A Demi-God’s Demise?

Imagine yourself in a doctor’s examination room with one of your teammates and his doctors; you and your wife (who is with you) think you should leave, just for privacy’s sake. But your teammate asks you to stick around anyway. After all, you’ve been teammates and buddies for a while so no secrets here. Then the doctor asks your teammate what drugs he has ingested over the years. He ticks off a list that includes some substances you know are illegal. You are more than a little surprised, but you know you heard what you heard. Your wife heard it too.

That was the situation cyclist Frankie Andreu was in some ten years ago. His teammate was Lance Armstrong. At that time he had just started his recovery from testicular cancer. This episode was publicly reported back in July of this year. Armstrong has denied that he ever said such things. His doctors support his version of events. But Andreu and his wife Betsy have maintained they heard what they heard.

The Andreus were obligated to give testimony in court, which is how this story came out initially. The case involved a promotional company who had withheld Armstrong’s bonus money because of doping allegations. Armstrong won his case and got his money, with interest.

But now there is a further story on all this in Sports Illustrated this week. Not a pretty story. In fact it will probably rock the world of professional sports and far beyond it.

We all know how endurance athletes love their spaghetti and other pasta dishes. But will this be the week when the spaghetti, so to speak, finally sticks to the ceiling? Is there something to the charge, made yet again, that Armstrong used performance-enhancing drugs during his record seven consecutive Tour de France victories? This time, I am afraid there may be little wiggle room for him.

This new article has Andreu publicly fessing up to using EPO back in 1999. Now retired, Andreu spoke up in an effort to clean up a sport that may be pretty near impossible to clean up. Another teammate, requesting anonymity, reports on how a culture of EPO use pervaded the team, with Armstrong its leader. Armstrong remains adamant: he never took a thing. Ever. He wonders publicly why his former friends and teammates are out to get him. I just don’t get ait, says he. Neither Andreu nor the anonymous teammate indicted Armstrong. But he was part of the team. Was he really above the fray?

Were they really out to get him? Or is the truth now getting too close to home? Former champion Greg LeMond made similar allegations against Armstrong last year. On The Charlie Rose Show, Armstrong complained that LeMond was “for some reason trying to destroy my reputation.” Why, he did not know.

Well, let’s ask the question, why would these two guys, Andreu and LeMond, want to nail Armstrong? These are two of the Good Guys in cycling, Andreu a man willing to lay his all down to help his leader, Lance Armstrong. And LeMond, who competed at a time when being an American was not a fun thing. He had to eat a lot of shit for that. He developed character up his wazoo. A straight shooter if ever there was one.

So all of these things started to add up and take their toll on me, and people like me who follow cycling, or just popular culture. Lance is a myth from the land of the gods. I used to think LeMond was annoyed that he had it rough while Armstrong had it easy. He had helped greased the wheels to that ease. Hell, maybe LeMond was just jealous, I thought.

Now I think LeMond has pretty powerful convictions for speaking out the way he did. I heard the remarks in his on-camera response to a reporter’s question and the strong annoyance he showed felt very real. Why did Armstrong persist in this fantasy of being clean? That’s what LeMond was wondering. I felt quite shocked, I remember. I hid my head and hoped it would fade away. Slowly, it did.

What do they gain from it? The answer is not much of anything. There’s no reward for bringing down the world’s top cyclist, retired or not. If anything, you will probably end up getting spat on publicly. Because of that I am inclined to believe them. Armstrong, on the other hand, has everything in the world to gain by maintaining the fantasy, so carefully built up and protected, that he is clean. How about that? He must be the only clean guy in a sport rife with dirty ones.

Armstrong is a major public figure. His influence goes well beyond sporting realms and has touched cancer survivors everywhere. Does he not have a great deal to lose if his feet are proven to be of clay? He’s no longer a cottage industry at this point; the guy is practically a major conglomerate. People love him. Yellow bands adorn the wrists of a large swathe of Americans. Armstrong could run for president some day. And probably win handily. He’s that kind of guy.

But if Lance instead turns out to be an Enron of the sporting world, just imagine the dominoes that will fall and the expectations of people all over the world that will be crushed if these charges prove true. Unfortunately, after a lot of wondering myself over the last few years, I have a creepy feeling they probably are true. Before this week, I kept steeling myself as new charges of doping crept out about Armstrong. But I wanted to keep the faith. Last year, I even wrote here about the incredible physiology that got Lance up those 2.5 grades in the Pyrenees and the Alps for seven years straight. Now, I am starting to think the game is up.

Sigh and woe is at hand. Meanwhile, who gets caught? Not Armstrong, but the man after him who would be king, Floyd Landis. Poor Floyd. He had some big shoes to fill. With a name that sounded positively homely alongside the steel and flint persona of a name like Armstrong’s. We probably won’t be hearing much about Floyd ever again. But Armstrong we will. He will have people rallying to his defense. Too much is at stake here.

According to a related story last week in the New York Times, nearly a dozen people sought for interviews declined to talk about the Andreus, saying “they feared for their jobs because of Armstrong’s influence in the sport.”

How does Armstrong address the testimony of the Andreus? “She hates me,” says Lance in the Times article. And Frankie is just “backing up his old lady.”

The irony is, according to the SI article, that Armstrong’s testicular cancer may in fact have been induced by his steroid use. That would certainly be an odd pickle if these charges prove true. It should give young men pause in case they are eager to replicate the actions of those who do use illegal drugs.

I watched Armstrong every year with a fervor bordering on religiosity. He was more than my hero. He was my savior too. I followed his exploits from my hospital bed after I blew out my aorta with a ruptured abdominal aortic aneurysm. I never knew if I could climb back on my bike again and ride the 200 miles a week I rode when I competed. But if Armstrong could do it, I could too; I felt totally inspired by him.

Now I am wondering, will I feel stepped on? Like those other blondes before me, Kristin his former wife, and Sheryl Crow, who recently discovered herself that, while Lance could go through his own battle with cancer, he could not be there for her when she was diagnosed with breast cancer. Geez, doesn’t exactly sound like something a Good Guy would do, now does it? There’s something fishy about this guy.

Part of me feels like weeping again. This guy is gonna make me cry my heart out before we’re through with each other. I am so sorry.

Another horrible thing if this happens: the French may get the last laugh after all. The press and establishment in France have been howling for Armstrong’s blood for eons.

I don’t know about you guys, but tonight I am getting drunk and howling at the moon.

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An odd thing just occurred on the TV: they ran the Lance Armstrong commercial, the black and white one of him climbing in the fog, man alone at the top, leader of cancer survivors everywhere …see what I mean? Can we suppose it was sheer serendipity that this ad ran when it did? Pull my other leg, please. The myth goes on.

See also: It’s Not About The Bike, It’s All About The Suffering