King Kaufman's Sports Daily

Lance Armstrong: Cheater or victim of a smear campaign, he's emblematic of the new, ambiguous sporting universe, where we can never be sure about our heroes.


Salon Staff
August 25, 2005 11:00PM (UTC)

Two things are certain in the latest doping controversy surrounding Lance Armstrong: If you believed on Monday that he was dirty for his seven-year run of Tour de France titles, you still believe it today. And if you had your doubts or were sure he's always been clean, you haven't changed your mind.

Being a sports fan in the 21st century isn't about picking what team or athlete to root for. It's about choosing whose version of reality you want to believe.

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The great thing about sports, from the time of the Greeks, I suppose, has always been that they provide unambiguous results. Winners and losers. Heroes and goats. We can debate forever whether the '27 Yankees or '75 Reds were greater, Muhammad Ali or Joe Louis, Wayne Gretzky or Gordie Howe, Secretariat or Man o' War.

But there was no doubting that any of them were great champions, conquerors, the best of their time.

We've lost that.

Now all but the most naive of us meet athletic achievement with skeptical admiration at best. The greater the achievement, the greater the skepticism.

In 1988, when Kirk Gibson limped out of the dugout on two bad knees to hit a game-winning home run in Game 1 of the World Series, Jack Buck blurted an immortal line into the CBS Radio microphone: "I don't believe what I just saw!" Seventeen years later, that sentence, carrying a very different meaning, defines sports fandom.

To put it another way, a silly way, three decades ago we came out of our movie theater seats to cheer journeyman club fighter Rocky Balboa as he gave heavyweight champ Apollo Creed the fight of his life. Today we'd be intrigued, but we'd wait on the drug tests before we suspended our disbelief -- a little.

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We'd still wonder, even in the absence of positive results. Many of those whose reputations have taken the biggest hit from doping accusations have never tested positive, including Marion Jones, a pariah in the track and field world, Mark McGwire and, before this week if you believe the French sporting newspaper L'Equipe, Armstrong.

I'm not saying I want to go back. I don't need to be protected from harsh reality. I believe that the truth is a beautiful thing and the seeking of it noble.

But not wanting to go back to a more innocent time doesn't mean I can't mourn for it.

I keep thinking of another famous radio call, the signature cry of Mel Allen: "How about that!" It doesn't mean I want to live with my head in the sand to mourn for a time when that was an exclamation, not a question.

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So what of this latest Armstrong story? You probably know the outline by now. L'Equipe, the French sporting daily, reported Tuesday that it has "incontestable" evidence that Armstrong used EPO, a banned blood enhancer, in 1999, the year of his first Tour victory, when no test could detect it. "The extraordinary champion, the escapee from cancer, has become a legend by means of a lie," the paper wrote.

L'Equipe published the results of retests on anonymous 1999 Tour de France urine samples by the French National Anti-Doping Laboratory. The lab was retesting the samples for research purposes, but the paper says it was able to match registration numbers on six of the samples that turned up EPO with Armstrong's paperwork, which it says proves they belonged to the champion.

The samples were so-called B samples, which had been kept frozen over the years. Under cycling rules, the A and B samples must turn up positive before an athlete can be sanctioned.

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Armstrong proclaimed his innocence and lashed out at Tour de France director Jean-Marie Leblanc, long an Armstrong defender, who backed the report and said, "I was fooled. We were all fooled." Armstrong called Leblanc's comment "preposterous" and pointed out again that he's never failed a drug test.

As usual, there's plenty of ambiguity to go around, on top of the ambiguity that's always come with Armstrong's success.

That is: Did he really go from just another champion in the '90s to one of the greatest in history only because of single-minded determination and a brilliant nutritional and training strategy after his recovery from cancer, or did he have some illegal help?

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And despite all those negative drug tests, is it really possible that in a sport where performance enhancers were the coin of the realm -- the 1998 Tour de France was the site of the biggest sports drug bust in history at the time -- Armstrong not only won seven straight Tours, but he did so while standing nearly alone as an abstainer?

One way or the other, he's a hell of an athlete and a hell of a man, because he really did win those seven Tours. But was he just too good to be true?

The answer, of course: Maybe, maybe not.

International doping experts have been quoted disagreeing about whether EPO can survive and be detected in a sample frozen for so long, and the lab where the tests were conducted wouldn't confirm L'Equipe's report that the test in question belonged to Armstrong.

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There are also chain-of-evidence questions involved when a sample is 6 years old and is being used for a purpose different from the one for which it was given.

On the other hand, L'Equipe, which is serious and respected worldwide, is owned by Amaury Sports Organisation, the same company that owns and runs the Tour de France. French anti-Lance feelings aside, if there's a conflict of interest, it points in the other direction.

Yeah, the French hate it that this Texan ran roughshod over their most famous sporting event, but he also did wonders for it. He raised its profile internationally, especially in the United States. But more important than that, he came along at a time when the Tour and the sport were one big doping story.

In 1998, the year before Armstrong started his winning streak, a traffic stop turned up 250 vials of EPO in a car belonging to the French Festina team. A few months before Armstrong's first win in the '99 Tour, cycling reporter Andrew Taber wrote in Salon that the sport of bicycle racing "may be on its deathbed."

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Times have changed and Lance Armstrong changed them. If there were some corporate edict to get Lance, it would be a classic case of Amaury Sports cutting off Armstrong's nose to spite its face. I'm not aware of too many large corporations that would torpedo the reputation of one of their most important properties for patriotic reasons.

Lance Armstrong sipping champagne as he glides down the Champs-Elysées on the way to his seventh straight Tour de France crown. How about that!

How about that?

Note: This story has been changed since its original publication.

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Previous column: Oh, Canada! Announcerless football

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