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January 18, 2013 7:30 pm
It is not true that cheating has become a run-of-the-mill feature of American life. But Americans do have a difficult time explaining what is wrong with it.
This week, before the cyclist Lance Armstrong admitted in an interview with Oprah Winfrey that he had used performance-enhancing drugs, the wildest rumours and discussions were circulating in US daily newspapers. According to these accounts Mr Armstrong was angling for a lifting of his lifetime ban from competition. In exchange, the 41-year-old would give testimony against teammates, financial backers or figures in the International Cycling Union.
It is too early to estimate the legal fallout of Mr Armstrong’s mea culpa. But this sort of plea bargain makes no sense. Why would any prosecutor, or any custodian of the good name of the sport of cycling, want to get to the people “behind” Mr Armstrong? This is like promising immunity to a wayward chief executive on the condition that he spill the beans about two interns in the mailroom.
Mr Armstrong was once regarded as the most dominant cyclist who ever lived. He has been the cynosure of every group he joined. For the past decade and a half, he has won every kind of kudos: money, celebrity, a position atop the cancer charity Livestrong that he founded, and which conferred on him a halo of moral unimpeachability. His biography was inspiring. Stricken with cancer of the testicles, lungs and brain in 1996, aged 25, he recovered to win seven Tours de France. His name was on the lips, and his poster on the walls, of every boy and girl who dreamt of cycling fame. He dated the rock star Sheryl Crow. And his cancer charity gave him a role that was not so far from that of Mother Teresa. People wore rubbery yellow “Livestrong” bracelets like so many saints’ cameos.
For much of that time there were people arguing that the story didn’t add up. First a few journalists, then his bike-racing teammates and eventually US investigators levelled the charge that Mr Armstrong used performance-enhancing drugs. He responded not just with denials but with indignation, and he kept it up until October, when the US Anti-Doping Agency published a highly detailed document placing him at the centre of what it called “the most sophisticated, professionalised and successful doping programme that sport has ever seen”.
This is saying something, for of all sports cycling is the one with the most persistent doping problem. Others accused him of abusing his reputation as a philanthropist and his place in the hearts of his goggle-eyed fans. His charity became a weapon. Since it fought cancer, and since his racing served that fight, to raise questions about the integrity of his racing was to take cancer’s side, or so it was implied. His money enabled him to hire the Washington law firm and lobbyists Patton Boggs to make his case.
Mr Armstrong’s travails are part of a larger story of moral slackness in sport. The Usada report considers that of the 45 top-three finishers in the Tour de France between 1996 and 2010, 36 were “tainted by doping”. On a more provincial note, voting was held for the Baseball Hall of Fame last week, and two of the all-time greats – Roger Clemens and Barry Bonds – were denied admission, on suspicion of steroid use.
But Mr Armstrong had the leverage to intimidate, harass, punish and discredit anyone likely to bring out the truth. He sued a Texas promoter for hesitating to pay him Tour de France bonus money. He successfully sued The Sunday Times of London for libel. According to Usada, in 2005 he got a doctor who had been quoted in a French newspaper story about Mr Armstrong removed from the TIAA-CREF cycling team. Tour de France winner Greg LeMond’s wife said of Mr Armstrong to the Los Angeles Times: “I can’t describe to you the level of fear he brings to a family.” Mr Armstrong treated doubters as contemptible losers. To the “cynics and sceptics” he said: “I’m sorry for you, I’m sorry you can’t dream big.”
The American self-image of resilience, hard work, charity and “dreams” has its dark side. Part of the reason Mr Armstrong had such a long ride is that his misdeeds were wrapped up in the things Americans value most about themselves.
The sports writer Buzz Bissinger faulted Usada last summer for refusing to let sleeping dogs lie, for persisting in its investigation of Mr Armstrong. “He is a hero,” Mr Bissinger wrote, “one of the few we have left in a country virtually bereft of them. And he needs to remain one.”
No he doesn’t. America will not miss him. Whether Mr Armstrong races competitively again is of little importance, although it can be hoped that his atonement will some day prove sincere enough to inspire people as his racing once did.
The writer is a senior editor at The Weekly Standard
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