As a morality play for our times the Lance Armstrong saga has a pretty hackneyed and distasteful plot.
It has however, an all too familiar ring of truth about it.
An individual with an unspectacular track record suddenly dominates a sport/bank/government/church and becomes so very powerful, so central to the future of their organisation or sport, that they become almost untouchable — until they outlive their usefulness or are dethroned by a more ruthless figure that is.
They insist that they have nothing but the good of the organisation or sport at heart, they insist that their heart glows with good intentions, but they ruthlessly sustain their position by any means, fair or foul.
In Lance Armstrong’s case the machinations went well beyond fair or foul. He lied, cheated, intimidated, slandered and demeaned the once-great sport he, and thousands of other drug cheats, helped to destroy. Along the way he ruined the careers of a good number of people, the few brave enough to speak out about his drug cheating. Like many celebrated but deluded despots/plutocrats/oligarchs/crooks/paedophiles he had a pet charity he used as a cordon sanitaire, a shield against accusations of dishonesty or immorality.
What makes Armstrong’s life of lies important is not that he has any more relevance than any other multi-millionaire who built his fortune on dishonesty and intimidation. What makes it relevant is the pathetic reaction of the institutions set up to protect sports, individuals — even from themselves — and the social and legal omerta that protects people as dishonest and immoral as Armstrong.
Yesterday, more than two decades after credible evidence on Armstrong’s behaviour was published the International Cycling Union (UCI) stripped him of his seven Tour de France titles and banned him for life.
Describing this as shutting the door after the horse has bolted would be a very indulgent way of putting it — not only has the horse bolted but it was long ago turned into pet food and survives, if at all, only in fading memories. And, like many other institutions accused of standing idly by, the UCI’s statement of contrition is unmatched by its record. As late as yesterday UCI boss Pat McQuaid, like so many organisation heads before him, seemed in denial about the extent of the problem and his organisation’s failure to confront it.
That contrition is undermined even further by the fact that the UCI is shamefully suing journalist Paul Kimmage, who, along with David Walsh, are two of the few people who come out of this farce with reputations enhanced. Kimmage and Walsh have shown, over decades and in the face of intimidation and derision, the kind of courage and integrity that epitomise great journalism executed in the public interest.
Unfortunately, Armstrong is not alone and a cloud of suspicion, to one degree or another, hangs over nearly all professional sport. It is time for a new approach to the doping problem. Might a system where say, the Irish Rugby Football Union, the Irish Turf Club or the Sports Council, publish on their site and update the data several times a year, when each player on its pay roll or any jockey it licenses, was last tested for illegal drugs and what the results were?
If sponsors and television who, through all of us, finance these organisations insisted on such a measure it would go a long way to neutralising the next Lance Armstrong. And that would be a victory for all of us.
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