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Lance Armstrong: 'I wanted to believe he was clean'

Lance Armstrong

by KELLY EXETER

As an avid follower of cycling, it’s safe to say this last month has not been the best of times – both for the sport and its fans.

Background in case you’re not across it:

First the US Anti-Doping Agency (ASADA) released  a damning 1000 page report into the sophisticated doping programs that took Lance Armstrong to his seven Tour de France victories.

This report contained sworn affidavits from no less than 11 of Armstrong’s former team mates. Also in the last month, Tyler Hamilton – one of these team mates and a convicted doper himself – released a tell-all book revealing systemised doping not just in Armstrong’s teams, but in cycling at large.

Finally, just two days ago, cycling’s international body the UCI, officially stripped Armstrong of his seven Tour de France titles. Ironically it seems the organisers of the Tour de France do not intend to declare an official winner of the Tour in any of those years as most or all of those who shared a podium with Armstrong have been implicated or convicted as having doped themselves.

Fans the world over are reeling from all the revelations. Most realised that doping was prevalent in the peleton but many clung to the belief that Armstrong was clean and revelled in his achievements.

For a long time, I was one of those people.

When Armstrong won his first Tour de France in 1999 the cycling world saw it as redemption from the scandal that rocked the 1998 edition of the race. Here was a guy who had not only beaten testicular cancer, he had re-shaped his body and his mind to win the biggest event in cycling – one he’d shown no previous aptitude for. Phenomenal and inspiring stuff!

Like many, I found his story remarkable and eagerly gobbled up everything there was to read about him.

As an athlete I was fascinated by his utter single-mindedness when it came to achieving his goals. It was clear (by his own admission) that he wasn’t there to make friends, he was there to win. He trained harder and with greater intensity than anyone else. He knew what every single competitor of his was doing at any given time. He left exactly zero stones unturned in his quest to be the best.

As a person I was captivated by his amazing comeback from cancer, loved his immense confidence and wildly celebrated his ongoing success. His story was a fairytale of epic proportions and as far as fans go, I was one of millions.

2004 and 2005 were marred for Armstrong by the existence of one particularly tenacious sports reporter from Ireland by the name of David Walsh. Walsh had managed to gather enough testimony from people previously close to Armstrong to co-author the book L.A. Confidentiel – The Secrets of Lance Armstrong and named him as a drug cheat.

Armstrong managed to prevent the book ever being published anywhere but France and went on a shock and awe campaign designed to discredit not just Walsh, but every single person interviewed for the book. This became his favoured modus operandi for many years to come – anyone who spoke out about doping in cycling, whether it was in relation to him or not, was threatened, discredited and crushed.

Lance

It was around this time that warning bells started to go off in my head, but ultimately, I was still a fan and more than anything else, I wanted to believe in his story. The alternative was too devastating.

So I witnessed his amazing seventh Tour victory and did a little ‘hells yeah’ when he said to the dissenters at the victory ceremony: “I’m sorry you don’t believe in miracles …there are no secrets, this is a hard sporting event, and hard work wins it.”

Although Armstrong retired after the 2005 Tour, that was not the end of that. Over the ensuing years old urine samples from the 1999 tour would be re-tested (as part of research into new detection methods) and they would show evidence of EPO use (EPO was a blood booster that gave an incredible advantage to users over a three week tour). More people would come forward and give testimony about Armstrong admitting to drug use or seeing evidence of his drug use.

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It was in these years between 2005 and 2008 that I started to become cynical about Lance. The company who guaranteed the bonuses awarded to Armstrong with each successive Tour win launched an investigation. People with little to gain and everything to lose (because Armstrong was famous for destroying those who spoke out against him) gave sworn testimony during this investigation.

I listened to every interview and read every piece of literature I could find from both sides of the fence. And I came to the sad conclusion that Armstrong had indeed doped his way to his Tour de France wins. At the same time, it was pretty clear that the majority of the peleton were also doping – especially his main challengers – so while I was no longer a fan, I still regarded him as a phenomenal athlete and probably the best cyclist in the world.

In 2008 Armstrong made a baffling comeback. He said it was for cancer awareness, others said his ego just couldn’t handle being away from cycling while he still had the ability to be a contender. Whatever his reasons, it is hugely ironic that if Armstrong had not made this comeback between the years of 2008-2011, it appears that USADA would never have been able to re-open his case and pull together the report that now has the cycling world in tatters.

Lance at the Tour De France

The USADA revelations and findings have left the true believers shattered and hollow. I feel for them because I know how cheated I felt when I first came to conclusion that Armstrong doped. And I know how I feel now: There has never been a greater case of sporting fraud in all the history of the world. None.

Other cyclists have doped for sure – but none have won seven Tours and captured the imagination of the world with their story. For the last 15 years Armstrong has knowingly and deliberately perpetrated a myth by creating a personal brand centred around integrity, truth and sheer amazing-ness.

So where to from here for the world of cycling? It seems that every day another cyclist is coming forward and admitting to doping and the world is desperate for just one current big-name cyclist to come out and say categorically that they have never used any performance enhancing drug.

Of course there is one particular big name us Australians have all been dying to hear from – 2011 Tour de France winner Cadel Evans.

Yesterday Evans finally released a statement on his blog, carefully avoiding any strong statements about himself and beseeching fans to remember that the revelations of the past few weeks involve things that happened more than seven years ago. He was at pains to say that the playing field today is more level than it had ever been and that it is now “hard work, meticulous equipment preparation and natural ability [that] are winning the big beautiful prestigious races.”

So what can we take from Cadel’s words – those said and unsaid?

Well maybe it is unrealistic to expect that any cyclist who was around in the late nineties has never used a performance enhancing drug but it appears the sport has come a long way since the Armstrong years.

And it is a huge shame that this current crop of champions who appear to be clean will forever be tarnished by the actions of those who have gone before them.

This is an amended version of a post that first appeared on iVillage.com.au

Kelly is a designer, writer and lover of all books – great and small. She is also a reformed over-committer and blogs about this at A Life Less Frantic and on iVillage.com.au as one of the iVillage Voices. You can follow Kelly on Twitter here.

Do you have an opinion on  Lance Armstrong and the doping charges? Are you a fan of cycling? 

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