Vincent Hogan: Support for Lance Armstrong looks like a sport going into denial
Roche and O'Reilly backing for drugs cheat shows why it took so long to expose lie in the first place
Published 19/07/2014 | 02:30
The race to turn Lance Armstrong back into a cuddly American hero got creepy this week. As a light rain of forgiveness began to fall, it felt the equivalent of watching Greenpeace stickers being slapped on to the deck of the Exxon Valdez. Emma O'Reilly is no fool, but she sounded something close to one on Newstalk, trying to explain a reconciliation that, from Armstrong's perspective, looks both timely and convenient.
He has, remarkably, written the foreword to her book. Having once sought to ruin his former soigneur, he apparently explained himself – "succinctly" in Emma's eyes – with the assertion, "We publicly fell out, but we never personally fell out!"
One of her more striking comments in conversation with Ger Gilroy thus described Armstrong as "the biggest symptom of the system".
This in the same week that 12 former Tour de France winners, including our own Stephen Roche, expressed a view that the American should have his seven Tour victories restored to the record books, carrying the ominous tone of a sport slipping back into denial.
Because O'Reilly and Roche were, essentially, adhering to the same, chilling philosophy here, one declaring it unfair that Armstrong should find himself isolated from a sport that, historically, has always been rotten.
"Who tells us Jacques Anquetil won clean?" said Stephen almost cryptically. "Should we take his victories away?"
Quite what message Roche thought this might articulate about his own victory in '87 is difficult to fathom. Even more pertinently, what did he imagine it said to his own son, Nicolas?
Forgive dopers because, chances are, everybody was doing it? There is an interesting line in David Walsh's 'Seven Deadly Sins', where he is discussing the 2004 publication of 'LA Confidentiel', in which O'Reilly is the key source of damning information about Armstrong. Walsh's tunnelled focus seems to have blinded him to how utterly Emma has exposed herself in the book.
Marc Grinsztajn, an employee of the publishers La Martiniere, suggests more than once to him that he should "look out for Emma in the aftermath". The advice escapes Walsh. "I nodded, but didn't see it," he admits candidly.
But Grinsztajn understood the calibre of monster about to be unleashed on O'Reilly.
Armstrong went after her with the kind of viciousness that only a true sociopath could muster. His shameful efforts at character assassination have been well documented, but even more terrifying was the blizzard of subpoenas arriving at her door.
As she revealed this week: "I could have been bankrupt, I could have been out on the street!" She admitted to Gilroy that what Armstrong did to her was "disgusting".
Yet there was a curious tone of guilt in how O'Reilly spoke, too. She talked of feeling just as sinful as the dopers and, accordingly, being deserving of some punishment for "breaking the omerta".
Almost unwittingly, she used phrases like "the medical programme", as if the culture of systemic doping might have had vague legitimacy by simple dint of its broad reach. "I could see the humanity behind what became the story," she said.
"Their faces always stayed in my conscience."
Listening, it was easy to wonder what had changed. Where was the fearless Tallaght girl who, for all the Armstrong intimidation, never shot the messenger? O'Reilly admits she had some heated arguments with Walsh over the trouble 'LA Confidentiel' brought to her door, yet never once did she retreat from the dark truth that spawned that trouble.
In the famous Oprah interview, when Armstrong describes O'Reilly as "one of these people that got run over, got bullied," Winfrey interjects, "You sued her?"
His response is an almost ambivalent. "To be honest Oprah, we sued so many people ... I don't even ... I'm sure we did!"
His chilling ability to lie about people, to stare down a camera lens and concoct the most devastating falsehoods about perceived enemies – be it O'Reilly, Greg LeMond, Betsy Andreau, Walsh, whoever – still makes the blood run cold, yet somehow O'Reilly believes he has now changed.
This clearly annoys Andreau, who this week described their reconciliation as "the rehabilitation of his image" just as potentially crippling court cases now loom for Armstrong.
Yet, for all that, you couldn't feel entirely angry with O'Reilly either. If anything, she sounded drained by the past decade and hungry for nothing more than serenity. "I love my normal little life now," she said simply, sounding as if she meant it.
But Stephen Roche?
"In the 100-year history of the race, you can't not have a winner for seven years," he said. "Doping has been part of sport, not only cycling, for decades." Roughly half of his fellow former Tour winners, incidentally, agree.
When circumstance changed Alex Gibney's 'The Road Back' to 'The Armstrong Lie', the film-maker found himself asking the American how on earth he thought his secrets would stay hidden.
"I certainly was very confident that I would never be caught!" replies Armstrong flatly.
And we wonder why?
Wexford look like team with a future
On Saturday night, Liam Dunne name-checked Jim Bolger and Billy Walsh on television as just two of the local figures who would be walking out of Wexford Park feeling 10 feet tall.
It was the only foot Dunne put wrong all evening.
Bolger was in situ right enough, but Walsh was at a boxing training camp in Belfast, striking every ball as he watched TV coverage of that epic extra-time defeat of All-Ireland champions Clare.
Billy's house backs onto Wexford Park and he is, of course, a former county minor with a deep passion for the game. He admits to exchanging texts with Dunne during the week and will be in Nowlan Park for this evening's game with Waterford.
But Walsh is loathe to start banging drums now. Waterford, he says, are dangerous and, with Wexford hurling for the third weekend in a row (not to mention having retained a Leinster U-21 title in between), there may be a small question of fatigue.
Still, for the first time in a small eternity, Wexford look a team with a future.