Lance Armstrong’s embarrassing literary legacy
Lance Armstrong's legacy may be to rip world cycling apart as he continues to ignore doping allegations made by former US Postal teammates and staff (Image: AFP)
In the opening chapter of his memoir It’s Not About The Bike, Lance Armstrong writes: “I want to tell the truth”. Oh dear.
What do we do with the vast catalogue of literature testifying to the greatness of Armstrong, much of it written by his own hand?
Do we burn it, leave it in a cycling museum as a testament to the sport’s darkest period, or study it in order to understand why an athlete went to such lengths to lie and cheat his way to the top?
Strangely, his statement a paragraph later: “Some of it is not easy to tell or comfortable to hear. I’m asking you now, at the outset, to put aside your ideas about heroes and miracles, because I’m not storybook material”, would be the ideal opening for the true story of his career should he choose to tell it.
How would the people who gave heartfelt tributes to Armstrong in those books be feeling now?
Robin Williams has made two poor decisions in his life. The first was to play Mork. The second was writing the foreword to Lance Armstrong Images of a Champion.
“It’s only chemo, my little snail snackers”, he writes in reply to French claims that his hero is taking performance enhancing drugs.
Well, the ‘little snail snackers’ of L’Équipe were right all along.
In the same book, when Tour legends Miguel Indurain (“Who could have told me that this racer would one day win the Tour de France? Who could have told me that, moreover, he would not just win one Tour, but five?”) and Eddy Merckx (“His talents seemed perfectly tilted to being a great one-day Classics rider, not a Tour contender at all…..And now here he was, ripping apart the opposition to win the Tour de France by a mile!”) expressed amazement at the achievements of Armstrong they were paying tribute, not questioning the validity of his wins.
And I’m sure John Wilcockson, author of Lance Armstrong The Worlds’s Greatest Champion, would like to disappear for a while.
The idea that cancer is a battle and that Armstrong is a hero for surviving it brings the uneasy thought that those people who succumb are losers.
There is courage and dignity too in the decision to go home and die on your own terms.
However despite the lies, the self martyrdom, and the self adulation of the Armstrong literary canon there is also some true inspiration.
It’s Not About the Bike was written in 2000, the year after his first Tour victory. If we had learnt then that he had doped his way to the title we may have forgiven him after what he had been through.
But obviously he didn’t know when to stop. Money certainly wasn’t his main motivation – he already had an architecturally designed mansion on Lake Austin and a Porsche before his cancer diagnosis.
Surviving cancer did make his body more suitable for stage racing, and it may have made him the mentally toughest in the peloton.
There was the great attention to detail and the ability to ensure total team committment to his goals.
Unfortunately the books don’t mention the final ingredient that was obviously necessary for Tour greatness: systematic doping.
Christophe Bassons, the French rider who Armstrong berated in the 1999 Tour for highlighting doping and questioning the American’s performances, has been surprisingly sympathetic: “Refusing to take drugs was easy for me, whereas other people have things missing in their lives. Doping is always a response to a void, a need – whether it’s for money, or success, or love, or something else.”
Until Armstrong writes the real story (and can we ever really know when this bloke is telling the whole truth?) we can only guess why he did what he did.
In the meantime we can only nod our heads when reading: “But the drug tests became my best friend because they proved I was clean”. And when looking at photos of Armstrong and Johan Bruyneel in the US Postal bus, wondering which cupboard contains the vials of EPO.
If Lance Armstrong’s foundation brings about a cure for cancer; if it comes across the secret to this dreadful disease – whose treatment is still largely medicine by poisoning – then I’m sure we’ll forgive him.
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