Lance Armstrong’s seven straight Tour de France victories and Joe DiMaggio’s 56 game hitting streak sit on top of the pile when it comes to incredible feats in sports.
The year after Babe Ruth was released by the Yankees, Joe DiMaggio arrived in New York and led the Yankees to a championship as a rookie. He served in the army during World War II and later married Marilyn Monroe. More than enough reasons to make him an American hero. Lance Armstrong is a hero because he survived a lethal bout with cancer and recovered well enough to not only ride again and win a Tour de France, but to keep on riding until he’d won more than any other man in history.
The last time a French rider won the Tour de France was 1985. An American rider has now won ten of the last twenty Tours – Greg LeMond won in 1986 and 1989-90. France was already pissed off at the US before their riders started taking over France’s premier sports event so it’s not surprising that the French newspaper L’Equipe reported that a B sample of Armstrong’s blood taken during his first Tour win showed the presence of EPO, a form of blood doping. It helps that French libel laws force the libeled person to prove that the newspaper’s report is false. L’Equipe journalists are well aware that this is a tough standard to satisfy.
When French resident Roman Polanski sued Vanity Fair for reporting a story that he tried to seduce a young actress on the way to the funeral for his slain wife, Sharon Tate, he tried his case in England and not France because England’s libel laws require the publisher to prove that their information is true. Polanski won the case.
It’s more surprising to read the response of Tour de France director, Jean-Marie Leblanc: “… these are no longer rumors or insinuations, these are proven scientific facts.” Without an A sample of Armstrong’s blood and lab verification that the sample belongs to Armstrong ( the French anti-doping lab has refused to do this), the testing standards of the World Anti-Doping Agency have not been upheld and the result is not scientifically proven.
More than surprising, and even shocking, is the comment by Dick Pound, head of the World Anti-Doping Agency (and an American). He’s not sure an A sample is necessary. “You can count on the fingers of one hand the times a B sample has not confirmed the result of the A sample,” Pound said.
He may be expressing the cynicism Americans now feel after ten years of lies about steroid use by professional and amateur athletes. Year after year, baseball players blew up till they looked like the Michelin man and attributed their new body to dietary changes or working out with their wife’s trainer. The Balco scandal opened our eyes but still left questions – who was doing what and when? Jose Canseco’s book, Juiced, answered our questions but how much of it could we believe? Then came Rafael Palmeiro’s positive test for steroids and that was it. We thought baseball players might have been cheatin’ and lyin’ but we weren’t sure and we didn’t want to believe it. Now we had no choice.
Palmeiro’s positive test result was like finding out that your lover is cheating on you. You’re not only deeply wounded but you’re ashamed that you didn’t see it and you don’t believe it when your lover says that it was just a fling.
Palmeiro and his brethren wanted to protect their careers until after the Hall of Fame ballots were cast. Palmeiro is one of only twenty-six players in the history of baseball to hit over five hundred home runs and get three thousand hits. Admitting to steroid use would have been the same as erasing his numbers over night.
Baseball players may have been reflecting America’s attitude towards winning at all costs or they might have been shaping it when they testified in front of congress that they never used steroids. Either way, Palmeiro’s positive test result was like finding out that your lover is cheating on you. You’re not only deeply wounded but you’re ashamed that you didn’t see it and you don’t believe it when your lover says that it was just a fling. We want to believe in our sports heroes but we’re not sure we can.
We’re not sure it’s possible for a man to recover from an aggressive form of cancer then go out and ride up and down impossibly steep mountains faster than any other cyclist on the planet without using illegal performance enhancing substances. And that’s very sad.
[Correction: Dick Pound is a Canadian, for some reason I was confusing him with Dick Button the former Olympic skater and television analyst. There are a few similarities, they were both Olympic athletes and they both have law degrees, but that’s about it.]