Magazine article New Statesman (1996)

The Real Losers in the Lance Armstrong Affair Are the Writers and Riders Who First Spoke Out

Magazine article New Statesman (1996)

The Real Losers in the Lance Armstrong Affair Are the Writers and Riders Who First Spoke Out

Article excerpt

Even if you dislike sport, hate celebrity confessions and distrust Oprah Winfrey, you should follow the story of Lance Armstrong. It is a morality tale of huge implications. Beneath the surface, Armstrong's story is about the power of celebrity and the complicity of the media. It is a depressing tale but a deeply salutary one.

For now, let's leave to one side the disgraceful negligence, perhaps even co-operation, of the cycling authorities. Consider the role of the mainstream media in the great Armstrong deception. Most cycling journalists knew it was highly unlikely that Armstrong could have raced at that level without drugs. Not only did the vast majority remain silent, they actively froze out the few writers--such as David Walsh and Paul Kimmage--who were brave enough to fight the Armstrong conspiracy. Cyclists were brutal in cutting down whistle-blowers inside the peloton; they called it "pissing in the soup". The journalistic mainstream mirrored the peloton: they closed ranks against reporters who challenged the comfortable status quo.

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It is an indictment of so-called expertise. The writers who were supposed to know more about cycling than anyone else in the world were unable to write what they must have known to be the truth. Was doping really that obvious, even back then? Yes. Even if journalists ignored the persistent rumours and Armstrong's association with Dr Michele Ferrari, a master of doping, simple maths should have been enough. The 1998 Tour de France was a drug-fuelled shambles in which the leading team got busted for epic substance abuse. The 1999 Tour, the first "Armstrong" Tour, was billed as the "Renewal Tour", a clean season free from doping, a fresh start. Yet Armstrong was soon clocking speeds that were simply unheard of.

So the press room faced a very simple calculation: either Armstrong was a freak of nature, the greatest natural athlete on the planet, or else he was cheating. They chose to believe the former. It gets worse. It was already clear that Armstrong wasn't an athletic outlier. His pre-cancer performances in the Tour de France, when he was at his natural athletic peak, were unexceptional. And his "[VO.sub.2] max"--his innate athletic potential--was not special, way behind the greatest riders in Tour history. In some sports, where skill and technique can trump athleticism, it is possible to make huge improvements relatively late in your career. It is infinitely harder (without drugs) to do that in cycling. As with maths prodigies, you've either got it or you haven't.

So why did the press, with a few honourable exceptions, show so little appetite for the truth? Because they craved access to the stars, especially Armstrong. They relied on quotes from Lance, a few scraps of celebrity gossip to pepper their copy with, perhaps a sit-down with the great man. And Armstrong, like a brutal political spin doctor, was utterly ruthless about dividing the world into two camps--with me or against me, friend or enemy, soft touch or (in Lance-speak) "troll". …

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