Words: Mitchell Belacone / Images: Cor Vos
A couple of questions for the North American cohort of those who condemn Lance Armstrong: have you ever been an integral part of raising close to half a billion dollars to aid people suffering from cancer? Did you get off your death bed and win arguably the hardest sporting event in the world seven times consecutively? I ask because those are the two biggest differences between him and us. We should have chosen another whipping boy.
Take a gifted athlete in his early twenties who is made to realize the hard way that the only way to have a chance of winning in his chosen field was to do what the vast majority of the successful players were doing. Those were the unwritten rules of the game. The weaponry was often introduced and distributed by the older, wiser managers and medical professionals of their teams. Once on that path, there was no turning back without blighting or destroying your career.
Especially true for Lance who had much to lose, starting with his wildly successful charity where he parked $6,500,000 of his own money.
“Oh, but that doesn’t make him right.”
OK, but certainly not nearly as wrong as the majority of backseat crucifiers claim.
“But all his good was built on a lie.”
The United States was built on broken promises, murdering almost an entire race of people in the process. Practically all that’s left from that genocide are ironic jokes at Thanksgiving. More than two and a half million cancer survivors had been helped by Lance’s charity as of 2012 when he stepped down. Take a moment to compare those truths.
“But he was mean to people. He destroyed lives.”
Can you show me where in the UCI rule book it states that attaining a charm school diploma will reduce your penalty? He was protecting himself, his foundation and the many others who played the same game by the ‘real world’ rules they were given. When the jig was up we were sold a simplistic good versus evil storyline and then led to take bloodthirsty satisfaction in bringing the hero down.
“He almost destroyed the sport.”
The year before Lance started winning his Tours the sport was a shambles, thanks to the Festina affair. The whole Festina team was kicked out of the Tour de France for getting caught with drugs. People were arrested, other teams quit and during the race the peloton twice got off their bikes and stopped the race in protest. Lance’s Cinderella story and subsequent victories resuscitated the sport and the Tour.
When a corporation moves a factory overseas to raise its stock price a few cents — putting thousands out of work, terrorising families and burdening the middle class to subsidise our peers —after one news story, that’s not a big deal for the press. Their corporate handlers are OK with it, because that’s what they are: a corporation of the conglomerate, by the conglomerate, for the conglomerate, that shall not perish from the earth. Adios to us, but not them.
The free press: free to answer to their corporate and political puppeteers. Donald Trump in large part owes his election win to the liberal press. He was the spectacle that sold advertising. Thus, they kept his name front and centre. They helped elect him knowingly. On a personal basis, they might not have liked the result, but they had a bottom line to answer to. We understand, just do us all a favor and don’t spend years preaching morality about a young man that went off course in a far less harmful game.
If you work on Wall Street kindly consider stifling your thoughts on Lance. You’re often trained to sell what’s best for your company, which is not necessarily what’s best for your client. You and your superiors survive by commissions, we get it. Every so often you get so greedy and deceitful you go bust, and the middle class is forced by your government to pay your bills and return you to your million-dollar salaries. Never mind the old ladies you took down with you that don’t get bailed out.
As for the lawyers: nearing my seventh decade, I can only speak from personal experience. If I paid one that actually had my best interests at heart, I felt lucky to the extreme. In my sample group were a half dozen that worked for the highest bidder. I can’t go into more detail because it might force me to pay another lawyer to defend me, who in turn would likely betray me. So, to my small advocate circle, plead the Fifth on Lance or may Shakespeare have his way with you. Henry VI: “The first thing we do, let’s kill all the lawyers.”
In Europe I recently paid a leading surgeon $20,000 for a surgical procedure. Included were 3 days in the hospital, ten days of a physical therapist and a nurse who brought all the drugs I needed to my hotel room. My friend just had the same surgery as an outpatient, everything à la carte, in the USA. The doctor and the hospital billed his insurance company $218,000. From my experience, surgeons sell what they do and knock what they don’t do. Doctors often drag the elderly back for more office visits than needed to collect more insurance. Fine, you’re a business, but don’t try to pass yourself off as more than that. And to this bankrupting-happy gang of thieves, please don’t share your diagnosis on how heartless and dishonest Lance Armstrong was.
If you are a politician in either US political party— I’ve learned to accept this truth — reality and the law are not part of your equation. Your success is little more than an exercise in rooting for the home team. You consistently put young men and women in harm’s way for the profit of a few. You are there to serve the special interests which put you there. I would advise shutting up, but that would be bad advice, because it would leave you with next to nothing to do. We don’t need your referendum on Lance.
Our high-tech hero billionaires: find me a coffee shop without some internet surfer pecking away at the keyboard, proudly shining their backlit, fruity logo in your eyes. That cult was founded by a trendily dressed hipster who wouldn’t even give the mother of his daughter the money to feed her. He bullied everyone from underlings, to waiters, to Whole Foods employees. Ask Dr. Joseph Wiesel, who holds a patent for a device that detects an irregular heartbeat, what he thinks of today’s Apple Watch, which detects irregular heartbeats. Or follow the court case.
