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  • 07.12.15

    Comment: it's not about Lance

    Lance Armstrong is not the problem, just a successful, unpleasant effect. Scapegoating him is a panacea for cycling’s deeper ills 

    Words
    Andy McGrath
    Photographs
    Offside/L'Equipe

Who likes Lance Armstrong? Thought not. I suspect for most, it’s more than just the doping and the duplicity, it’s his abhorrent actions and personality. With the American, there’s a sizeable tombola filled with nasty traits and actions from which to take one’s pick.

Is it the thousands of lies, told with unblinking conviction? How he was the centre of a radiating network of cheating chums? The gall of portraying himself as the white knight heading a cancer charity? Or is it the aggressive treatment of dissenters and whistleblowers, the never-gonna-catch-me arrogance, the hobnobbing with politicians, the skyrocketing riches and profile?

Armstrong seemingly had one of the most brash and unlikeable personalities in sport. But whether the winner who doped was the world’s biggest jerk or a cheating champion who kept his own counsel and ruffled no feathers shouldn’t matter when it comes to level teatment.

Jeremy Whittle commented in The Times today that it was time to bring this pariah out of exile. Me, I think it was irrational to put him there in the first place. You don’t have to like Armstrong to see that his treatment has been unfair and disproportionate.

After the USADA Reasoned Decision came out in October 2012, his ban was not for two years or even eight; it was for life – from all sports. In doing so, they made an example out of him.

Sure, it was natural for many fans to be filled with disgust or revisionist resentment when it came to Lance, and easy to have a recognisable face as a focal point for hatred rather than the broken systems and governances around him. But that ruling, unprecedented for cycling, seems kneejerk from the arbiters at USADA.

Their intervention last year to stop Armstrong from entering a sportive only underlines the paradox. Armstrong’s team-mates who also doped, helped him to win, got a share of his prize money, complied as USADA witnesses and received six-month bans could have met up for that ride. As he said in his interview in issue 51 of Rouleur: “Is your problem doping or is it one person?”

The erasure of his Tour de France results is strange too. If you cut Armstrong out of Tour history, then what about the achievements of Riis, Ullrich and many others? It’s a tricky maze of double standards.

Let’s face it. If we applied modern anti-doping rules and to the past, the Tour de France’s roll call would be awash with blank spaces. Yet the likes of Coppi and Anquetil seem to engender the kind of dewy-eyed nostalgia and wry smiles reserved for loveable rogues. Those old-time champions on their champagne and amphetamines, eh!

The ongoing fight should be about doping in modern-day cycling. Lance Armstrong is not the problem, or even the cause of the problem, just one very successful effect. It’s not the personalised Armstrong lie, it’s the professional cycling lie, one that started before the Texan was even born and carries on today.

“I didn’t stand over my team-mates telling them to dope… the sport fostered that culture,” he told The Times in an interview published today. “You had a substance, EPO, that was so efficient and if they have an equivalent tomorrow that is undetectable, everyone would be on it.”

So, you can lance Lance, the big boil on cycling’s festering body. Dislike Lance too, and with good reason. Sure, tear down his achievements – but then catch other cheats retroactively and treat them the same too.

Scapegoating Lance and banning him for life isn’t fair and it doesn’t stop the contagion spreading. It’s just a panacea for deeper ills. Stop looking back at Lance, and focus on the contemporary issue in modern sport, the moving target.

The problem of doping hasn’t simply disappeared. Riders are still being caught, corrupt doctors, directors and officials still work in the milieu. The shadowy profiteers from, and perpetuators of, the toxic culture are the ones who need to be expelled.

It’s been over three years since the USADA’s smoking gun, yet there have been no other important truths or revelations from cycling’s past.

I fear that sooner rather than later, another modern-day star will be caught and people will ask ‘what has changed? How can we stop it?’ The answers aren’t there at the moment. That’s the problem, not Lance Armstrong.

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