where is the outrage?
I’m no fan of Lance Armstrong…but, watching his chickens come home to roost this past week has been disheartening in its own way. At the end of the day, I have to question why there is no outrage directed toward the organizations that most benefit from the duplicity in cycling and other sports regarding the use of performance enhancing drugs…the promoters and sponsors.
A tacit understanding
Once upon a time, I wrote a paper (Betrayal of Trust) on the regulation (or lack thereof)of performance enhancing drugs in horse racing. My take then and now is that the promoters (and this includes sponsors) have the greatest interest in maintaining the façade of regulating the sport and keeping its participants clean, while allowing (read as tacitly encouraging) a culture of secret use and abuse of performance enhancing drugs.
It’s easy to focus on Lance as the beneficiary of this secret compact (sure, he has made his millions), but the organizations have much greater interests in play. The Tour was hugely promoted and public interest was kindled in the relatively untapped US market, when Lance went on his winning streak. If you look at who really benefited, Lance’s takings are a pittance compared to what the promoters received from the increased demand for their product -Le Tour- and the exposure that sponsors received for their products. Lance did what LeMonde and an outlier like Indurain (the Secretariat of cyclists) couldn’t. To an organization looking to promote the sport, how he did it is of secondary importance (if they care at all).
cracks in the façade
The reports that there was a cover up involving a positive test for Lance at the 2001 Tour de Suisse, has put a crack in the façade, showing the promoters as the co-conspirators they really are. Such behavior is not without precedent. Rumors have surrounded positive tests for Carl Lewis for years. At the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics, nine positive drug tests were reported out by the lab, but never acted upon by the International Olympic Committee. Prince Alexandre de Merode, chairman of the International Olympic Committee medical commission said the tests were never acted upon because all material related to the cases were taken from de Merode’s offices at the Biltmore Hotel in Los Angeles and destroyed in a shredder. Speculation is that Carl Lewis, the star whose athletic performances rekindled American interest in the Olympics, after the 1980 U.S. boycott of the Moscow games, was among the nine.
Meanwhile in 1988, at the US Olympic trials leading to the Seoul Olympics, Lewis tested positive for the banned stimulants found in cold medications: pseudoephedrine, ephedrine and phenylpropanolamine. The US Olympic Committee cleared Lewis finding that his ingestion of the stimulants was inadvertent. Remember 1988 was the year that Ben Johnson was disqualified and Lewis was subsequently awarded the gold medal in the 100m. It’s Orwellian how name athletes have their reputations protected through the use of doublespeak by the promoting agencies or the athlete’s own public relations team, while others are vilified as tainting the sport.
The award for the most notorious example of allowing the use of performance enhancing substances to reinvigorate public interest goes to the baseball owners. After the strike years, interest in America’s national pastime was waning. So a blind eye was turned, as the number of home runs sky rocketed.
show me the money
Whether its seven consecutive Tour victories, nine gold medals, or 73 home runs, off the charts performance draws the interest of casual fans. That interest translates into money for the promoters and the sponsors. How many more bikes did Trek sell after Lance’s victories? In college, I remember having to read about the Tour in the newspaper. ESPN aired highlights at inconsistent hours of the day and night. Live coverage sponsored by Subaru, the Discovery Channel, or Nike was unimaginable. Then there was Lance and everything changed.
warning: don’t feed the delusion
After the 1998 Festina affair spiralled out of control and exposed Richard Virenque and the swirl of controversy surrounding Jan Ullrich, you had to be delusional to ignore the facts and reach the conclusion that Lance was riding clean and still beating these guys. Yet, American fans willingly deluded themselves, all the while demanding to be entertained with super-human performances. That’s the axe I have to grind with Lance Armstrong…he fed the delusion. Now, the only way for him to maintain the lie is to attack the credibility of the team mates that helped him succeed. Meanwhile, the promoters, sponsors (yes, Festina is a sponsor for the 2011 Tour), and even the riders will cluck about cleaning up the sport. There really is no honor among thieves.
Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose
In 1924 the journalist Albert Londres followed the Tour de France for the French newspaper, Le Petit Parisien. At Coutances he heard that the previous year’s winner, Henri Pélissier, his brother Francis and a third rider, Maurice Ville, had pulled out after a row with the organiser, Henri Desgrange. Henri Pélissier explained the problem – whether or not he had the right to take off a jersey – and went on to talk of drugs, reported in Londres’ race diary, in which he coined the phrase Les Forçats de la Route (The Convicts of the Road):
- “You have no idea what the Tour de France is,” Henri said. “It’s a Calvary. Worse than that, because the road to the Cross has only 14 stations and ours has 15. We suffer from the start to the end. You want to know how we keep going? Here…” He pulled a phial from his bag. “That’s cocaine, for our eyes. This is chloroform, for our gums.”
- “This,” Ville said, emptying his shoulder bag “is liniment to put warmth back into our knees.”
- “And pills. Do you want to see pills? Have a look, here are the pills.” Each pulled out three boxes.
- “The truth is,” Francis said, “that we keep going on dynamite.”
Henri spoke of being as white as shrouds once the dirt of the day had been washed off, then of their bodies being drained by diarrhoea, before continuing:
- “At night, in our rooms, we can’t sleep. We twitch and dance and jig about as though we were doing St Vitus’s Dance…”
- “There’s less flesh on our bodies than on a skeleton,” Francis said.
Finishing IS The Final Triumph
But, I’ll continue to follow the Tour. No matter how they get there, completing the Tour is a crazy feat. There is something mesmerizing about watching men risk their necks, endure excruciating pain, face physical and emotional exhaustion and still manage to ride onto the Champs-Élysées and past the Arc de Triomphe.