Sunday 4 December 2016

Paul Kimmage: Don't ask me to feel sorry for Lance Armstrong - or see him as a victim

Recent efforts to get Lance Armstrong back in the public eye do not sit well with Paul Kimmage

Published 14/06/2015 | 17:00

‘Lance Armstrong has suffered enough and it’s time to bring him back — Sorry, not on my watch’
‘Lance Armstrong has suffered enough and it’s time to bring him back — Sorry, not on my watch’

"Do we make mistakes, all of us? Absolutely. As a society are we supposed to forgive and forget and let people get back to their job? Absolutely. I'm not sure I will ever forgive you for that statement. And I'm not sure that anybody around the world that has been affected by this disease will forgive you."

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February 2009

It was late Wednesday evening when the screaming started: "AGHHHHHHHHHHHHH!" My first impression was that someone had been stabbed.

"AGHHHHHHHHHHHHH!"

I looked up expecting panic in the corridor:

"AGHHHHHHHHHHHHH!"

A doctor raced sprinting from a work station; some nurses fleeing from the room; a frantic call to security or the guards:

"AGHHHHHHHHHHHHH!"

But nobody moves.

Later, when the lights had been dimmed, and the sick and afflicted were at last finding rest, it starts again:

"AGHHHHHHHHHHHHH!"

From one of the small, private rooms opposite the wards:

"AGHHHHHHHHHHHHH!"

An old man dribbling and hunched in a bed:

"AGHHHHHHHHHHHHH!"

Two gentle and kindly nurses watching by his side: "Sure what's wrong with you Michael?"

"I WANNNAAAAAAAAAAH . . ."

Michael is not listening; he has no idea who he is or where he is or how he got there. But he knows what he wants:

"I WANNNAAAAH GO TO THE TOILET!"

"But you've just been to the toilet, Michael."

"I WANNNNAAAAH GO TO THE TOILET."

"Now, now Michael calm down."

"AGHHHHHHHHHHHHH!"

It is the saddest thing I've ever heard.

A minute later, my phone lights up with some breaking news - Lance Armstrong and three major interviews he's done with three English newspapers, The Times, The Telegraph and the Daily Mail. The photographs are great. He is sitting in his plush family home in the billionaire resort of Aspen, Colorado cradling a glass of Chateau Petrus and flashing a Rolex. But the piece de resistance is the headline in The Telegraph: 'I have suffered enough'.

Suck on that, Michael.

Ten years have passed since February 2005, when I travelled to Birmingham to meet Geoff Thomas. The former England footballer had survived a two-year battle with leukaemia and was planning a bike ride to France to raise funds for the disease. His bike - a gleaming Bianchi - had been delivered that morning. He changed into his kit to take it for a spin and fell before he had reached the gate.

It was not hard to admire him. His goal - to complete the entire route of the Tour de France five months later in July - would take a lot of guts and courage. And it was no real surprise that his hero, and source of inspiration, was the (then) six-time Tour champion Lance Armstrong. I noted it in the interview:

"Then a book arrived in the post from Osborne, the fashion director he'd met in Milan a month earlier. It was the Lance Armstrong story, It's Not About The Bike. He read it in a day and opened the fridge (containing his medicine) with a new resolve. 'Right!' he thought. 'This is what I need to do'. The six months that followed were the calmest and most enjoyable of his life."

Later that afternoon, when the interview had finished, we retired to a local coffee house. I hadn't mentioned my reservations about Armstrong (I never did when conversing with cancer victims) but Geoff was aware of the rumours and knew I wasn't a fan. So he asked. And I answered: "He's a liar, a bully and a fraud."

Five months later, they both had reason to celebrate on the Champs-Elysées: Geoff had dug deep and completed his challenge; Lance had won his seventh Tour and made a memorable speech: "And finally, the last thing I'll say to the people who don't believe in cycling, the cynics and the sceptics: I'm sorry for you. I'm sorry that you can't dream big. I'm sorry you don't believe in miracles. But this is one hell of a race. This is a great sporting event and you should believe in these athletes and believe in these people. I'm a fan of the Tour de France for as long as I live and there are no secrets. This is the hardest sporting event and hard work wins it, so vive le Tour forever."

Two years later, I met Geoff again a week before the Tour in London. It was the last I saw of him. He continued to ride his bike and raise funds for cancer but there was rarely a critical word for Lance, not when he was screwing Greg LeMond and Floyd Landis; not when he was threatening Betsy Andreu and Emma O'Reilly, not when he was suing David Walsh or nailing me to the floor in '09.

And yet, here he was on Friday in The Guardian, preaching about forgiveness.

Geoff Thomas has insisted Lance Armstrong deserves a shot at redemption when the disgraced cyclist joins him on his charity ride for Cure Leukaemia over the route of the Tour de France. Armstrong's return to France has been criticised by Brian Cookson, the chairman of the UCI, world cycling's governing body, but Thomas reckons the time is right to move on.

The former Crystal Palace footballer was diagnosed with chronic myeloid leukaemia in 2003 and given three months to live but has been in remission since 2005 and is aiming to raise £1m by first cycling from London to Paris next week and then the main Tour route.

"The question is how long do you want to keep kicking him and stop him living his life? He has paid his price and in the future he'll have to pay more, financially as well," Thomas said.

"I don't condone what he did. I look at the man as a cancer survivor who has raised $500m for his charity and that's what he wants to do in the future. If I can offer him a first step towards his road to redemption and he raises millions in the future, I can't see that doing any harm."

The bigger issue for Geoff is the fight against cancer. The cruelty and injustice Betsy Andreu has been subjected to, doesn't count. The damage inflicted on the sport doesn't count. The lies and the bullying and the cheating don't count.

The lack of remorse and refusal to accept responsibility doesn't count. Lance has suffered enough and it's time to bring him back.

Sorry, not on my watch.

How long do we want to keep kicking him? I don't want to kick him at all.

How long do we want to stop him living his life? I've no interest in that, either. Lance can play golf and drink wine and change his wife every year for the rest of his life and it won't cost me a thought.

But don't ask me to read about him, or feel sorry for him, or present him as some kind of victim. And we're all stocked up with those shiny yellow wristbands, so go sell crazy someplace else.

"AGHHHHHHHHHHHHH!"

I thought of my father the other night when Michael was screaming and thanked God he had been spared such a cruel and painful end. I'm thinking of him now and what he'd say to Lance.

He would remind him of the good fortune he'd had to survive cancer and ask how much more he thought he deserved.

Then he'd point towards Aspen and give him a root up the hole. "You've made your bed, now go and lie in it."

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