Bill Gates, hero philanthropist? Microsoft has paid out billions in fines and in settlement of a multitude of lawsuits. In the words of the playwright Eugene O’Neill in The Hairy Ape: “For de small stealing dey puts you in jail, soon or late. But for de big stealing dey puts yo’ picture in de paper an yo’ statue in the Hall of Fame when you croaks.”
At the time Lance stepped down from the Lance Armstrong Foundation, the American Institute of Philanthropy Charity Watch gave it an A-, a higher rating than any other sports figure’s charity. How did they rate your charity? How did they rate my charity?
The whistleblower Floyd Landis, who made more than a million dollars for ratting out Lance, had his Tour de France victory taken away for the same reason as Lance. If Floyd could collect the seeds from that irony and convert them to ones of cannabis, then plant them, his marijuana farm would make him richer than Pablo Escobar ever was. Others could have stepped away and spoken out the first time their morality was affronted, as opposed to when the threat of jail stared them in the face. If they haven’t yet, they should apologize to Lance, and then go away.
Emma O’Reilly was Lance’s masseuse and also served as a drug mule. After she spilled the beans to David Walsh, there’s no doubting that Lance put her through hell. The big question: if she left the team over issues with Lance’s coach, Johan Bruyneel, and as she described, had a great relationship with Lance, and called him a buddy, why snitch? Was it to get back at Bruyneel and to hell with Lance leaving him as collateral damage? In an interview on Ireland’s Public Service Media, as to her own culpability she stated “I did very, very, very little.” I’m not sure everybody else would describe getting rid of syringes, and picking up and delivering drugs as “very, very, very” little. Lance snitched on nobody.
Greg LeMond lost his bike brand and claimed all kind of horrors as a result of trying to expose Armstrong. Which, on its hands and knees, raises the question: if they were friends as both stated, why of all people did LeMond take it upon himself to try to annihilate his friend? Was he travelling the moral path and sticking up for the sport, or trying to reclaim his old throne as being the greatest American cyclist?
I followed and idolized LeMond since the day I sat in wool shorts outside a bike shop and read in Velo News about him winning the 1981 Coors Classic at the beginning of his career, beating a tough field including a Russian Olympic gold medallist. That reverence lasted until I heard him yapping about how it was impossible for Lance to be that good because he, LeMond, had a higher V02 max. The only thing that proved, scientifically and otherwise, was that Greg LeMond was not a great friend to have. What was he expecting anyhow? I’m guessing he saw the Tour de France stage where Armstrong was trying to gift the race to his breakaway companion and teammate. Lance told his friend “Ride like you stole something.” Two Germans came from behind and rode his teammate down. The pair presented no danger to Armstrong in the overall standings. Out of anger and revenge he risked his Tour by chasing them down through the curvy narrow streets of the finishing town to win the stage. Hey Greg: you fucked with that Texas bull, and you got his horns.
Eddy Merckx, ‘The Cannibal’, never tried to gift a race to a teammate and tested positive for banned substances three times. He is still recognized as the greatest cyclist of all time, and rightly so. He’s a beloved figure and a great asset to the sport. The average guy on the street wailing about Armstrong wouldn’t know Merckx’s history or who he is in the first place. As Jacques Anquetil, five-time Tour de France winner said, “Leave me in peace, everybody takes dope.” Fausto Coppi admitted to taking la bomba (amphetamines) although at the time it was legal. In all seven of Lance’s Tour victories only one podium finisher, Spaniard Fernando Escartín, was not tainted by a drug scandal.
The British journalist David Walsh was on the job, and he did his job well. It seems clear that Lance put him through hell also. Describing his ordeal David acts surprised, as if the baby Jesus just fell from the sky into his arms. He couldn’t have been so naïve as to think one of the most competitive athletes of our time, armed with a Texas-sized bank balance, would roll over dead for him.
Mr. Walsh, you chose to take down a cancer victim well on his way to raising a billion dollars to help his fellow survivors. When Lance stepped down from his foundation in 2012 the money it had raised helped 2,500,000 cancer patients. Clearly you were in the right, Mr. Walsh. Although next time you think about your victory, consider taking a moment of silence beforehand.
Bill Belichick (widely considered the best American football coach of all time) of the New England Patriots has been caught cheating more than a few times. The consequences: nada, nothing, or a slap on the wrist. American football players who are caught taking steroids for the first time get docked four games out of a sixteen-game season – in a sport where their strength can maim others for life.
We have people who were born men aided by a scalpel and a slew of drugs, dominating women in women’s sports and we have to accept it as fair play or be damned with horrific labels.
The good Lance did shouldn’t have served as a ‘get out of jail free’ card. It didn’t. The courts had their say, he paid his fines, lost his sponsors, as well as his place in the sport, and the public got to vent on who they were programmed to vent on.
Return his records, even if for appearances’ sake someone has to stick an asterisk on them. While they’re at it, they should put a couple by George Washington and Thomas Jefferson’s names. They owned slaves. If I ever have the honour of meeting Lance, the only favour I’d ask him would be to gift me a signed picture of him on a couch staring at his seven yellow jerseys after they were supposedly taken away. That’s the Michelangelo of FU’s to the rigged, corrupt, hypocrisy that designated him the everyman fall guy. I’d be so proud to hang that photograph on my wall.
What Lance did on the bike was brilliant. What he did for millions of others should never be forgotten.
This feature first appeared in Conquista 24.