It's taken a while for some but opinions on Lance Armstrong have altered greatly, writes Paul Kimmage
When it comes to the issue of doping and cycling, Sean Kelly has never been forward in looking backward. For 18 years now, since his last professional race, his attitude has always been easy to interpret: Don't ask me to condemn the sins of others.
Three months ago, in a lengthy interview with L'équipe during the most recent Tour de France, even those who know, and work with him closely, despaired when, despite a tidal wave of evidence, he expressed his continued belief in Lance Armstrong. But it was just Kelly being Kelly -- nothing if not consistent.
So it was astonishing to hear him break the habit of a lifetime last Thursday on Morning Ireland when he was rolled out behind Tyler Hamilton on the 8.35 sports bulletin. And even more astonishing that he had changed his tune on Lance: "Well, over the last number of months we were waiting for this and it was pretty much expected," he announced.
"But it's horrific what we're hearing over the last number of hours. Now we know that it was organised within the team . . . the doping with Lance Armstrong and with all the other team-mates. It was a time in cycling -- and we heard Hamilton saying -- they were all doing it, and it wasn't the only team I believe."
Exactly 40 seconds had passed since Kelly had seized the microphone and after this thorough dissection of the problem, it was time to announce the solution.
"Since we have our new president, Pat McQuaid, things have changed totally," he said. "I think in the last couple of years cycling has cleaned up a lot . . . they are catching all the big names, so that is the good thing we have taken from that."
Now, I don't wish to be unkind to Sean, but in the Concise Oxford Dictionary the word 'new' is defined as "made, introduced or discovered recently." McQuaid, a lifelong friend and supporter of Kelly's, has been president of the UCI -- cycling's world governing body -- since 2006. And I don't wish to be unkind to McQuaid, but the consensus on his six years at the helm is that the UCI has been absolutely hopeless.
But McQuaid is suing me, so don't take my word for it: take the USADA ( United States Anti-Doping Agency) report on Armstrong and the affidavit of the former Austrian professional, Jorg Jaksche.
"Following my admissions to public authorities regarding my doping I spent hours talking with the UCI in 2007. I spoke to UCI lawyers, to Anne Gripper, who was then head of anti-doping for the UCI . . . I wanted to be fully transparent regarding my doping and the anti-doping rule violations of others and to fully explain the level of doping of which I was aware and that was taking place on Team Telekom, ONCE, CSC and Liberty Seguros during my time in professional cycling. However, the UCI showed zero interest in hearing the full story about doping on these teams and did not seek to follow up with me."
Jaksche's is one of 26 affidavits or witness statements in the USADA file; some are absolutely heart-breaking; a number raise serious questions about the role of the UCI. When Kelly was waxing lyrical about McQuaid on Morning Ireland, he did not address those questions. And he wasn't challenged by the presenter, Pauric Lodge. Had Lodge read any of the affidavits? Had Kelly? What exactly did he mean by "what we're hearing now?"
It was later that evening when Nicolas Roche took the baton on Prime Time and like Kelly, his godfather, he was keen to assure viewers that all the bad stuff was history. "Hopefully people will understand that this situation and this story -- that is on the way to be closed now -- is about something that happened ten years ago," he announced.
Unlike Kelly, he wasn't going to get an easy ride. Claire Byrne was at her sharpest. "But it's not so far back in our history," she contested. "Because Alberto Contador, the man whose team you have signed to ride with, was stripped of his very recent Tour de France."
"Obviously Contador had his troubles," Roche conceded, "and he paid the price for what he did. And obviously there is probably going to be some more stories in the future . . . what I'm saying is that this big one, this big chapter, is now closed. People have the answers to the questions they were asking and now let's move on to 2013 and hopefully continue the anti-doping fight that's in place now with the UCI."
Again, Byrne wasn't having it, and reminded Roche that the UCI overlords -- McQuaid, and his predecessor Hein Verbruggen -- had robustly defended Armstrong in the past. "Do you think that they need to leave the UCI?" she asked.
BLOWING WHISTLE ON LANCE NEARLY DESTROYED MY LIFE SECTION 1, PAGE 5
At this stage, Roche might have been wiser to declare an interest, something along the lines of: "Well, actually Claire that's a very good question but it's a difficult one for me to answer because my agent, Andrew McQuaid, is actually the UCI president's son. And he's not going to take kindly if I call his father a dope."
Instead, he blustered on. "Well, I don't know all the details of the story, as you know, there is so much going on in a professional career that if you start looking into every detail and every fight that there is around, I would never be able to concentrate fully on my own career, so I just follow what I read in the newspapers."
And, presumably, what he writes in his columns for the Irish Independent. On Friday, he was in flying form, lashing into the cheating Spaniard Ezequiel Mosquera, the cheating Frenchman Steve Houanard, and others. "It p*****s me off that eight or ten years later, after the winning the big prize money, buying the big houses and the flashy cars, they decide to come clean when they're cornered into it and then still blame somebody else. If you dope, don't blame anyone else. It's your choice. Admit it."
His fondness for Armstrong has long been a source of curiosity for me: Last November, I travelled to his home in Italy . . .
Q. In 2005, during your first season as a professional, Armstrong won his seventh Tour de France. A month later, L'équipe published their famous front page: 'Le Mensonge Armstrong'.
A. The big lie
Q. Yes, six of his frozen urine samples from his first Tour win had shown he had used EPO. What was your reaction?
A. My first reaction was that it was another piece on doping . . . the Armstrong case is a very complicated case.
Q. What's complicated about it?
A. Well, there seems to be proof coming from one and the other but none of the proof seems strong enough to confirm the doubts.
Q. Who has doubts?
A. Well the 'grand public' ( general public).
Q. You think they have doubts?
A. I think so.
Q. You gave a radio interview to Newstalk recently and a number of people texted the show and they were curious at your defence of Armstrong.
Q. Are those people not the 'grand public'?
A. So you are saying that my idea is wrong about the grand public.
Q. I'm suggesting to you that really, you have no doubts. We both know the game. And everybody in the game knows what he was up to.
A. Yes, but there is not enough to say.
Q. What's enough? But wait, that's not the question. This is not my sport, it's your sport. And I want to know why you don't feel as angry about what happened to it as I do?
A. Yeah, but the thing about the Armstrong case is . . . Honestly I don't understand it. I wish it would be credible but on the other hand it seems that there is a lot of information out there against him and I am kind of in the middle. So even though there is a lot of evidence against him, you hope . . .
Q. Why do you hope?
A. Because he would go from being the greatest cyclist to the greatest gangster.
'The Greatest Gangster' would have made a good starting point for Friday's column but it was easier to put the boot into softer targets, and it's his duty now to preach a different gospel.
"To those young people, who are maybe thinking of taking up cycling as a sport, and to their parents who may be wary of letting them, my message is this -- it is possible to race and win professional races clean."
We've heard it many times before.