made about his life. After the release of the US Anti-Doping Authority’s Reasoned Decision, which beyond a reasonable doubt establishes that he “and his handlers engaged in a massive and long running scheme to use drugs, cover their tracks, intimidate witnesses, tarnish reputations, lie to hearing panels and the press and do whatever was necessary to conceal the truth,” the producers of this film should be doubly pleased, pleased that they avoided the embarrassment of making what would likely have been a hagiopic about a cheat and pleased that the Reasoned Decision has now turned their story into something as good as Citizen Kane. If you enjoyed It’s Not About the Bike, Every Second Counts and Melville’s The Confidence Man, you’ll love the Reasoned Decision.
To talk of movies when real lives have been traumatized may sound frivolous, but the 202 page Decision is a page turner. The case against Armstrong takes us to mysterious meetings with the notorious Dr. Michele Ferrari by the side of a highway outside Milan (“So the fucking press doesn’t hound him” in Lance’s words); we unearth secret refrigerators full of blood, drugs flushed down the toilet of a camper van and needle bruises on arms hastily concealed with makeup. It is earthy stuff, and sometimes beautifully written:
Shortly thereafter, Armstrong explained to Landis that he was going to be gone for a few weeks to train and he asked Landis to stay at his apartment and check the temperature of the blood each day and make sure there were no problems with the electricity or the refrigerator. Landis agreed to babysit the blood.
The Reasoned Decision is shocking not only for the power with which it establishes, through sworn eyewitness testimony, scientific analysis and a paper trail establishing over a million dollars in payments from Armstrong to Dr. Ferrari, the case against Armstrong, but for the way it reminds us of how easy it is to get history — even, or perhaps especially, recent history — completely wrong. The sordid career of Respondent Armstrong must now, like the missing film between two cuts, be interpolated with the fraudulently hagiography of the Public Lance. Nothing was as it seemed: the colony of American professional cyclists in Girona, Spain was not an expression of camaraderie, but a community organized around a refrigerator full of blood. Armstrong’s famous spring training camps in the mountains proved not the ‘inspirational’ dedication which launched a flotilla of sporting goods commercials (“I’m on my bike busting my ass six hours a day. What are you on?”) but a desire to hide from drug testers. The image of the US Postal Service Team bus pretending to be broken down by the side of a mountain road during the 2004 Tour de France so that riders could reinfuse their blood inside seems to summarize a separation between appearance and reality so violent it would be hard to believe were it not so believable.
The cheating of Respondent Armstrong was too vast to be hidden from public view during those years and there were enough indications that we should have known better a long time ago. There was his positive test for cortisone in the 1999 Tour de France (swept away with a backdated prescription for cortisone cream to treat a saddle sore), the syringes and packaging for the drug “Actovegin” found in the team’s trash in 2000 and most of all Armstrong’s bullying of those who dared speak out against his myth, most dramatically during stage 18 the 2004 Tour de France when on live television he inexplicably chased down and exchanged angry words with the Italian cyclist Filippo Simeoni, who had testified against Dr. Ferrari in an Italian court. Armstrong was never my favorite rider, and I concluded well before this week that he had probably doped (though I had no idea to such an extent) but I and too many others somehow managed to dismiss or disregard these moments in which the truth poked through like crocuses in melting snow.
“If Lance is clean, it is the greatest comeback in the history of sports. If he isn’t, it would be the greatest fraud.”
-Greg LeMond, three time Tour de France champion
You don’t have to be a cycling fan (if such a creature still exists after this week) to find interest in this affair. Greg LeMond’s famous statement above may well not go far enough: this could be the biggest fraud in the history of the world. In any case, the myth of Lance and its sordid undoing fit into the dynamic of recent history. Put mildly, we live in extreme times, times which if they were a meal might consist of anchovies followed by truffles and chocolate ice cream with bacon on top. It’s hard to keep it all down sometimes. On the good side of ‘never in my life did I think I’d see’ is the election of an African-American president, the Red Sox’ two World Series wins and that’s about it. Everything is as big as Lance’s Texas now — the biggest terrorist attack, a global economic crisis, two wars, one of them fought on a whim and paid for “on a credit card,” as Joe Biden said, the other the longest in US history and bought the same way. Of the same cloth was the ridiculous spectacle of a man winning the Tour de France seven times in a row. To have at least this lie debunked, and with such thoroughness that even the blindest fans now seem to have changed their minds, is a blow struck not just for the truth but for normalcy over spectacle.
