Wednesday 29 January 2020

Ger Gilroy: Redemption a long way away for Lance Armstrong

There’s no other template for the Armstrong recovery story other than the passage of a lot of time and he seems impatient. Photo by Bryn Lennon/Getty Images
There’s no other template for the Armstrong recovery story other than the passage of a lot of time and he seems impatient. Photo by Bryn Lennon/Getty Images

Ger Gilroy

Cycling is an awe-inspiring sport. Watching various videos and documentaries about Lance Armstrong's doping - in preparation for talking to him last week - the over-riding feeling was of a great loss in my life, of summers wasted not spent watching Le Tour or fully engaging with the characters of the teams, their stars and their domestiques.

I'd missed the undulations of the stages and the evolving science of the gear and why riders' cadences mattered, the nerdy power analytics and of course the stark brutality of the races.

It's mafia, it's true crime, it's flamboyant, it's death-defying, it's high drama and sporting theatre.

You see, I turned away when Lance became king and stopped watching for anything other than scandal. It was a mistake. We'd grown up cycling fans in our house, I had posters of Roche, Kelly and even at one stage of Martin Earley on my wall. We bought them all on the same day at a stall at the end of one of the stages into Waterford of the Nissan International Classic.

I'm old enough that we all watched Miguel Indurain ripping the field a new air hole for five successive years and didn't really automatically equate that with something untoward. Our Irish book in first year in school had a piece about his resting heart rate and lung capacity being off the charts. Everyone was a believer.


Then Michelle Smith came along and changed the outlook for an entire generation of sports fans and wannabe sports journalists.

So when Lance Armstrong returned from cancer with a pep in his step and a zip in his legs that no-one else could withstand, it was impossible to be amazed like I was as a kid when Indurain killed all before him.

One of my earliest radio gigs was covering the Tour de France into Dundrum in 1998 just days before the Festina story exploded and proved that the sport was riddled. It was funny to think of the subterfuge involved, mildly thrilling that busts were happening at a sports event coming back from Ireland and that was about it.

When you're an outsider you don't understand the lives being ruined, the hopes crushed, an entire sport being trashed by a corrupt ruling class.

So when Lance Armstrong fell it was a weird conclusion to a story in a sport where almost no-one ever really gets caught, and where there are no real consequences. He'd become a global celebrity on the back of his cancer story and outlandish achievements.

Sold 50 million yellow armbands for Nike or Cancer or maybe both. Broken opponents in multiple different ways, on and off the bike, and then he crashed. Lost his fame and some money but not all of it. Not most of it, not yet.

We spoke with Ben Johnson on the show earlier this summer and it was almost impossible to have any bitterness towards him even though his was the founding text of doping stories in my life.

I was 11 when he won the Olympics and if this was all about our dreams being stolen then surely he'd be the bogey man in this story. But something made Ben Johnson just another guy who had done wrong in the middle of a huge story of wrongdoing and having a laser focus on him feels wrong. He's precisely the guy that Lance Armstrong wants to be when we come to think of dopers.

Armstrong is not another guy. He wonders frequently why he gets treated differently from the other dopers of his generation, why his deal was different from the guys on his team and what separates him from the pack in the mind of the public?

It's these very thoughts from the seven-time Tour de France winner who amassed a $120m fortune and a private jet and helicopter lifestyle that gives sports fans pause for thought. Look at how normal I am with my lawsuits and ad campaigns and paranoia and money.

So these interviews now, this public persona being carefully managed, leaves us all in an interesting position. We need to take a position. Do you believe that he has served his sport and repented the error of his ways and might indeed have a role to play in future?

There is a scenario where this could be the case, where Armstrong writes chapter and verse on doping and explains how a decent kid with a chance to make it becomes the greatest through a combination of the good drugs and sheer bloody-mindedness. The 'why and when' is as interesting as the how; it'd be a great book. For me to believe his desire to play a public role is real, he'd have to give back his money and start again. And that ain't going to happen.

There's no other template for the Armstrong recovery story other than the passage of a lot of time and he seems impatient. Remember this was supposed to be a future governor of Texas, and while Donald Trump proves anything is possible in America, it's hard to see full public rehabilitation without some bend in the road. The post-retirement life was supposed to be about fame, money and adoration. They are big holes to fill.

So I don't know if he won friends with his "head high, heart full" well-practised performance on Friday night. He may well have and given this is how we chose to spend our leisure time then fair play to his new fans. I'm holding out for the next act, the one that never arrives but leaves us happy we decided to wait.

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