Friday, April 5, 2013

A little soul-searching after Armstrong's latest ban


Discovery riders at the Tour of Missouri included George Hincapie, in yellow, and Levi Leipheimer, just behind him. Both confessed to doping in the early 2000s and had served six-month bans.
So, Lance Armstrong was banned from swimming in an old guy’s event. Armstrong had planned to compete in the 500, 1,000 and 1,650-yard events at the Masters South Central Zone Swimming Championships, until the International Swimming Federation, known by the acronym FINA, put the kibosh on his plans, saying he was ineligible to compete in events sanctioned by the world governing body.

We’re not going to pile on here about how the mighty have fallen or say that Lance is getting what he deserves, being banned from an event a couple steps removed from the Senior Olympics. Instead, I want to use the news as time for a little soul-searching of my own.
I got interested in cycling in the mid-1980s, when I eagerly waited for the 15 minutes of CBS Sunday Sports Spectacular, when Phil Liggett would provide an update each Sunday in July on the Tour de France. Greg Lemond’s exploits were the first to catch my eye, but I’d never strayed far, through the reigns of Hinault, Lemond and Miguel Indurain. When Armstrong burst onto the scene, I took special interest because one of his trusted lieutenants was a St. Louisan, Kevin Livingston. He gave me the excuse I needed to convince the sports editors at the Post-Dispatch to produce a guide to the Tour.

It has run every year since 1998, without fail, despite all the turmoil, first from the Festina Affair, through the Lance era and until last year. It was easy to sell editors and readers alike on the beauty of the setting, the quirkiness of the event’s history and the hell that riders were willing to put their bodies through: distractions from the ugliness going on behind the team bus.
I was at the Tour in 2006. I saw Floyd Landis’ tongue hanging out when he passed my husband, son and I on the Col de Croix de Fer on a Wednesday, when he lost 10 minutes  and the yellow jersey. The next day, he rode away from everyone on an escapade that seemed to be One for the Ages. It was, sadly, all too representative of the era. When the charges originally surfaced, I wrote a column, begging Floyd to man up. The best thing to do, I advocated, was to stand up and say, “Yep. I did it. I’m willing to pay the price. But forgive me and let me come back.”
But being honest is hard, even for a writer charged with adhering to the truth.
I covered three Tours of Missouri, and on more than one occasion got pulled aside by a friend or family member of a rider who had been part of Armstrong’s armada. Each made veiled references, off the record, of course, to Lance the bully. Because they wanted to go no further, and because I was on deadline, the conversation always stopped before it really started. And I let it die.

But now, I can’t help feeling that I was naive, lazy, and in denial, about how big this Lance thing was. It was so much more fun to talk with Mark Cavendish and listen to his lilting Manx accent than dig a little bit. So many of those guys who rode in Missouri ended up with suspensions stemming from the early 2000s, though all insist that they were clean by the time they showed up here. I’d ask a perfunctory question about riding clean, and they’d give a perfunctory answer. I wonder what I would have discovered had I paid just a little bit of attention to their body language, if I had followed up just a little more thoroughly. Not that they’d spill their guts to a stranger, but maybe I could have had more than an inkling of the pervasiveness of the doping scandal that snared so many American riders.

Which leads me back to Lance. His banishment from the masters’ race seems particularly degrading and pathetic. If we --  and by we, I mean the media -- had done our jobs, this week’s announcement from FINA would have been moot. Lance would have faded into the background years ago. He has the media to thank for buying into the cancer survivor mythos. It has served only to prolong his agony. Sure, he bullied riders, race organizers, coaches, cronies, fans and media for years. But we in the press are supposed to rise above that and do our jobs. I can’t help but think that if we had, Lance would have been forced to admit his transgressions years ago.

Not that cycling, swimming, running or any sport would be clean. But we’d have put Armstrong in the background, where he belongs, instead of covering every silly attempt he has made to compete at every level. He’d be a forgotten man; he wouldn’t even bother entering events like the Masters South Central Zone
Swimming Championships. And we would all be better for it. Lance included.