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