The Last Word: Lance Armstrong - monster or martyr, we need to know
Armstrong's latest legal battle will put the reputation of cycling on the line once again
Sunday 17 June 2012
Move on, people. There's nothing to see here. It's just another drugs case, involving Lance Armstrong, predatory attorneys, and the self-appointed guardians of your conscience. It's tiresomely familiar, an unnecessary indulgence, and no longer matters. Leave the man alone, to live the life he almost lost. Hold that thought.
Listen to the siren voices of the appeasers, accept that the pursuit of truth has become boring to the point of irrelevance, and the abyss beckons. A world of moral ambiguity requires clarity. Until Armstrong is revealed as sport's biggest monster, or its greatest martyr, closure is impossible.
There's no middle ground. The American is either a cynic beyond comprehension and a cheat without comparison, or a sort of sporting Thomas More, a saintly, persecuted figure in branded Lycra rather than a hair shirt. Until that distinction is drawn, cycling will be shackled to its past.
The Tour de France, bristling in anticipation of a first British winner, Bradley Wiggins, will remain blighted by suspicion. The London Olympics, in which Team GB will be represented by the convicted EPO user David Millar, will be similarly soured.
Armstrong's denials of the latest charges – the US Anti-Drugs Agency allege a 13-year conspiracy involved the cyclist, three doctors, a trainer and a team manager – are characteristically vehement. He condemns them as "baseless" and "motivated by spite." He reminds us he has passed more than 500 drug tests, failing none, and remains a powerful symbol of hope for cancer sufferers.
But this is not about shooting Bambi. It is about Bambi shooting up. A chillingly incisive 15-page letter to Armstrong implicates him in the alleged administration, concealment and trafficking of doping agents. It claims he created a climate of fear, a culture of compulsive dishonesty. Code words – Edgar Allen Poe for EPO, oil for testosterone – punctuate a code of silence.
We must all make our choice in whom, and what, to believe. My search for enlightenment involved a visit to a laboratory in Manchester, where I watched Wiggins undergo a maximal test on a stationary bike. The aim was to set a physiological benchmark, to push himself beyond his natural limits. The pain was primitive, relentless, and pursued him to the edge of consciousness. It was difficult to watch, yet had a compelling purity which convinced me he is clean. Others instinctively doubt any cyclist. In the current climate it was politic for the Tour de France organisers to be given a Powerpoint presentation on Thursday outlining, in minute detail, Wiggins's training regime over the past year.
That proactive gesture was sanctioned by Dave Brailsford, whose dual role, in running Team Sky and the Olympic cycling squad, will test, to destruction, his reputation as one of the most visionary figures in British sport. He is a pragmatic man, facing the ultimate test of his principles, and understands the value of transparency.
He once offered me an insight into his duty of care. A young rider, with his first professional team, was struggling with injury and illness. Brailsford sensed the dangers of isolation and frustration. Experience told him that, one night on the road, in yet another featureless hotel room, the kid would be offered the poisoned apple – the chemically induced solution.
He assigned his team to call him, each day, to remind him he was not alone. That rider, Mark Cavendish, is now world champion. He is likely to be helped to a gold medal in the Olympic road race by Millar, whose ill-judged comment on Chris Hoy as a "paragon of perfection" illustrated the strains of his situation.
Millar is a product of the same era as Armstrong. No one emerges from it unscathed. Cycling was in thrall to the multiple champion, whose cancer charity offers lessons in "survivorship". Millions were inspired by his near-death experience.
Monster or martyr? If the truth is hideous it must be faced.
Nice guy Walcott becomes England's talisman
The matrons of Middle England will continue to coo. The White Van Men can keep dreaming. Theo Walcott is, once again, all things to all people.
He's relentlessly nice, disarmingly understated, sporadically effective. He might have missed his vocation as world Knock Down Ginger champion, but he'll do as Roy's poster boy.
Like this transitional England team, Walcott is flawed, but not beyond salvation. He's making the best of a difficult situation, and his principal asset invites perseverance.
His pace, if not his personality, would have been perfectly suited to the childhood prank of knocking on a stranger's door and sprinting to safety. It certainly terrified Sweden's defenders, who chased shadows like bemused householders. Ukraine will be similarly vulnerable to Walcott as an impact substitute.
In essence, little has changed. England are still playing foundation-degree football. They concede possession, and rely on traditional resilience. Failure, in a quarter-final against Spain next Saturday, would represent an honourable discharge from duties.
Hodgson's hunches have come off, and he has scope for hard choices. Seeing John Terry lumbering around like a wounded bison was particularly instructive.
Time has caught up on him. Keep on running, Theo.
First of many?
The first domino has fallen. Wycombe Wanderers have closed their academy, victims of the Premier League's ruinous youth-development programme and sacrificed for pennies at a time when TV rights are sold for £3 billion. Shameful.
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