This election season has seen the simultaneous rise of the fact-checker and of a new form of what we might as well call lying. The fact-checker’s task is made more difficult, perhaps even futile, when what is needed is not just a point-by-point refutation but, to revive a term which deserves a comeback, comeuppance. During the first Obama-Romney debate the problem was not so much the president’s off-night or Romney’s misrepresentations but the difficulty of refuting Romney’s style, his dangerous ability to say anything and sound as though he knows what he’s talking about. Lance was able to get away with vilifying those brave enough to stand up to him — people like Irish journalist Paul Kimmage, LeMond, former teammate Frankie Andreu and his wife Betsy — in part because he was slicker than they were. Style triumphed over the truth, which is sometimes ragged, sometimes inarticulate, often inconvenient. That one man was able to keep so much damning truth at bay for so long is disturbing, but it is part of a more widespread contemporary tendency in which the most seemingly-extreme voices end up being correct on questions like the war in Iraq, the financial industry, genetically modified crops and many others big and small. Obviously such voices not inevitably right, but surely there is a similarity between the way Lance Armstrong treated Betsy Andreu (“vindictive,” “bitter,” “vengeful”) and the way John Howard’s government treated the whistleblower Andrew Wilkie, a former intelligence analyst who maintained, correctly as it turned out, that Saddam Hussein had no WMDs (“unstable and flaky,” “unbalanced”).
Such a dynamic, in which those who speak “truth against the world” are always less powerful and less slick than those inconvenienced by the truth leads to a massive comeuppance deficit. In the same week as the Reasoned Decision came out, a different, and I fear less decisive, form of comeuppance made the rounds in the form of a speech to Parliament by Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard in which she annihilated with almost extra-terrestrial skill the misogyny of the Opposition Leader Tony Abbott. For American liberals despairing, excessively to my mind, over Obama’s debate performance, the force of Gillard’s speech was a tonic (and there are many similarities between the two leaders — both the first African-American president and the first Australian woman to become prime minister have achieved imperfect but substantial and under-appreciated reforms against a vicious and recalcitrant opposition of the perpetual “no”). In spite of their past eloquence, both Obama and, until this week, Gillard, have had trouble finding their voices behind the big desk. Comeuppance isn’t easy to come by; eloquence isn’t enough, especially without a Reasoned Decision to back you up. That comeuppance is richly deserved does not make it any easier to bring about. Like George Amberson Minafer in Orson Welles’ The Magnificent Ambersons (1942), Tony Abbott got his comeuppance “three times and running over” in Parliament last week, but whatever it has done to turn her into a cult figure among American progressives, Gillard’s speech has likely only further alienated an increasingly ignorant and angry Australian electorate to which Abbott seems as perfectly attuned as an SUV to its McMansion.
“We like our credibility.”
-Lance Armstrong, 2010
Compared to such struggle, Armstrong’s thorough and swift undoing by the USADA seems a deus ex machina, but the Tony Abbott brigade are not the only ones who, as Nelson Mandela said of George W. Bush, “cannot think properly.” This story reveals the moral assumptions of those who comment on it in a stark and sometimes jarring way. Though nearly all of Armstrong’s true believers are now either disillusioned or lying low, a few remarkably stupid things have been said in the wake of the Reasoned Decision:
Bêtise # 1: Everyone was Doing it So that Makes it OK
Even if it were true, this would be stupid coming from an eight year old. It is also lazy and unfair to the riders who compromised their careers by choosing not to dope, be it that they finished in 81st place. Go down to your local amateur bike race and you will see Armstrong’s victims, the racers cheated by the cheaters, the ones who should have been riding around France in his place.
Bêtise #2: It’s All too Hard, Just Let Everyone Dope
This one made The New Yorker website, where Michael Specter wrote the following silliness:
The time has come for professional cycling to acknowledge reality: cyclists use drugs. Perhaps the best approach is simply to let them. That way everyone can, for the first time in years, compete at the same level.
I don’t know how anyone can read the Reasoned Decision and come to such a conclusion. Leaving aside the fact that performance-enhancing drugs are bad for you, and that the young and talented bike racers who love the sport but don’t want to dope are exactly those who should be encouraged, what the USADA revealed is that during the Armstrong era the cheats were so far ahead of the testers that doping practically was allowed. The sport became a competition to hire the best doctor. Only a very careless or unlucky doper would ever test positive (the section which describes how Armstrong and his teammates dodged the tests is perhaps the most useful for the future of cycling). Turning cycling into a version of “The World’s Strongest Man” with picture postcard scenery would be the surest way to kill the sport. Daniel Coyle, the co-author of former Armstrong teammate Tyler Hamilton’s new book The Secret Race, put it very well:
When everyone can dope, it becomes a contest of who has the best information, who has the best access, who has the best doctor, and who has the most money. That’s what this contest is — it’s a chess game of information, connections and money. And whoever wins that chess game has the better chance of winning the Tour. What happens when you have a situation when there aren’t strong regulations, and people can dope, it’s the opposite of a level field, it’s a hugely distorted playing field, and it’s tilted toward people with access, with information and with money. And that’s the game you want to avoid playing. The level playing field of doping is a total myth.
