Friday, September 7, 2007

From Loved to Loathed

In a June interview on NPR timed with the release of his new book “From Lance to Landis,” author David Walsh asserted that there are two kinds of cyclists with respect to doping, those that are dragged into doping and those that drag. It’s not a remarkable assessment. To allege coercion into a forbidden practice could hardly raise eyebrows.
However, Walsh pointed to Lance Armstrong as an example of a dragger. Walsh would have us believe that the reputation of the sport of cycling has been damaged by the draggers of the world, as exemplified by Mr. Armstrong.

In his book, Walsh does what he can to convince the reader that his motivations are honest, that all he wants is to clean up the sport and restore cycling’s tarnished reputation. There’s a problem with his mission, though. In “From Lance to Landis” (FLL) he takes square aim at Armstrong; without him, there really would have been no motivation to write. It is true he catches other cyclists (most notably Floyd Landis and Tyler Hamilton) in his crosshairs, but they are more collateral damage, corollaries to his argument. Curious that he should reserve his effort for American riders.

Investigative journalism got its start in America and the American consciousness is perhaps better prepared to read first-time allegations in a newspaper than citizens of some other countries. However, real investigative journalism demands more of its practitioners than simply exposing one man’s secrets. Large segments of interviews are condensed in FLL into single paragraphs sporting a single quote at the end, which is to say that at times, the book is short on substance. More direct quotes would have served both author and audience.

Were the book to be compared to other works of investigative journalism, such as what happened at Enron as exemplified by “The Smartest Guys in the Room,” Walsh, in effect, devoted little time to Ken Lay while putting all his resources into chasing Jeff Skilling, even though any complete account should focus on Enron as a whole. Ultimately, Walsh’s pursuit of Armstrong begins to seem personal, and the investigation lacks the fair-handed detachment of the best investigative journalism.

Armstrong has been quoted saying “extraordinary allegations require extraordinary proof.” Fair enough. Because there is no smoking gun, readers will see what they wish to see. Those who want to believe Armstrong is innocent of doping will see mountains of slanderous but circumstantial allegations. Those who think he should be burned at the stake for alleged doping will see what they think is more than enough.

Walsh makes much of the 1994 Fleche-Wallonne where three members of the Gewiss team rode away from the field, leaving every other team to chase. He attempts to use this as a window into Armstrong’s soul, a reason to explain his anger, his motivation to begin using EPO. He even tries to play the compassion card pointing out how understandable it would have been for a rider to wish to be competing on a level playing field. If Armstrong did, in fact, take EPO and if he decided to do so in the wake of the trouncing he got at the ’94 Fleche-Wallonne, then he was no less coerced, no less dragged, than any other cyclist.

Walsh gets a fundamental assumption wrong. His belief that there are draggers and dragged is misguided. He believes that the draggers—those cyclists who go into doping with their eyes wide open and embracing all the doctor has to offer—are the sport’s great scourge and the source of our incredulity and disappointment. There is a division in cycling between cyclists, but the difference lies between those we aren’t surprised to hear doped and those who we are utterly shocked to learn doped.

The surprise we experienced when Bjarne Riis admitted he took EPO was not that Mr. Sixty had doped—there were plenty of rumors—no, our surprise was that he broke the Omerta and came clean. The shock we feel when a rider we believed or at least hoped was clean (say, Iban Mayo) is the real shock. That’s the tarnish on the sport. Most of us can accept that some athletes will try to cheat, but what sours so many on cycling is the revelation that doping became standard practice, ubiquitous, a fog crawling over the whole landscape of cycling itself. The whiteout makes many dizzy, unable to tell up from down, day from night, and for some, right from wrong.

This entry was written out of love and a desire to see some clean, healthy competition in the PRO peloton. A big thank you to Padraig for his great contribution.


Photo Courtesy: USA Today

8 comments:

pompier said...

almost finished with this book, Walsh makes this book like a witch hunt towards Armstrong, but it makes you wonder if Armstrong has been lying all this time. Walsh has had two previous books before, which were only published in French, and never published in English, from a court order from Armstrong stating slander. Walsh quotes several former employees of the postal service, like emma o'reilly, Armstrongs personal soiginer, who testified and witnessed several illegal activities. A very interesting book, which I have not been able to stop reading!

Coach Curly said...

Wha?? Cyclists are doping?? Jeeze, you take a few days off from blogging and miss all the action.

Jimbo said...

Well put Freddy. Teams like Slipstream, which are all about racing clean, and the efforts being made by T-Mob towards that same goal seem to me to bode well for the future of pro cycling.

granny gear said...

doping is societal... can the superbowl be won without a doped offensive line?

doping in cat4?... how much does epo cost if you are a pharmacist or a pharmaceutical rep?

botox anyone?

What I Think said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
What I Think said...

I must say, the fact that Walsh's book contained NO citations - not a footnote to clarify which newspaper article he refers to nor an interview date for any quotes - ended the argument for me. It is clear that there is doping. It is probable that there is lab error. But Walsh's book comes across as merely a soap opera, without references. (The same goes for Landis's book.)

Perhaps it's my own background in academia (where you must cite sources) and journalism (maybe you don't have to FOOTNOTE, but you should note title and date of cited articles, etc.) that makes me a stickler for naming your sources. If he wants to make an airtight, professional case, this reader demands footnotes!

And where DO you get these videos, Radio Freddy?

Matt said...

Nice write-up Freddy! Perspective is something that journalism can never escape, and readers always need to be aware of the writer's point of view. Investigative journalism cannot be accomplished in a novel, because a book is designed to make money for the publisher, and therefore cannot just rely on facts. Thus investigative fiction is introduced.

bikesgonewild said...

...ya, walsh without armstrong is like a dog w/out a bone & you wonder why...plenty of euros coulda been included as well & i mighta taken walsh more seriously...american witch hunt...

...i can't reveal who or where, (is this called pulling a walsh) but the bjarne riis truth came to me during the '06 giro when someone who knows said,"bjarne has always been up front w/ his family...he has always said at home that w/out epo he would not have won the tour...he knew he was a good team leader but not necessarily a tour winner"...
...i actually have more respect for riis since his public admission...he obviously had more to lose by speaking up...