Cancer made Lance Armstrong hard to hate

It also made it easy for sports writers to ignore those pesky doping allegations

The final ace was pulled from Lance Armstrong’s house of cards Monday when the International Cycling Union (UCI) stripped Armstrong of his seven Tour de France titles—the victories that had ensured his fame, allowed his Livestrong charity to amass hundreds of millions of dollars in donations, and cemented Armstrong’s status as the greatest rider of all time. Now those Tours will, officially at least, have no winner—they will remain vacant, as though the entire peloton stopped meters from the finish during every stage from 1999-2005.

The general consensus in the sports media commentariat has been either, “I’m shocked, shocked to hear of drug use in cycling!” or, “Since everyone else was cheating, too, Lance should get props for being better at it than the others.” It’s hard not to be cynical, especially when you consider that all but one of the top three finishers in each of those seven Tours have been caught doping. In that context, perhaps Armstrong should get some backhanded credit. Clearly, the scientific boosting he and his US Postal Service and Discovery Channel teams used worked pretty damn well.

What to make, though, of the writers who profited, directly or otherwise, from Armstrong’s success without ever confronting the allegations that dogged him? There really are too many to name, but it’s worth noting that one, the Christian Science Monitor’s Peter Ford, had the courage to admit he was wrong—and that his wife, who is French (more on that in a minute) was right all along about Armstrong.

(For that matter, what to make of the publications—I’m looking at you Sports Illustrated and Outside, though they were hardly alone—that used Armstrong on multiple covers to sell magazines without ever taking a very hard, or persistent look, at those allegations?)

First among equals in this category of sports writer is The Washington Post’s Sally Jenkins, who co-wrote two books with Armstrong, It’s Not About The Bike and Every Second Counts, both very successful. Jenkins has been noticeably silent since the US Anti-Doping Agency report that damned Armstrong with reams of testimony was issued. Jenkins tap-danced away from her former meal ticket, telling Jim Romenesko that she is on a book deadline and thus hasn’t been prioritizing Armstrong’s troubles. Sally, that doesn’t wash—I’m on book deadline, too (cheap plug: The Victory Season: The End of World War Two and the Dawn of Baseball’s Golden Age is out next April); but here I am, writing about Armstrong. Truth is, Jenkins shouldn’t worry about a loss of credibility that could affect her status as a top sports writer. Armstrong’s triumph over cancer and his tireless efforts to fund medical research were the compelling factors in his popularity—not Jenkins’s glowing prose.

Perhaps I’m wrong, but even as he was winning the Tours, I think most people suspected he had to, at the very least, be keeping up with the Joneses, PED-wise, and was mostly forgiven, pre facto, because unlike the other riders, Armstrong was lucky to be alive, much less racing. The image of his press conference where he shakily announced his diagnosis served as a public inoculation.

Jenkins could engender a bit of suspicion for turning the same blind eye while nominally wearing a journalist’s hat, but once she entered into a contract with Armstrong, she became a bound accomplice. Even if she had witnessed Armstrong en flagrante steroid, few would expect her to demolish a relationship that wound up pouring money into anti-cancer coffers, just to adhere to journalistic ethics that may or may not have applied.

Ironically, the fact that Americans either didn’t want to know about the science behind Armstrong’s rise, or didn’t much care, enraged the European writers who took pretty much the same blasé attitude with virtually all other champion riders when it came to doping. It was as if the mere fact that an American—worse, a Texan, like George W. Bush—was winning France’s most cherished sporting title sent the local press into hypocritical hysteria.

Europeans consider drug use in cycling the way Americans do drug use in football—as an essential, if unseemly, part of what makes the game possible. Just as no one cares what boost some middle linebacker needs to get through 16 Sundays of demolition derby, cycling devotees across the pond acknowledge that riding thousands of kilometers, over mountain ranges, at top speed over three weeks simply isn’t humanly possible without some artificial help. Yet Armstrong’s dominance, combined with his “Go ahead, test me all you want!” cockiness, drove the French crazy. The fact that at least an element of Armstrong’s popularity in the US was tinged with the glee of sticking it to those hated cheese-eating surrender monkeys didn’t help their mindset.

So while the hordes at Le E’quipe and Le Monde, and Pierre Ballester and David Walsh, the authors of L.A. Confidentiel: Les Secrets de Lance Armstrong, an accusatory book published in 2004 about Armstrong’s alleged drug use, were spot on, they nevertheless look a little silly for devoting so much energy to shaming Armstrong while shrugging off the drug use of the rest of the field.

The takeaway from the entire sordid episode? There are few winners to be found.

Fast breaks

As college football season continues apace, take a moment to pick up that rarity: a solid novel about the sport. Inman Majors has written a comic takedown of the sports circus atmosphere in Love’s Winning Plays, which tracks the over-the-top boosterism that surrounds campus pigskin. Majors knows whereof he writes—his uncle is former Pitt and Tennessee coach Johnny Majors, one of the more successful college coaches of recent vintage. Readers will notice similarities to other characters that populate the collegiate landscape, in particular those who hang out in the Southeastern Conference, the Alpha and Omega of big-time college football, for better and for worse. Majors’ book gives fans a reason to smile, even after their school has just been accused of NCAA violations.

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Robert Weintraub is the author of The House That Ruth Built. He is a frequent contributor to The New York Times and Slate, and a television writer/producer based in Atlanta. Tags: , , ,