Written for In the Bunch
Truth be told, I’ve never really been a fan of Lance Armstrong. Primarily, I think, ‘cos he gave ‘Big Jaan’ such a hard time in his prime.
Maybe also because he’s American, and I often get the feeling that they believe the world revolves around their continent – you know, World Series baseball and so on.
But let’s not confuse being a fan with respecting his talent and what he has achieved – for that was immense and plausible.
When the cancer came along, it made him a larger than life character. He inspired millions and suddenly he was not just an egotistical American, but a citizen of the world (which includes the bits outside of the States).
He had successfully managed to merge his ‘title’ as cancer survivor with that of Tour de France champion, overcoming possibly two of the toughest physical tests known to man. I was among those who lapped up his autobiographies, living every extraordinary moment with him page by page.
The name Lance Armstrong, as opposed to Neil, became a brand of its own – one that stood for hope, belief, inspiration, humanity. He endeared himself to millions globally, with the possible exception of the French.
They are a proud nation – especially where cycling, and in particular their Tour, is concerned – and many felt that he was (perhaps unfairly) helping himself to huge portions of something that was traditionally theirs. Even worse, a national icon that personified traits like fairness and sportsmanship.
As I’m writing this column, I read with interest that the first week of this year’s Tour showed the most abandonments since the ’98 edition when Richard Virenque’s Festina team got thrown off the event for their alleged link to what the authorities termed “systematic doping”.
While all of this was going on, a recovering (in a non substance abuse sense, of course) Armstrong was finding his feet in races like the Vuelta and World Championships, finishing fourth in both.
Hello everyone, he had re-announced himself. My name is Lance. I’m a cyclist and cancer survivor and I have an obsession with winning. Hello Lance, the cycling fraternity welcomed him back at the time.
The following year saw a fully recovered Armstrong at the Tour – for the record, a race he had only been able to complete once after a fistful of attempts.
After the Festina Affair of the year before, it is safe to say that he resurfaced at a time when most loyal supporters of the sport felt betrayed and looked on great performances like his with more than just a little suspicion.
Vampire (an affectionate term for the governing body’s drug-testing squad) season in the peloton didn’t help either as riders – ranging between good and great ones – were being caught left, right and centre with their hands in the cookie jar.
Outsiders realised that the Festina boys had been made scapegoats for what was actually a much bigger problem. Doping, it seemed, was part and parcel of the sport at the time and offenders were being – excuse the pun – weeded out at the root.
So it was into this unfortunate mess that an unsuspecting Armstrong stepped with his new Nike shoes and while he proceeded to beat the socks off his competition, most of them were being sent home for doping.
For many, including then Tour director Jean-Marie Leblanc, this defied logic. And thirteen years on his performances still do.
It might be because he was better than everyone else at beating the system. Or he simply might have been better than the rest.
Whichever version you choose to believe, is up to you. Personally, I find solace in an old Flemish cycling saying that loosely translates to a belief that, one way or another, the various eras compete on level playing fields.
Therefore, let bygones be bygones.
Coetzee is a former journalist and full-time cycling fanatic whose PR company focuses on sports communications. Visit www.inthebunch.co.za or follow In_the_Bunch on Twitter.
Full Stop Communications
041 368 4992
082 575 7991
On behalf of: