Lance Armstrong, the omerta and truth in cycling

Iain Moynihan Roar Rookie

By Iain Moynihan, Iain Moynihan is a Roar Rookie


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    "189 riders began the 1998 Tour in Dublin. When Marco Pantani rode onto the Champs Elysees as the Maillot Jaune on August 2, only 96 remained in the race." (AFP PHOTO/PASCAL GEORGE).

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    A friend today said, “what’s with people still writing stuff about Lance Armstrong, does anybody even care about him anymore?”

    At the time I wholeheartedly agreed.

    In 2010 I waded my way through the whole USADA report and the various testimonies as it just got worse and worse and the ‘watching the tour at 1am’ cycling fan in me died (for a time).

    Now my feelings on cycling have become more positive and I again watch races and enjoy the season. But that’s not what this opinion piece is about.

    Basically, in thinking about the current situation in cycling and engaging in some breif debates on comment sections/forums, given what’s happened in the past, Lance Armstrong (LA) is important.

    LA is not important as an individual or for what drugs he took or for what races he won, LA is important to the sport of cycling for the omerta he represents.

    This omerta was so strong, unified and impenetrable, that it allowed an enormous and stunningly bold fraud to be committed, the biggest lie sport has ever seen.

    In the face of supplements in AFL, steroids in Major League Baseball and match-fixing in cricket, cycling’s omerta was the biggest.

    To define omerta (and I’m open to correction) it is essentially a gentlemen’s agreement between all professional cyclists to present to the public the image of a drug-free sport.

    This doesn’t just mean to not talk about doping, but to act in such a way so as to present yourself and your peers as clean athletes.

    A great example of this is in the testimony of one of the USADA athletes, where they said when an athlete tested positive, the routine was to publicly condemn them.

    Omerta is a cultural tool, it’s not specifically spelled out or enforced by a particular group, it’s something which is ingrained in individuals as they enter the profession eager to perform, and it moulds that individual’s attitudes and way of thinking.

    Omerta has appeared many times in various parts of society, examples include Enronn, at financial institutions with sub-prime lending in the global financial crisis and with sex abuse in the Catholic Church.

    Usually a fraud of the scope and size of LA would be fully and independently investigated, so the public can understand what happened, and steps can be taken to stop it from it happening again (whether that has happened in the examples I just quoted is moot, in that it hasn’t happened, fully, but ideally it would).

    This has not happened in the LA case to any extent.

    The symptoms of the disease have been punished, but the disease itself may still exist, it may not, but as cycling fans and journalists, all on the outside looking in, it’s impossible to know.

    This is obviously the result of poor governance on the part of the UCI, and certainly Brian Cookson’s recent actions have given fans (or at least me) hope.

    It’s important to remember this point when being a cycling fan in the present.

    Cyclists in the present are quick to talk about a change in culture and point to the different style of racing and training, which is fine, these arguments may very well be true.

    However without full disclosure and a proper investigation into the culture which allowed LA’s situation to exist, cycling fans can’t know if what they are seeing is real or not.

    I’m not saying cyclists should be bombarded with doping questions at every opportunity, culture is something which filters down from the top and it is the UCI which has the greatest ability to destroy omerta (should it still exist) and I totally understand it’s difficult for fans to interact with an organisation which they have no voice in.

    Essentially, without a full and proper investigation into cycling at least during the LA era, it’s impossible to know if ‘marginal gains’ are the result of training at altitude or just a different, improved pedalling efficiency.

    It’s impossible to know if Stuey O’Grady really did kick the habbitt in 1998 or if the ‘totally different culture’ really is a different culture and it would be naive of fans should to be too eager to buy into the ‘new cycling’.

    History shows if a culture of secrecy and fraud is not exposed to the public, then it continues to exist.

    At the end of the day, cycling is a sport, it’s hard, it’s people’s livelihoods and it’s big, but it’s not trying to end poverty.

