It’s not just children who believe in fairytales. Adults love them too.
Thirteen years ago, a ghosted autobiography called It’s Not About The Bike won the William Hill Sports Books of the Year.
The book told the story of a road cyclist from Plano, Texas. A prodigiously gifted athlete, Lance Armstrong won the World Road Race Championship when he was just 21. But in October 1996, the American was diagnosed with cancer. Doctors gave him a 40% chance of survival.
Discharged from hospital in February 1997, Armstrong entered the 1999 Tour de France. After completing the 2,293-mile course he entered Paris in the yellow jersey. Sixteen months after he returned to full training, Armstrong had won the toughest endurance event in the world.
It’s a great story and Armstrong’s book sold millions. And why wouldn’t it? It’s Not About The Bike is one of the greatest fairytales ever put to print.
People like to believe in miracles. They want heroes, super-humans who they can look to for inspiration. Armstrong fulfilled that role and he was worshipped. But now that Lance has been exposed as a liar and a cheat, the backlash has got ugly. All of a sudden, it has emerged that Armstrong is a cold-blooded bully, that he is vindictive, unemotional, manipulative and obsessed with money.
Given the manner in which people idolised Armstrong, it’s entirely understandable that they now feel betrayed by him.
However, if the veneration of Armstrong went overboard, his recent demonisation has also gone too far.
The notion that Armstrong hoodwinked all of us into believing that he was some type of all-American good guy is ridiculous. There was always plenty of evidence to indicate that he wasn’t an entirely pleasant character.
In another book, Lance Armstrong: Tour de Force, Armstrong is presented as a flawed and complex individual. We see that he is ultra-competitive. Rivals are regarded as enemies. The portrait painted by the author Daniel Coyle is not entirely likeable, yet the fascinating thing about the book is that it was written with Armstrong’s co-operation. He read and approved every chapter.
Clearly, Armstrong doesn’t regard himself as a saint-like figure. By his own admission, he regards sport as a battle. Given his personality it was probably a foregone conclusion that Armstrong would resort to the syringe.
While Armstrong’s interview with Oprah Winfrey was widely criticised, he was correct when he stated that doping was “part of the process required to win the Tour”.
Consider the background to his first victory in ’99. The previous year’s event was won by the late Marco Pantani, an Italian cyclist who took industrial quantities of EPO. The 1997 edition was won by Jans Ullrich, who is currently serving a lifetime ban. Bjarne Riis, the winner in 1996, has since confessed that he was pumped to the gills with EPO.
Now, put yourself in the position that Lance Armstrong was in when he returned to cycling. He would have suspected that Riis, Ullrich and Pantani were on EPO, which was rampant at the time.
It would have been inconceivable for Armstrong to have concluded that he could win the Tour without taking drugs.
Furthermore, and this is where it gets even murkier, the history of cycling tells us that the sport in continental Europe has a complicated attitude to doping. Italian great Fausto Coppi admitted to using stimulants when he dominated cycling after the Second World War. Coppi is still widely regarded as the greatest Italian sportsman of all time.
Frenchman Jacques Antequil, the first cyclist to win five Tours, publicly admitted that he used drugs to help him race.
The ‘Antequil Cocktail,’ was a mixture of painkiller, stimulant and sleeping pill. It was also perfectly legal and it was injected into legs of riders during the race.
Amphetamines were found in the jersey of English cyclist Tom Simpson after he died of exhaustion near the summit of Mount Ventoux during the Tour of ’67.
Of course, cycling’s dysfunctional relationship with doping is still no excuse for Lance Armstrong. Not only did he cheat, he also inflicted turmoil and misery on those who dared to question his methods.
However, Armstrong should not be condemned in isolation. The UCI, the sport’s governing body and the world’s media also failed miserably.
The UCI’s ineptitude is scandalous. Of the 17 winners of the Tour de France since 1980, nine have either tested positive or admitted to doping. That statistic alone suggests that professional cycling is rotten to the core and that the UCI is incapable of policing their sport. The UCI’s willingness to accept a $125,000 donation from Armstrong raises even more worrying questions.
The media also failed to execute their role as watchdogs. With the exception of David Walsh and Paul Kimmage, the vastmajority of journalists performed the role of cheerleaders.
Armstrong’s story is a common one. He was the emperor with no clothes. But the sport and its loyal fans needed men of courage and integrity to shout out the truth.
As we now know, those entrusted to perform that job unilaterally failed to do so. And that’s why all the scorn and opprobrium shouldn’t be heaped solely on the head of Lance Armstrong.
He was the central character of a fairytale that only came to be believed because weak men refused to tell us that it wasn’t true.