Hero or villain?

Lance Armstrong: The World’s Greatest Champion
John Wilcockson
John Murray; €11.85

JUDGING a book by its cover has rarely been so tempting: “the world’s greatest champion” proclaims this biography of seven-time Tour de France winner Lance Armstrong. And John Wilcockson does little to dissuade the reader that he is an Armstrong apologist.

The American cyclist divides opinion like few other sporting greats. On the face of it, here stands a remarkable athlete, one who defied medical opinion to survive testicular cancer, before going on to overcome one of sport’s toughest tests a record number of times. A hero to millions, and a champion of the worthiest of causes.

Others, however, see an arrogant, prickly character, and find it difficult to believe that his grandiose feats in a sport riddled with drugs were achieved while remaining whiter than white. Bold revelations by the likes of disgraced former team-mate Floyd Landis haven’t helped quash such fears.

Those with a foot in this camp won’t be surprised to hear that “brash” is the most prevalent descriptive term to describe Armstrong in this book.

Armstrong vigorously contests the oft-whispered notion that he doped his way to success, and with no little justification.

Despite being an obvious target, he has never tested positive, and last year made an unlikely comeback to professional cycling, partiality motivated by a desire to prove his innocence.

He even posted the results of his drug tests online, and went on to succeed where the likes of Michael Jordan failed, by completing a creditable sporting comeback, defying predictions by finishing third in Le Tour in 2009.

Fate has conspired against Armstrong’s hopes of an eighth victory this year, in what he says is his last Tour.

But he continues to be dogged by doping accusations, the latest of which are being investigated by a US district court.

And it’s against that backdrop that questions still hang over any Armstrong book.

That’s not to say Wilcockson’s exhaustive biography isn’t worth reading — if you put your pretence aside and evaluate it purely as a narrative, it is enthralling.

Few are more qualified to write such a project either: Wilcockson is a veteran cycling journalist who has covered more than 40 Tours de France.

However, even those who want to believe Armstrong’s remarkable achievements are pure may find it difficult not to be sceptical here.

It is not clear whether Wilkinson came to the conclusion that Armstrong has no case to answer throughout the course of his comprehensive efforts — which see him interview more than 60 of the protagonists in the Armstrong story, including his estranged father, Terry.

And the depth of such interviews is superb, justifying the need for an external examination of Armstrong’s life and times, despite the presence of two autobiographies by the cyclist, and one by his mother, Linda.

But given the book’s blurb trades on Wilcockson’s “complete access to Armstrong and his inner circle”, one wonders whether he has paid the ultimate biographer’s price, whether he intended to or not.

Many journalists are guilty — subconsciously or otherwise — of currying favour with an athlete with a view to being selected to ghost-write their memoirs, or to achieve the level of access Wilcockson is given here.

Armstrong apparently gave Wilcockson carte blanche, and did not ask to see the book prior to it going to print. Given Wilcockson’s deference to Armstrong and the lack of scrutiny of some crucial material, it seems he needn’t have worried in any case.

Those hoping for a stern examination of the doubts surrounding Armstrong may therefore be disappointed. Nonetheless, to cast aside such apprehension is to maximise enjoyment of what is a skilled and vivid construction of one of modern sport’s most storied and complex characters.


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