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Once You've Cheated Death, Who Cares About the Tour de France?

A tire with a hole in it--because I don't have any images of Lance Armstrong
Lance Armstrong finally came clean to Oprah and admitted to doping. I haven't seen the video, but I've read a partial transcript, and from what I've heard, at least Lance didn't insult anyone by working up any false tears.

It will be interesting to see how this plays out now. Lance is clearly setting the groundwork for rebuilding his image and returning to competitive sports in one way or another, that would be a best case scenario for him. The worst case would be something along the lines of paying back millions of dollars and facing jail time. However, I don't think we'll see that happen (although I've been wrong frequently about this case).

What bothers me most about this whole Lance Armstrong fiasco is the fact that Lance is clearly a bit player in the vast corruption of professional cycling. For those of you who have forgotten, the 1998 tour was a complete joke. It's also known as the "Tour de Dopage" because the entire Festina team lead by Richard Virenque was pulled out of the race elaborate doping program. Before recent events, this was the single worst moment in cycling history, and it looked like the back of the great race had been irreparably broken.

Enter Lance Armstrong.

Here was the brash young rider who had just survived cancer making him an instantly appealing underdog. He'd already had some great moments in the tour, as well as a stirring World Championship win in Oslo in 1993. At that point, he'd never shown anything more than flashes as a stage rider, winning minor races like the Tour DuPont, but a 4th place finish in the Tour of Spain in the previous year had made people whisper that he was a contender.

He went on to win the prologue at the 1999 Tour, and gave his famous speech about how it's a long way from a deathbed to the yellow jersey at the Tour de France. It was a great story, everybody was happy, everybody could forget, for a moment, that Cycling was a sport shrouded in corruption. The Cycling world quickly anointed Lance Armstrong as the rider who could "save" Cycling from the stain of doping that had threatened to destroy it.

But then Armstrong failed a drug test. He failed it in 1999 just a few days after winning the prologue. This is the forgotten little nugget in the whole Armstrong mythology, yes, he did fail a drug test in 1999.

For about a day, the whole Cycling community held its breath. Could the tour survive two major scandals in a row? Apparently somebody decided it could not. A BS story was concocted about how Lance had applied a Cortisone cream to a saddle sore without knowing what was in it, and the man's reputation was restored. The anointed savior of Cycling was free to ride again.

If the race officials had just followed their established protocols, there would be no "Lance Armstrong--7 time tour winner." He should have been disqualified in 1999.

But professional cycling needed a distraction from the scandal of corruption, so they manufactured Lance Armstrong. He was the "Golden Boy" everybody could point to so they could feel good about Cycling again. Armstrong settled easily into this mantle, and it can be truthfully stated that he took Cycling to a new height of popularity during his reign. Lance became the rider who could "save Cycling," a mantle that no other Tour winner had ever been forced to bear.

Now, the story that floods the news is how Armstrong was the leader of a fraudulent doping scheme the likes of which sports has never seen. It's bad, very bad. But what drives me crazy is the fact that nobody is talking about the fact that Cycling was dirty before Lance Armstrong, dirty during Lance Armstrong's reign, and continued to be dirty after Lance Armstrong. 

Folks, Lance Armstrong is not the beginning and end of corruption in Cycling.  The 1999 cortisone "exemption" that Armstrong received is proof enough of that. At the time that it happened, I simply believed the official story. After all, it was issued by the sport's governing body. It didn't occur to me to think then that such an institution could be complicit in a vast doping cover-up.

I indulge that suspicion now.

All throughout Lance's tour years, there were whispers of doping, but no "evidence" was ever produced. How is that possible?

Along with the whispers of doping, there were also whispers of payouts from Lance to the UCI and other governing agencies. Heck there were even rumors that Lance tried to buy out the USADA.

When the most recent scandal broke, I thought the UCI would surly throw the whole thing out--not because of Lance's innocence necessarily, but because it seemed like they were complicit with Lance and would be buried along with him if he should be found guilty. However, somebody in the UCI lost his/her nerve, apparently, and seemed to decide the report couldn't be brushed off.

Just as Lance had been anointed the "Savior of Cycling" in 1999, he was anointed as Cycling's "sacrificial lamb" in 2012. The UCI decided to uphold the USADA's findings, and Lance was stripped of basically every achievement of his professional life.

This whole situation clearly stinks, and Lance Armstrong is clearly guilty, but there are more people that need to be hung out to dry here. The greatest crime that has been committed, in my opinion, is that the ruling body of cycling contributed to the creation of a competitive environment in which it was impossible for any athlete to succeed without engaging in illegal activity (doping). Essentially every podium finisher throughout Armstrong's years (and the years immediately before and after), has been connected with doping in one way or another.

Stop for a second and consider that. Also consider that before these athletes became stars, they were just nameless kids trying to make their way in the world by riding their bicycles. I don't think they were out on the street experimenting with PEDs on their own, I believe they were given PEDs by coaches and team doctors they trusted. Sure, that doesn't excuse them entirely, but I think it has to be recognized that this is an ugly situation that has destroyed the lives of many good people.

The governing bodies of all sports are meant to prevent the exploitation of young people are they not? What's going to happen to all these doped up riders? Are they all going to get cancer, or die of an overdose like Marco Pantani did?

When the governing body had evidence that this kind of thing was going on (like Armstrong's 1999 positive test) they looked the other way. How can you not see that as anything other than a case of "playing favorites" or even encouraging doping?  How can this be seen as anything less than laying the cornerstone of a doping community?

Add this with the tradition of doping that you hear about in books like Rough Ride and it's clear that not only has doping been around for decades, but the gentlemen's agreement to look away has also existed for just as long. It takes a long time to rewire traditional thinking, even when that thinking is deeply flawed.

Apparently, Armstrong hasn't gone so far as to start naming names (at least not in the Oprah interview). He's clearly showing his hand one card at a time. My guess is that this interview is going to cause a major shift in power in the "behind the scenes" negotiating--which is where all the real decisions get made, not because they're right or wrong, but because of who is currently in a position of power. There are huge ramifications of this interview, and I really doubt everything is ever going to be allowed to come to light.

I don't agree with Armstrong's decision to cheat, but he is not a person I'd want to tangle with, and I'm sure the Oprah interview made many people in positions of power sweat.

As for Armstrong himself, what can you say? The thing in his favor is that he apparently used most of his notoriety to start up an anti-cancer foundation. Sure there have been some reports that this foundation wasn't all that sincere--that much of the funding went to make an icon out of Armstrong himself rather than help Cancer patients, but I don't really agree with that. I've read enough reports that confirm Livestrong does make a sincere and effective effort to help Cancer sufferers. Livestrong has done good, and maybe Armstrong has seen that as his penance from the beginning.

It's Not About the Bike seems to have a somewhat prophetic title now doesn't it? Lance Armstrong has been living on borrowed time for quite a while, and I think that there is a different perspective for people who have come as close to death as he has. I'm beginning to think the tour "wins" were just stepping blocks in the true battle Lance has been fighting since he was diagnosed with cancer in 1996.

I admit, I don't really feel any better knowing the truth in this case. I would have been happier to just live with the delusion that it had all been real. No matter where the inquiries stop, there will be good people who are ruined by the truth, and bad people who will remain out of reach of the spotlight.

I guess we need to hope that cancer patients continue to find funding and inspiration, and that young cyclists can pursue their sport without having needles thrust upon them. At the end of the day, the Tour de France is just a bicycle race--human lives are of greater value.

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