Don’t fall for Armstrong’s Savile-like charity card
Why the former seven-time Tour de France champion does not deserve to have his lifetime ban relaxed
THE world cycling body established an independent reform commission to investigate doping allegations following the Lance Armstrong affair. This will include whether UCI officials themselves have been complicit. The commission is due to report in the next few weeks.
Brian Cookson, who won an acrimonious battle for the UCI presidency on an integrity ticket, has hinted that a life ban from all sport which was imposed on the seven-time Tour de France winner may be relaxed. So has Travis Tygart, head of the US Anti-doping Agency (USADA)
We fervently hope this is not reduced. Armstrong’s titles were due to what USADA described as “the most sophisticated, professional, and successful doping programme sport had ever seen”. Being such an insular nation, one might expect this description. The state-sponsored former East German regime covered all sports and infiltrated the Olympic medical commission. This assuredly surpasses the Armstrong affair, shameful though it was.
On Thursday, BBC News (8.30pm) screens a 30-minute documentary, The Road Ahead. It is Armstrong’s first TV interview since his evasive and arrogant performance in a mutually self-serving appearance with Oprah Winfrey two years ago.
The latest interview was filmed in his Austin bike shop, Armstrong’s seven Tour yellow jerseys (1999-2005) hanging “defiantly” on the wall, as BBC sports editor and interviewer Dan Roan put it.
Predictably Armstrong wants his life suspension lifted, saying it has, “gone too far”. There is still no evidence of contrition. He wants his forfeited titles back: “I feel like I won those Tours,” he insists. He thinks he is “getting close” to a time for forgiveness.
He continues to believe he is a victim of his era’s prevailing culture, ignoring how he orchestrated matters to help make serial cheating an accepted norm, bullying, bribing, and effectively blackmailing. He ruthlessly attacked any challenger, including the media, even though they were right.
There is a hint of remorse as he admits to having been: “a complete asshole to a handful of people”. Yet to a significant degree he remains in denial. Tellingly he says: “I’d probably do it again,” but said he would not have to now, because doping is no longer “totally pervasive”.
He describes using banned drugs as: “a bad decision in an imperfect time.” He is quick to remind how he helped drive bike sales from $100million to $1billion.
Did protection of such vested interests impact on doping? The independent CIRC report may tell, but has already been delayed. Though this is not on the Chilcott scale, the perception that cycling has too much at stake for the whole truth to emerge is disturbingly familiar.
In waiting for Armstrong to appear, the interviewer considered whether he had become a recluse. Was he broke? Depressed? Wracked with self-hate? No sign of that. Though he has sold a £6.6million mansion, Armstrong still owns a beautiful home in Austin, a house in the ski resort of Aspen, another in Hawaii. A pending £80million federal lawsuit may change that, but he seems unconcerned.
Ground rules for the BBC included a polite request that they avoid filming Armstrong with a particular range of bicycles. The company cut ties with Armstrong, yet his shop still sells their product. So he still appears to be making them money, and earning from them. Perhaps I’m naive, but an ethical culture might question to continue supplying Armstrong.
He is unimpressed by Cookson. He cites a decision to “rush” through Team Sky’s request that Tour de France winner Chris Froome be allowed emergency steroid treatment for asthma, and a failure to withdraw Astana’s license after five of their team failed doping controls last year. Tour de France champion Vincenzo Nibali rides for Astana and Armstrong claims “everybody thinks” Astana should have been thrown out.
Exactly the kind of allegation Armstrong himself went ballistic about during his time as a serial cheat. He has learned nothing. If he claims he would not have to cheat today, then he should not cast aspersions – even if history teaches us to be cynical about any above-average rider who emerges.
Roan does not give Armstrong an easy ride, yet it is hard to avoid the conclusion that the Texan has his own agenda, that he has agreed to the interview in an attempt to legitimise his position and pave the way for relaxation of the life ban.
This must not happen. It would be over the bodies of those cyclists whom drugs have killed and of others whose lives Armstrong destroyed, whose careers he stole by establishing a quasilegitimate culture of doping so strong that clean riders dared not accuse him.
One is reminded of Jimmy Savile, whom I interviewed several times when he was the celebrity face of the Great Scottish Run. He was unfailingly courteous, charming, and approachable. Dangerously, obscenely, criminally so, as we now know in hindsight. Yet I recall him enquiring about the absence of one of Glasgow City Council’s organising team, and heading immediately to the hospital where she lay terminally ill. Savile raised millions for charity, as has Armstrong. And just as Savile claimed charity would be the loser if he were exposed, Armstrong is now pleading the right to do things for charity. He says he should not be excluded “at the expense of others. I don’t think anybody thinks that’s right.”
Cycling should not fall for Armstrong’s charity card.
PLEADING HIS CASE: Armstrong wants his life ban from sport for doping relaxed, saying it has “gone too far”