It came as no surprise to me that cyclist Lance Armstrong has decided not to contest the charges of using performance-enhancing drugs that were made against him by the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency.
Like many other sports fans, I watched in awe as he accumulated his seven Tour de France victories. “This is the stuff of legend,” I thought.
At face value, it was. The Lance Armstrong story was a truly magnificent tale of a man who had faced down aggressive testicular cancer and come back to win the greatest cycle race in the world not once, but seven times. It was the kind of victory every boy dreams about achieving. It was a Disney classic and everyone wanted it to be true. All the great heroes of our dreams have defied logic and appeared to be superhuman; so why not Lance Armstrong?
Even when the warning drums started to beat, I thought that this was jealousy from lesser mortals. But as the drums grew louder, I started to listen to them. I read more from the likes of David Walsh in the Sunday Times. Eventually it dawned on me that Armstrong was never a pure as the driven snow, I had been fooled – again.
I say again because like many others I had been down this road before. Lance Armstrong was not the first sporting god to be found with feet of clay. My first and possibly the worst experience of this type came in August 1988. I woke one morning to find that Ben Johnson had failed a drug test after winning the Seoul Olympic Games 100m final.
That race had been built up to be the greatest 100m race of all time. Carl Lewis, the Olympic champion of 1984 was defending his title. He was too sweet to be wholesome. He was too correct. Actually, he was the class swot – you couldn’t like him. Ben Johnson was a working class hero. He had a poor background, lived in Canada and stuttered. He was the classic underdog. When Johnson won the 100m gold medal, in a world record time, it felt like it was a victory for all ordinary athletes and for the common man.
The subsequent revelation that he was using drugs was one of the greatest disappointments of my all time following sports. It was worse than a kick in the teeth. It was like finding out that your best friend or partner had cheated on you. For me, it has cast a shadow across all world records and sporting achievements since.
Time moves on however, and the impact of the deception fades. Nowadays when I see someone like Roger Federer, or Rafa Nadal play tennis, I admire their class and resilience. When I see Nadal win a five-hour gruelling battle in Paris or Wimbledon and comes out the next day fresh as a daisy, I admire and envy his fitness. Then I think, ‘Is he really that fit?’ That scintilla of doubt, the Ben Johnson legacy, always creeps back into my mind.
This is the greatest crime of Ben Johnson, Lance Armstrong and the others who have won their victories by artificially enhancing their performances; they have robbed us, the sports fans, of our innocence.
In Lance Armstrong’s case the evidence has been overwhelming for some time. Credit must be given to sports reporters David Walsh and Paul Kimmage for pursing Armstrong over the years. For a long time it was their reputations that were at risk, and not that of Armstrong. The cycling world did not want to listen to the reports.
The whole drawn-out saga goes to show that money, and not sportsmanship is at the heart of professional sport. Lance Armstrong is worth over $100m and that is only a small percentage of the total pot of cash that is swirling around the sport of cycling. It took the intervention of the US Anti-Doping Agency to finally accumulate enough witnesses (10) who were prepared testify to Armstrong’s doping and force his hand.
Armstrong has now turned to the last recourse of the villain. He has stopped denying the charges and left them uncontested. He can always say that nothing untoward was ever proven against him, but he will never clear his name either. It was correct to strip him of all the titles he has won. These titles should be left vacant as a testimony to what happens to cheats, because Lance Armstrong was not the only cyclist at that time who that was using performance-enhancing drugs.
Where does it leave the rest of us? That question is best answered by a statement that a friend made to me on Monday evening last. “I live in fear that Usain Bolt is cheating” he said. I had to agree.