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The Sporting Scene: Say It Ain’t So, Lance : The New Yorker

June 2, 2011

My picture of Lance Armstrong in the 2010 Tour Down Under that was used in this The New Yorker article.. credits ‘n all!

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I wrote about Armstrong’s physical gifts in a piece for this magazine in 2002—and I was not equivocal. While most of my friends and colleagues (a heartless, cynical crew if ever there was one) took Armstrong’s guilt as one of the foundational truths of modern cycling, I held out the hope that he was just actually, well, better. I also felt that cancer, which had almost killed him, had rebooted his pain threshold as well as his ability to focus. (And I still do believe that part is true.) The naysayers, most of whom had never seen the Col de Joux Plane, one of steepest climbs in the Alps, let alone tried to ascend it on a bicycle, were so self-righteous in their certainty. I guess I should throw in a bit of what I wrote at the time, humiliating as it may turn out to be:

Because Armstrong is the best cyclist in the world, there is an assumption among some of those who follow the sport that he, too, must use drugs. Armstrong has never failed a drug test, however, and he may well be the most frequently examined athlete in the history of sports. Whenever he wins a day’s stage, or finishes as one of the top cyclists in a longer race, he is required to provide a urine sample. Like other professionals, Armstrong is also tested randomly throughout the year. (The World Anti-Doping Agency, which regularly tests athletes, has even appeared at his home, in Austin, Texas, at dawn, to demand a urine sample.) Nobody questions Armstrong’s excellence. And yet doubts remain: is he really so gifted that, like Secretariat, he easily dominates even his most talented competitors?

I watched, over the years, as felons, liars, and thieves accused Lance each new season with predictable regularity. I remained steadfast. (I have no personal relationship with him, by the way, and have not spoken to him in nearly a decade.) I admit the case against Lance is building, but I am not yet ready to convict the guy based on the accusations of people who are seeking leniency from federal prosecutors or lucrative book deals. Yet I also have no interest in being Lance Armstrong’s Rabbi Baruch Korff, the devoted lunatic who held onto the fantastical notion that Richard Nixon did no wrong even longer than Nixon did. Two things got me feeling a bit queasy Sunday: first, “60 Minutes” said that it had learned that George Hincapie, one of Lance’s closest cycling companions and an honorable man, told investigators that both he and Lance doped. (Hincapie wouldn’t talk to the show.) The other thing was the way Lance’s p.r. battalion seems to be spinning the news. Instead of a drumbeat of innocent, innocent, innocent, they are whining about federal prosecutors wasting money on the investigation. That is I believe, what Nixon’s pal John Ehrlichman referred to as a “modified, limited hang out.” That’s public-relations propaganda. This investigation is going to be worth every penny because, finally, it will provide some answers. The Armstrong team should welcome that.

For now, I am left to wonder how many memories of Richard Nixon a man must stir in me before I give up on him completely. One more ought to do it.

Lance Armstrong in 2010. Photograph by Angus Kingston, Flickr CC.

My picture of Lance Armstrong in the 2010 Tour Down Under that was used in this The New Yorker article.. credits n all!

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