No remorse when cheat has no conscience

Lance Armstrong celebrates during the 2004 Tour de France. Picture: GETTY IMAGES
Lance Armstrong celebrates during the 2004 Tour de France. Picture: GETTY IMAGES


On stage 15 of the 2003 Tour de France the handlebar of Lance Armstrong's bike brushed a spectator. Armstrong crashed to the ground. Tyler Hamilton, once his right-hand man but that year riding for a rival team, chased down Armstrong's main rival, Jan Ullrich, and told him to slow down and wait for Armstrong. Such is the code of honour among cyclists.

According to Hamilton's tell-all book, The Secret Race, later that day Hamilton received an illegal blood transfusion, which increases the red blood cells to boost endurance.

That's the weird world of professional cycling; endemic cheating, while maintaining a code of honour on the road. Those double standards will now be tested outside the sport because Armstrong transcends cycling, or sport itself. He is more than a celebrity, more than someone with whom film stars and presidents want to be photographed. He is, or at least was, a hero.

Indeed his life story is one of the most inspirational in the history of sport; the man who beat stage three testicular cancer (which had spread to his lungs and brain) to win the Tour de France a record seven times. He has been an idol not just to the thousands of Lycra-clad Sunday morning warriors, but to the 27 million people diagnosed with cancer every year.

Armstrong was acutely aware of what would happen to him and his charity if he was found to have cheated by doping.

In a 1995 deposition aired by Four Corners he said all his sponsors would disappear. "All of them. And the faith of all the cancer survivors around the world … And don't think for a second I don't understand that. It's not about money for me. Everything. It's also about the faith that people have put in me over the years. So all of that would be erased.'' He's right.

His seven Tour de France victories have been erased, and the faith millions put in the man now dubbed ''the Bernie Madoff of sports'' will be next.

The president of the International Cycling Union, Pat McQuaid, says Armstrong ''deserves to be forgotten''. Unfortunately, that's not likely. Like Ben Johnson, like the 1919 White Sox, Armstrong's name will live in cheatings' hall of infamy.

Even more shocking than Armstrong's drug taking is the picture that has emerged of his character. He's not just a cheat but a bully. He used his wealth, fame and position to persecute people who blew the whistle, intimidated people, sued journalists, and used his political and business connections ruthlessly.

According to Hamilton, Armstrong dobbed him in to cycling's governing body after he beat him on Mont Ventoux, one of the most famous climbs in France. While the Armstrong saga is upsetting to the millions of Sunday morning cyclists who idolised his apparently extraordinary athletic achievements, it's probably more upsetting to the millions of cancer patients he has inspired.

So what will happen to Armstrong's charity, Livestrong? For the past few years it has raised about $33 million a year, and in total more than $450 million. It is so closely associated with him and his extraordinary life story as to be inseparable.

It carries Armstrong's name. Its sponsors are Armstrong's supporters. Its colour is the same yellow as the winner's jersey in the Tour de France. Hamilton's Foundation, which raised money for multiple sclerosis, closed after his doping scandals.

We now know Armstrong's seven victories weren't genuine, but what's more damning is that a man in remission for cancer would risk his health with dangerous drugs. Indeed, a Sports Illustrated article last year reported that Armstrong's doping doctor, Michele Ferrari, was worried his cocktails of performance-enhancing drugs had helped cause the cancer.

While many of his sponsors, including Nike - which has stood beside every other of its miscreant sponsored athletes - have dropped him, they have pledged continued support for his foundation. But others won't. There are plenty of good cancer charities out there.

For the sake of his charity, Armstrong would be best advised to come clean and admit his guilt. After all, Americans love a good redemption story.

In that 2003 Tour de France, Hamilton eventually finished fourth, an extraordinary performance given he broke his collarbone in two places on stage one of the race. The result made him famous; his home town held a parade in his honour. There were flags and T-shirts and placards which read: Tyler is our hero.

But as he writes in The Secret Race: "I couldn't stand it … deep down I was ashamed. Being praised made it worse." The more he tried to deflect the praise the more people liked him for being humble. He writes: "I remember thinking, 'This is what Lance lives with every day, only his is a hundred times worse.'"

Hamilton was right, and wrong. Hamilton has a conscience. There is no sign Armstrong does.

Herald journalist Mark Coultan is a pedlar of stories and pedals a Trek bike.


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