Almost as damaging as the cheating encouraged by Dr. Ferrari and his ilk is the way they drained the sport of its intrinsic sensory appeal by turning performance into a matter of numbers, of hemocrit levels and wattages. Cheaters willingly dehumanize themselves. Armstrong rode like a robot.
“I’ll say to the people who don’t believe, the cynics and the skeptics: I’m sorry for you. I’m sorry you don’t believe in miracles.”
-Lance Armstrong, 2005
The worship of the heroic Lance through the television as he put minutes into the best riders in the world up some Sestriere or Alp d’Huez is as distant from the appeal of riding a bicycle as the difference between that mute team bus stopped on a mountain road and the bloody business going on inside. Standing on the podium on the Champs Elysées after pulling on his seventh yellow jersey, Lance was sorry for those of us who “don’t believe in miracles.” Like so much of what he said, it seems ridiculous now, but even more ridiculous is the pursuit of heroes or moral values in professional sports. The single-mindedness of an Armstrong would be unbearable in everyday life — have you ever talked to someone who seems to be trying to ‘win’ the conversation? — and yet he fit into a more widespread addiction to winning, whether piano competitions, presidential debates or climbing the corporate ladder. Be the protagonist of your own life we are told. When I worked in a cubicle I would sometimes look over at my colleagues, the ones who seemed comfortable behind their screens, and the concentrated look on their faces, their hunched posture, their hands close together reminded me of nothing so much as a pro bike racer racing a time trial, the so-called “race of truth.” A certain sweet poetry of human faiblesse has gone out of the world, and Lance Armstrong took some of it with him.
The USADA has answered many questions and raised others. Why did US Postal Team director Johan Bruyneel seem “to have an hour’s advance notice prior to” drug tests? Was Lance Armstrong’s $100,000 donation to the Union Cycliste Internationale in 2002 paid to cover up a positive drug test? How many riders were dopers? Lance Armstrong was a great doper, was he even that good a cyclist? For how much will a downtown Sydney bike shop be able to sell the special edition yellow and black “Livestrong” Trek road bike hanging from its ceiling? So what is professional sport for? Yes, watching the 1989 Tour de France got me hooked on cycling, but now my own motivation to ride my bike is completely disconnected from whether or not there is a Tour de France, and I suspect the majority of cyclists I know would rather be riding epic singletrack in the woods than sitting in the lounge room pretending to care about the victories of people they will never know and who will never know them. How much more ephemeral, how much more fleeting is the pleasure of pro sports than the memory of my first ride, not even in proper clothes, on my first proper mountain bike as darkness fell and I had twenty minutes to ride before I needed to catch the train. Who remembers, who cares, does anything matter less than how many medals your country won in London, Beijing or Athens? Who ever regrets a walk in the woods?
The creepiness of professional sport lies in being expected to judge the morality of strangers, of sporting “personalities,” solely through the framework of sport. The arts are thankfully somewhat different. I can like, or love, a building by Frank Lloyd Wright, or Le Corbusier without liking or disliking its creator because their creation exists far enough outside them for me to think my way into the object itself, without the creator’s human presence. Art is open in a way in which sport is closed (which is one of the reasons why I find attempts to impose competition on art so disturbing, or at least less interesting than the question of which pie wins the blue ribbon at the country fair).
Pro cycling may appear to have finally done itself in, but I doubt it. Far from the television screen, beyond where it matters who wins, out on the road itself there is something irreplaceable about a big bike race. The places of pro cycling, its geography and traditional calendar, what cycling photographer Graham Watson captured in his book Landscapes of Cycling, are far more enduring than the “personalities” who win or lose. When last April I finally stood in the Arenberg Forest in Northern France, an ancient road which is the most difficult cobblestone section in the Paris-Roubaix classic, I realized that the tires which had bounced over those misshapen stones had written the history of that place. A road which may or may not be Roman owes its fascination to cycling to the point where, after the race has passed, I could, nearly alone, walk the road and appreciate each stone as though it were sculpture. My pleasure had nothing and everything to do with sport. The sense of camaraderie among the spectators, their admiration for the winner (Tom Boonen, who only tested positive once, for recreational rather than performance-enhancing drugs), these were ephemeral, but the sense of place was real because Arenberg, beyond cycling, belongs to a wider fellowship of interesting and uncanny places. That might not be much, but if the Reasoned Decision returns to cycling back the thrill of those primitive stones then it could be the beginning of something better, maybe even normal.