MATT COOPER: Armstrong ‘witch hunt’ claim about drugs misuse just doesn’t stand up

A SIXTEEN-YEAR-OLD cyclist called Keegan Swirbul got an unexpected taste of fame last weekend.

The young cyclist beat Lance Armstrong into second place at an event called the Power of Four race in Aspen, Colorado, a 36-mile race over the toughest of mountains. That’s right: Armstrong was still racing last weekend, even after giving up his defence against the extraordinary charges of drug cheating that have been laid against him by the United States Anti-Doping Agency.

And he was still receiving a hero’s welcome, especially from the 16-year-old who had vanquished him.

Here, according to a report in the New York Times, is what the young winner had to say in the aftermath of his victory: he condemned the USADA case against Armstrong, saying that it was “ruining cycling”.

Swirbul had texted Armstrong the night before the race just to make sure that his hero would be taking part. Swirbul said. “I wanted to race against him my whole life and finally got the opportunity, so it worked out perfectly. It’s been a dream of mine.” Let’s not let the fact that Armstrong has been disgraced, and has contributed massively to undermining public confidence in professional cycling as a fair sport, interfere with a dream. “It’s unfortunate for him, but he’s ready to move on,” Swirbul said.

Really, move on as if nothing untoward has happened, as if Armstrong’s reputation, and cycling’s with it, is not in the toilet? What chances are there of cleaning up cycling when attitudes like that take hold among the next generation?

The New York Times also quoted a local spectator, one Kristen Lassalette, who defended Armstrong on this basis: “You’ll always have haters, unfortunately. For me, I believe that comes from ignorance or not knowing the true facts — and jealousy. The community here embraces him and he supports this community, and so we in turn should support him.”

Wouldn’t it remind you of the support displayed recently in Cavan for Sean Quinn, the businessman who was engaged in what might be called financial doping as he greedily sought to make himself richer and richer? All for the good of the community, wasn’t it? It is a perversely brilliant tactic, to portray those who acquaint themselves with the facts as being the ones who are actually ignorant, or jealous when, of course, it is people like this Lassalette who have willfully decided to ignore the reality of the situation and who provide comfort and support to cheats.

Armstrong, of course, has been playing his usual PR games over the last week, continuing to try to persuade people (in some cases successfully) that he is somehow a victim, but that he will fight on bravely against the unfairness of it all. “Nobody needs to cry for me; I’m going to be great,” Armstrong said after the race. “I have five great kids and a wonderful lady in my life. My foundation is unaffected by all the noise out there.”

What a brilliant combination of defences in just as few sentences. Ah yes, don’t attack any family man. And especially when he is seen to be a good loser.

“It’s cool to get your butt kicked by a 16- or 17-year-old when you know he has a bright future,” Armstrong said.

How noble indeed. But what else would you expect from a cancer survivor, who came so close to death, before dedicating himself to doing so much charitable work (having also amassed a personal fortune estimated at $125 million, based on the achievement of his seven Tour de France victories)? It was that story of recovery from cancer, that had spread as far as his brain and which came close to killing him, that made him such a hero to so many.

Let’s not deny his will power, not just to cycle again but to win all those races. But hold on a second, wasn’t it all too good to be true? It seemed incredible and, literally, it was.

We know that cycling during the decade of Armstrong’s dominance was corrupted by widespread drug taking. Of the top-10 finishers in each of the seven years that Armstrong won the Tour de France, more than half of those riders tested positive for drugs at some stage of their careers. And yet Armstrong, who was never more than a one-day event specialist before his illness, was able to beat all of those drug tests without himself indulging in such cheating?

That, of course, is not evidence, His supporters have consoled themselves by repeating, ad nauseam, that he never had a positive drugs test. It’s not quite true, however. He benefited from a cover-up back in 1999. There is evidence that he benefited from the deliberate turning of blind eyes, of being allowed tip-offs to prepare for “surprise” tests. His story was so good that nobody in authority wanted to deal with it. His chemists were so good that his drug abuse often went undetected. Not being caught in the act doesn’t mean that you are clean. It means that you haven’t been caught in the act of doing it.

It is good to see though that the USADA decided not to be intimidated by public pressure or by the unwillingness of the cycling authorities to do a proper job. It has amassed an enormous amount of testimony for those involved in cycling, who have provided eye-witness accounts of systematic doping by Armstrong. It is not just a couple of cranks, but a large number of people who have decided to tell the truth. The American cyclist has responded by doing what is common to people in his situation — think of those who have been the subject of legitimate inquiry at Irish tribunals, for example — and claimed that he is the victim of “an unconstitutional witch hunt”, that he has been chased by those with axes to grind.

THIS is the type of thing that investigative journalists often hear, and not just those investigating sporting wrongdoing. Great credit is due to two Irish journalists in particular, David Walsh and Paul Kimmage, who, as Kieran Shannon pointed out in this paper on Tuesday, did the job that American “fans with typewriters” in the American media spectacularly failed to do. Kieran pointed out correctly that it takes guts to follow through when the price for doing so can result in personal vilification and intimidation, not just from Armstrong but from other journalists too craven to provide support for their colleagues. (Maybe this is where the real jealously is at play.)

Journalism is often decried by the members of the public, either for not telling it as it is, or for the methods employed to get the required information. Often this criticism does not take the full facts into account. Wealthy people like Armstrong deploy a blizzard of lawyers and media spokesmen to obfuscate the truth and, when that doesn’t work, to threaten journalists and their employers with legal writs.

They often don’t follow through on their legal threats, but they have sufficient money to tie reporters and their employers up in knots. It is the weight of money rather than the facts and the truth that they use to prevent the truth coming out. This applies even more when it is businesspeople and politicians who are the subject of legitimate inquiry. Fortunately, the USADA kept going because journalists and their employers can only do so much, have influence rather than power to get results. If only it was always so when it comes to curbing the wrongdoing of the rich and powerful in other sectors of life, especially here in Ireland — and hopefully, “ordinary people”, as well as compliant media, won’t be so gullible as to be fooled in the way Armstrong’s 16-year-old conqueror was.

* The Last Word with Matt Cooper is broadcast on 100-102 Today FM, Monday to Friday, 4.30pm to 7pm.


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