So, it finally happened. Lance Armstrong was today stripped of his seven Tour De France titles, confirming as fact what we all thought all along. He was riddled with drugs, and cheated his way not just to the Tour wins, but to his standing as ‘a hero’.
There are many who are ready to say they had doubts about Armstrong all along, but at this stage, it’s time to admit that Paul Kimmage and David Walsh were right all along. There are few enough people who come out of this thing with anything approaching credit, but Kimmage and Walsh are the Woodward and Bernstein of this whole story and inspirations for all of us who deign to call ourselves journalists.
Walsh, who writes for the Sunday Times, has been sued, threatened and ostracised for his stance on Armstrong for over a decade. He called him out on the drugs issue from the get-go and wrote two books (From Lance to Landis and Le Sale Tour) covering the issue which were never published outside of France (because of crazy libel laws in Ireland and the UK).
Walsh spoke to many people who exposed Armstrong’s doping regime, including an Irishwoman, Emma O’Reilly, who was his masseuse. She admitted to disposing of syringes and other paraphernalia for Armstrong as well as helping him cover the needle-marks with make-up.
Kimmage, who also worked for the Sunday Times and wrote the greatest sports book ever written – Rough Ride – has also suffered the wrath of the powerful Armstrong lobby. His articles, like Walsh’s, were ignored by a docile press more interested in the fuzzy, warm story of a cancer victim turned Tour de France winner than in actual investigative journalism.
In February 2009, when the Texan was making his cycling comeback after four years on the sideline Kimmage asked Armstrong a question about his attitude to Floyd Landis and Ivan Basso, who were attempting to return to the sport after being caught doping, and Armstrong played the cancer card.
Instead of answering the question, Armstrong went after Kimmage. (Who had written in a column some weeks beforehand, “he [Armstrong] is the cancer in this sport. And for two years this sport has been in remission. And now the cancer’s back.”)It was Armstrong’s typical defence, where any attack on him seemed to be an attack on all cancer patients.
In hindsight, Armstrong’s involvement with Livestrong was something of a sham from the beginning. (Walsh previously exposed the fact that Livestrong was a for-profit organisation and they gave massive donations to the UCI – the organisation who are meant to control doping in cycling. The UCI President, Irishman Pat McQuaid, who only six months ago took legal action against Kimmage in a Swiss court for ‘annoyance and harm to his reputation’, accepted these donations.)
Regardless of how much money he raised for cancer, he knew that he was a cheat and a hypocrite but he accepted the saint tag with open arms. Hell, he cashed in on it. He appeared on Oprah, left his wife for Sheryl Crow and then dated one of the Olsen twins. He sure as hell wasn’t doing any of those things if he was just another anonymous cyclist toiling away down the peleton.
Many of the most revealing truths about Armstrong came from an interview Kimmage did with his former teammate Floyd Landis in 2010. The piece appeared in the Sunday Times, but as usual, was edited and slashed by lawyers before it went to print. Instead of bitching and moaning like the rest of us in the pressroom might have done, Kimmage instead published the entire transcript from their seven hour conversation online (on a US website so as not to get sued). It was honest, brave and took balls of steel. (Here’s the link to the transcript… it will take a few hours to read, but it is the best thing you will read all year. It’s what we aspire to here at Grannykiller… we aren’t there yet, but we’ll go down trying!)
Landis told Kimmage of the pressure Armstrong put on all his teammates to dope, that they couldn’t even get on the team for the Tour de France if they didn’t get on the programme.
After winning his seventh Tour de France Armstrong said: “The people who don’t believe in cycling, the cynics, the sceptics; I feel sorry for you. I’m sorry you can’t dream big and I’m sorry you don’t believe in miracles. This is one hell of a race, this is a great sporting event and you should believe in these athletes and you should believe in these people.”
That’s bad enough. Honestly it is. Cheating in sport is never even close to acceptable. Most of us got into sportswriting because we love the game. As the former Governor of California Earl Warren once said; “I always turn to the sports pages first, which records people’s accomplishments. The front page has nothing but man’s failures. ”
That about sums it up for most of us, but we, and all sports fans really, have developed a thick skin when it comes to stuff like this. We’ve looked at the Tour De France for years as some sort of grotesque pharmacological experiment. It’s like Tommy Tiernan’s joke about a Drug Olympics where the teams are all sponsored by big pharma companies came true.
But it’s not just cycling. Everyone I know is terrified that something might come out about Usain Bolt. Not because we think he is on something (personally, I will bet he is clean), but because that’s the way we have to think. Ben Johnson, Linford Christie, Justin Gatlin, Marion Jones are a constant spectre that loom over every sprinter.
I’ve interviewed (Irish swimmers) Barry Murphy and Gráinne Murphy already this year, and because of Michelle Smith, I’ve had to ask them about drugs. I didn’t like doing it and I’m sure they didn’t really like answering, but it had to be asked, because that is the elephant in the room now.
Anyway, that’s how it is for sports fans. We are tainted by the burden of having seen too much. But for my mother, that’s not how she sees things. She’s battled through a tough bloody innings to be honest. She lost her only two sisters and her mother to cancer and then she got it as well. Breast cancer. It was fucking awful, but she managed to get through it.
She became a vegetarian, started yoga and meditation and read every self-help book you could get your hands on and now, ten years on, she’s as fit as a fiddle. But she read Lance Armstrong’s book “It’s not about the bike” and believed him. She believed every word that came out of his duplicitous mouth.
Now, my mother knows less than nothing about sport but she hung off every word that Armstrong uttered. We’d be on the phone in November and she’d blithely ask me when the Tour de France was on because she’d catch a glimpse of the book on the bookshelf beside her. She didn’t care about sport, but seeing someone succeed when he went through the same shit she went through meant the world to her.
Now, my mother is as healthy as a trout. Whatever it was, be it prayer, diet, yoga… whatever it was; she is better. And I am more thankful than I can ever express for that. I’ve stayed up all night (it’s now 6.15 am) to write this piece now because once I heard the news about Armstrong, I immediately thought of my mother and how she’ll react when she wakes up in a few hours.
I can, maybe, forgive a man for cheating and doing whatever it takes to win money or competitions or whatever. Once that gold fever hits, it can be hard shake it. But I can never forgive Armstrong for telling all those cancer patients, the ones he used as a shield to protect himself from the legitimate and correct questions from the likes of Kimmage and Walsh, to use him as an example for what they could become. What are they meant to think this morning?
For that, I can never forgive him.
NOTE: This article was ammended on the 24th of August after Armstrong’s titles were stripped. Before that we were just hoping they would be