September 2014        

Lance Armstrong should keep his jerseys

In July, RTE featured a documentary on Paul Kimmage, the sports journalist. He was portrayed as the journalist who exposed Lance Armstrong as a cheat, and was one of the main journalists who campaigned about the use of drugs in professional cycling.
     There is no doubt that Kimmage is a unique journalist, and in fact he is one of the small number of people—never mind journalists—who actually completed a Tour de France when he was a professional cyclist. He could have completed a second Tour but withdrew. This still seems to be a source of regret to him.
     However, to claim that Kimmage was Armstrong’s main critic does not accord with the facts.
     Newspapers such as Le Monde and Libération and specialist papers such as Cycling Weekly were always sceptical about Armstrong’s success, for the simple reason that up to the early 1990s, though as a young rider he performed well in one-day and short-stage races, he never demonstrated an ability to win time-trials or climb, skills necessary for winning the Tour. Yet after treatment for cancer and losing weight he won seven tours!
     In the Kimmage documentary a young Armstrong made the point in an interview that although his times were good he was being overtaken as though standing still. The message was clear: either join the others or be left behind.
     The bourgeois media like to present history as one of great men doing great things. Armstrong was portrayed as a superman who had overcome cancer and gone on to win one of the toughest endurance sports seven times. He was an inspiration to cancer sufferers, met American presidents, and was generally portrayed as a great American success story. His sponsors made millions.
     Professional cycling is a working-class sport. In the past, cyclists have been forced to go on strike for better pay and working conditions. The Tour de France was invented in 1903 to promote the sales of a cycling magazine. From the very beginning the promoters put on cycling events, such as 24-hour races. Endurance and cycling through pain were features of the sport. Consequently, taking drugs to override the body’s warning systems were features of the sport.
     In the early twentieth century various drugs, such as cocaine, were easily available from pharmacists for sale to the general public. Members of the public often gave the cyclists champagne, which was widely believed to boost performance. Sponsors actively encouraged doctors to give cyclists amphetamines to boost performance. It was only in the 1950s and 60s that drugs began to be banned.
     The first drug tests of the Tour took place in 1966. By that time doctors were more aware of the damage that can be done to the body by ignoring pain as the body’s signal to rest.
     Stalin in his book The Foundations of Leninism stated: “American efficiency is that indomitable force which neither knows nor recognises obstacles; which with its business-like perseverance brushes aside all obstacles; which continues at a task once started until it is finished, even if it is a minor task.”
     Greg Lemond brought that American efficiency to the Tour. He adopted triathlon bars and streamlined helmets for time-trialling, and introduced the idea of bike fitting. Altogether he had a scientific approach to the sport. Improvements such as these meant that the average speed had gone from 24 km/h in the 1920s to 38.6 km/h in 1990. Nibali in this year’s Tour had an average of 40.68 over 3,660 km.
     Armstrong rode for all-American teams. This attracted greater money and sponsorship. The Tour was now being shown on American television, and the sport itself was experiencing a huge growth as a leisure and health activity in America.
     It was in this period (the 1990s onwards) that drugs in cycling changed from methods of overcoming pain to enhancing performance. Sponsors happily went with the flow, so long as they were not exposed. The idea that Armstrong doped alone is ridiculous, though he and his team seemed to have brought doping to a new level of efficiency.
     All Armstrong has left are his jerseys. At the end of the day, he was little more than a member of the chain gang. Time will tell whether he damaged his own health in an attempt to please the sponsors, who made millions out of his portrayal as a superhero.
     Paul Kimmage should give up his sanctimonious stand, focusing on individual cyclists, and write the real story of drugs in cycling: the damage caused to the health of cyclists by trying to perform beyond the limits of their bodies, and their premature deaths as a result of the pressure from sponsors to increase output and perform the impossible.

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