    Fans who fuel the sport should know what they’re watching is real.

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    The Crowd Says (7)

    • December 5th 2013 @ 5:04am
      Harry Coen said | December 5th 2013 @ 5:04am | ! Report

      “In 2010 I waded my way through the whole USADA report and the various testimonies”

      A truly impressive feat. Truly. (Can I have access to your time travel machine, please?)

    • December 5th 2013 @ 9:52am
      The Truth said | December 5th 2013 @ 9:52am | ! Report

      Mate, they are all still doping. You are gullible to believe otherwise. Armstrong was just one of many. And it hasn’t changed. Wiggins definitely doped. The Schleck brothers for sure etc. I actually feel sorry for Lance as he has taken the brunt of the blame and most others including Contador have got away with all their endorsements intact.

    • Roar Rookie

      December 5th 2013 @ 11:50am
      Iain Moynihan said | December 5th 2013 @ 11:50am | ! Report

      Harry: yes it took me 30-40 lunch breaks but I did eventually get there.

      Mr Truth: That’s your opinion, right or wrong. I’m not making the case for clean cycling, nor dirty cycling, I wasn’t really trying to talk about doping specifically. What I am trying to say is that doping is the symptom of the culture of silence, just like sub-prime mortgages were the symptom of a culture of risk taking and poor governance at banks like Bank of America in 2008.

      The symptom of doping can and should be combated with testing, but the only way to break the culture of silence is to reveal it fully, take steps to prevent it happening again and then move forward. At the moment in cycling the fraud has been exposed (LA) but only partially, and now everyone seems to have just sortof moved on and many seem to argue that we shouldn’t fully investigate the culture surrounding this period in the sport.

      • December 5th 2013 @ 1:02pm
        Tricky Dicky said | December 5th 2013 @ 1:02pm | ! Report

        I think Harry was more impressed about your ability to read it in 2010 – before it was written – than your persistence in getting through it all ….

        I’m over it all, frankly. Knowing a few pro riders, I do think things have changed and riders are at least prepared to “have a go” at dopers in the peloton now when they never would have in the past. Mind you, some of the big stars still seem to get a free pass due to their status and their ability to “veto” lesser riders from getting on teams. If Kittel and others were truly brave, they’d also have a go at the likes of Bertie rather than some no-name Turk and other old-timers such as Pettachi and Scarponi should be unemployable.

        I have pretty much resigned myself to seeing the EPO generation work their way out of the sport through natural attrition due to old age rather than wholesale drug bans – and there’s not long to go now thankfully – as I do think the younger riders provide some cautious optimism.

    • Roar Guru

      December 5th 2013 @ 8:44pm
      sheek said | December 5th 2013 @ 8:44pm | ! Report

      Thank you Ian,

      You have given me a new word for my own usage – ‘omerta.’

      We never stop learning new things!

      Omerta – A rule or code that prohibits speaking or divulging information about certain activities, especially the activities of a criminal organisation.

      I like it, I like it very much. In fact, I like it a whole lot!

      I think we might possibly be seeing it at work right now, between the AFL, Essendon FC, ASC & ASADA.

      We witness it in everyday life, in every level of government, among the major banks, oil companies, Coles & Woolies, captains of industry & corporate cross-board members, & so on & so on.

      • December 6th 2013 @ 8:52am
        ed said | December 6th 2013 @ 8:52am | ! Report

        Exactly – this kind of need to know/secret squirrel stuff exists in all sports & industries. Pre 2000 there was no way to test for epo so it’s pretty naive to think pros weren’t doing it. Why not one would think- this is my job, all my competitors are, I can’t get busted. When you live in a bubble sometimes you lose perspective of right & wrong.

        Post the development of the epo test the same riders had to be smarter or more conservative to be able to maintain a livelihood in the sport & the secret club got tighter – that’s understandable

        Just remember no one ever conducts an internal investigation/ enquiry without knowing the answers first.

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