Richard Bath: A concerted campaign by Armstrong to rewrite history
Last week he launched two attempts to portray himself as a victim and to escape culpability for his crimes against sport, both of which are either wantonly delusional or plumb new depths of malignance. Or possibly both.
The American’s reaction to the 918-page report compiled by the French Senate into doping in cycling and to Aussie cyclist Stuart O’Grady’s subsequent admission of EPO use in the notorious 1998 Tour de France was almost stomach-churning in its cynicism.
“Virtually all of us broke the rules, and lied about it,” he said. “I am not surprised [by the O’Grady news]. As I have said, it was an unfortunate era for all of us. It’s popular now to make me the whipping boy – I get it, I understand it, and I will live with it. After all, I brought it on myself. But does it reek of hypocrisy? Of course it does.”
He then called yet again for cycling to address its tainted past in a “collective and co-operative manner” through a truth and reconciliation hearing, adding that “if we don’t come together, have the conversation and draw a line in the sand and then move on, we’re all screwed”.
Armstrong’s comments came in the week of his legal team’s move to have the US government’s case against him dismissed. Team Lance’s argument for this to happen is twofold.
The first strut is the narrow statute of limitations argument that says that the case is now so old that it is no longer valid, an argument that does nothing to address Armstrong’s role as the most corrupt man in the history of sport.
The second strand of their case – and one that shows mind-boggling chutzpah – is effectively that the US government, which was Armstrong’s ultimate paymaster as owners of the US Postal Team for which he rode, either should have known he was a cheat, or did know but preferred to do nothing about his doping because it enjoyed the reflected glory.
This is a concerted campaign by Armstrong to rewrite history, displace blame and escape due sanction. More to the point, contrary to all of his assertions that he “gets it”, his behaviour last week has proved yet again that he still does not appreciate the centrality of his role in bringing cycling to such a low ebb that Chris Froome had to endure fans waving inflatable syrginges at him on his incredible ascent of Mont Ventoux – one of the greatest Tour de France rides of all time – and then defend himself from barely-concealed implications that such excellence must mean that he is a drugs cheat.
Armstrong’s contention that he was just one of the boys is as laughable as it is offensive. He didn’t follow the pack, he led it. Cycling wasn’t clean when he joined it, but it was at his personal behest that it descended into the sporting sewer. It was Tour-winner Armstrong’s combination of blatant cheating and enforced omerta (code of silence) which was a game-changer for cycling.
No one stood a chance of competing with Armstrong without cheating, and they knew it. We will never know whether rivals and fellow drugs cheats such as Jan Ullrich and Marco Pantani, who died prematurely because of his drugs use, would have doped had Armstrong not been doping, even if we suspect that riders like O’Grady and David Millar would not have succumbed unless they were sure that it was the only way to remain competitive.
What we do know for sure, however, is that Armstrong drove clean Festina rider Christophe Bassons out of pro cycling because Bassons made a public stand against doping in the sport he loved, and that Bassons wasn’t the only one whose career was ruined in a premeditated fashion by Armstrong in order to cover up his secret and keep the money rolling in.
Plenty of other riders were accused of doping but none reacted as Armstrong did by using his financial muscle to crush dissent. Indeed, the American was in court more often than some full-time lawyers, suing Sunday Times journalist David Walsh, his former personal assistant Mike Anderson, 60 Minutes, former team-mates and team staff. If Uncle Tom Cobley had enjoyed a passing interest in cycling, he’d no doubt have received a writ from Armstrong too.
Armstrong contends that “virtually all of us broke the rules, and lied about it”, but it is emphatically not the case that everyone sued and intimidated fellow professionals.
It is also emphatically not the case that any other riders came close to making the sort of sums that Armstrong banked (estimated at £142 million), or won the number of tainted titles he did.
No other major rider of his era – the men on to whom he wishes to co-opt the same degree of responsibility as he shoulders for his cheating – were ever alleged to have bribed officials to hide the results of a positive test. No other rider visited their former massuese at her home and menacingly told her that her guard dog was no protection, as Armstrong did with Emma O’Reilly. And none, certainly, has ever suggested that the responsibility for his lack of moral fibre lies with his remote government, who should have known that he was cheating because so many other people suspected it. Talk to any behaviourist and they can tell you of the countless scientific studies which prove that humans have a unique capacity to mentally shelve bad events, to literally forget them, which is why courts rarely rely solely on first-person testimony. That’s why it’s important that we keep reminding ourselves of what Armstrong did, of how many people he hurt, of how uniquely damaging and dangerous he was.
It’s also vital that we realise what he is trying to do. He is attempting to mitigate his crimes, to be treated like one of the boys, to retain some sort of prestige and as much of his wealth as possible.
He talks endlessly about a truth and reconciliation process but, if past form is any guide, then he only has eyes for the reconciliation and the amnesty that comes with it.
As for the truth part, at no stage has he ever volunteered information that we don’t already know and his actions last week show that he is as much a stranger to it as he has ever been.
It is us, not Arsmtrong, who will be “screwed” if we ever believe anything else.