Sunday, May 29, 2011

Lance Armstrong's Reputation Slowly Sinking Under Doping Allegations

Commentary: Cracks in the wall around Lance Armstrong

Four teammates who rode with Armstrong during the glory years of the U.S. Postal Service team have confessed to doping with their team leader, according to a 60 Minutes report filled with fresh allegations. Grand jury testimony is mounting against Armstrong, who is being investigated for systematic doping and possible charges of fraud, money laundering and drug trafficking.

The most damaging witness could turn out to be George Hincapie, who testified that he and Armstrong gave each other the blood-booster EPO and discussed using testosterone, according to 60 Minutes.

Through the years, the big, humble Hincapie was Armstrong’s roommate and most loyal lieutenant — “like a brother to me,” Armstrong said.

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Before Hincapie started to talk, I was giving Lance the benefit of the doubt. Tyler Hamilton and Floyd Landis were damaged goods. Their careers were destroyed; their reputations in shreds. You could dismiss them as bitter back biters. But Hincapie is totally different matter. Fist off, the man was a great cyclist in his own right. He battled in the very toughest races, the Classics, and performed well. Then after putting in those tough miles, he pedaled his heart out for Lance. Hincapie was a tough as nails competitor and a selfless domestique, a very rare combination. He set up Lance for many of his greatest feats. That Hincapie is now testifying against Lance is a game changer. There is way too much smoke, there must be some sort of fire.

Professional cycling has marinated in drugs from almost the beginning. Admittedly at first those drugs were mainly nicotine and alcohol, but they were there, in quantity, from the very first Tour de France. From there the drugs only became more numerous and more complex. Sometimes, the drug taking became too obvious and too dangerous to ignore. There was the dramatic death of Tom Simpson on Mont Ventoux that cause a clamp down on amphetamines, and was the semi-official beginning of the doping wars.

That war was always tilted toward the cheaters. It was not really until the Festina affair that professional cycling really attempted to clamp down on the cheaters. But as the doping regime got tougher, the cheaters got smarter. Designer drugs and blood doping became all the rage.

The authorities struggle to reign in the cheaters is a measure not of any true concern for the riders health, but to keep the money flowing from the sponsors. Bike racing is big business in Europe; but it will only stay a big business if sponsors pay the bills. The sponsors, also big businesses, don't want any scandal. What they want is those rolling billboards to push their products. Radio Shack cannot be pleased with the scandal swirling around Lance, this is not the publicity they paid for.

As for Lance, I guess we should not have bought into the hype. A man as hyper-competitive as Lance is going to find any angle he needs to win. Plus, it is not like the sport is not giving the man a wink and nudge to do what he is doing. All those French cycling fans who booed Lance can now feel superior, they can revel in the man's disgrace. Lance will forever be branded a cheater and a fraud. All the good he has done during and since his career in cycling will be negated. The French hecklers have their revenge, and it is served up in best possible way, cold. If the BalCo prosecution is any indication, Lance is in for a world of hurt.

Looking back on this story, I guess we should have been wary. It really was too good to be true. No one can win that many Tour de Frances without chemical assistance. Most likely no one can finish a Tour de France without chemical assistance; at least not in the times we have seen in last three decades. Maybe we should just stop pretending? In the US we stopped being concerned about doping in football a long time ago.  Baseball is barely pretending to be concerned about doping, imposing rules that are more shot through with holes than a well aged Swiss cheese. Competitive sports is shot through with doping, are we really willing to see how deep the rabbit hole goes?

My only beef with Lance is how much he banged the drum on how clean he was. His bristling and now brittle defense of his honor is revealed to be so much hokum. Granted the rules required him to lie, but did he have to lie with so much gusto? Chalk it up to ego and hubris. In the end that deadly duo will always lay you low.
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