Paradise lost was the headline that Rupert Murdoch's flagship Sunday used to describe the scene of Lance Armstrong's latest glory yesterday as he rode along the Champs-Elysées in the yellow jersey of the winner of the Tour de France.
But whose paradise? Cynically exploitative race sponsors and organisers? Senti- mental sportswriters? The rich businessman who many years ago I saw burst into tears at a pavement cafe as the peloton swept through the cobbles of the main square of his home town. As they poured out towards the scraggy hillsides and the great, snow-capped mountains, he said: "When I see the boys come through I get every emotional; they remind me of my youth?" Was it really a lost youth or a lost innocence, and how many comprises had he made for the flashy rings on his fingers and the big car and uniformed driver who had put him down at the kerbside?
The truth is that long before the fall of Ben Johnson in Seoul 13 years ago anyone looking for a sporting paradise in the heartbreak and the pain of the Tour was in the direst need of some reality pills. The great Jacques Anquetil, when confronted with the latest round of doping rumours, put it succinctly enough: "It amazes me that some are surprised that there is doping on the tour. The real surprise would be if there wasn't. Each year the tour gets tougher to appease the sponsors, and each year the boys are left to their own devices." The Tour is many things, some glorious, some no better than deliberations in a den of thieves, but paradisaical, surely not.
Paradise wasn't the airless little room where I once saw a rider as distinguished as Sean Kelly being tentatively massaged, his body dotted with the boils that came to a rider nearing the end of the race, when physical and mental resistance to fatigue reached its lowest ebb. It wasn't the hillside of the Ventoux where they put up the monument to Tommy Simpson, and his widow waited in the heat until the officials came for a brief ceremony to commemorate one of the great victims of the race. They came late, and with some embarrassment, and the ritual seem more than anything an irksome chore, something to be negotiated rather than reflected upon. That was more than 20 years after Simpson had died on the mountainside, his heart abused to the point of explosion, gasping for air.
It wasn't paradise when the fine Dutch rider Hennie Kuiper found in his physical extremity at the top of some great Col that "the snow had turned black in my eyes."
Least of all was it paradise back in the Seventies when a relatively obscure Belgian named Michel Pollentier stormed to the top of the Alp d'Huez. He was a phenomenon on the Road of the Cross, making a break that was unassailable. The crowd roared their support as he snaked his way to the summit. They were not cheering a maverick Belgian. They were saluting the range and the resilience of the human spirit. It seemed like a classic day of the tour, a day when a man gathered himself for a supreme effort in the face of appalling hardship.
All day the sun had beaten down from a cloudless sky. Unfortunately, Pollentier's glory lived no longer than his visit to the dope-testing hut at the top of the mountain, where it was discovered that Pollentier had a rubber bulb hidden in an armpit from which a length of piping ran down into his shorts in order to dispense unsullied urine.
Pollentier's face reminded you a little of that of Boris Onischenko, the Soviet modern pentathlete who was caught cheating in the fencing hall at the Montreal Olympics and was then obliged to seek employment as a taxi driver in Minsk. Pollentier was not required to make a career change, naturally, but nobody nursed the illusion that when he clocked on again it would be for a shift in paradise.
Whatever the meaning of Armstrong's reported six-year working relationship with Michele Ferrari, the Italian doctor alleged to be involved in doping in cycling, there is no doubt that the American has achieved a highly personalised vision of both heaven and hell. Beleaguered by widespread cancer, his recovery and triple success in the toughest race the world has ever conceived is plainly an achievement beyond the scope of an ordinary man. However, he cannot, no more than Linford Christie, who spoke so vehemently against performance-enhancing drugs before his own problems with the testers, expect any suspension of doubt.
As long as sport defends the concept of drug-free sport, as along as it refuses to acknowledge that it has long been consumed by legitimate scepticism, an Armstrong will never outride the shadows. How could it be otherwise? Paradise Lost was a nice headline but it prompted too many questions. Had paradise ever been achieved; had victory ever been pure? The suggestion of the legendary Anquetil, in the minds of many Frenchman still the supreme exemplar of the passion and courage of the great race, is perhaps not.
This doesn't make the emotion of the fat cat at the pavement cafe entirely spurious, of course. It doesn't lessen the upsurge of feeling that comes when you see the riders fight their way to the mountain top and then whir into the valleys, their power to distinguish colours flooding back along with the overwhelming sense of survival of a test guaranteed to break all but the most exceptional of spirits, but surely it provides a vital perspective on the field of doubt through which Lance Armstrong rides today.
Nothing he can do will carry him beyond those doubts. But he has his life, his fame, and a fortune that could only have been fashioned from extraordinary will and talent. Paradise will just have to wait, but then that has always been the truth of riding the tour.Reuse content