To fully understand the extent of America’s long-held indifference to the allegations Lance Armstrong’s career was drug-fuelled, we need to travel back to the summer of 2001 when he was in his pomp. The year he won his third Tour de France also coincided with a scandal besetting the Little League World Series. A kid named Danny Almonte had pitched extraordinarily for a team from the Bronx but, as he did so, allegations grew that he might be an overage player. Imagine.
In an effort to successfully prove the boy wonder was 14 and not 12, Sports Illustrated dispatched a couple of reporters to the public records office in Moca, the city in the Dominican Republic where Almonte was born. At a time then when the European media was rife with serious and informed speculation about Armstrong and performance-enhancing substances, America’s most-respected sports magazine was too concerned with exposing an adolescent cheat to ask serious questions of somebody on the way to becoming a national icon.
This was to be the way of it for the duration of Armstrong’s stint at the top. When Irish journalist David Walsh co-wrote “LA Confidentiel, Les Secrets de Lance Armstrong” with Pierre Ballester in 2006, no American publisher would touch the book. Despite the fact anything with Armstrong’s photograph or name on it was flying off the shelves all across this country, not a single company was interested in going near a work that forensically called into question the authenticity of his feats.
No matter what Armstrong says or does in the coming weeks, the role of Walsh and Paul Kimmage in trying to expose the Texan for more than a decade should also be acknowledged. This dogged pair kept chipping away at the story when it was neither popular nor profitable. Anybody questioning the ability or courage of modern sports journalists should YouTube Kimmage facing down the cyclist during a press conference at the Tour of California in 2009.
On that occasion, Armstrong invoked the cancer defence, a move guaranteed to get the public and far too many journalists on his side. Part of the problem in America has always been that to say anything about validity of his Tour victories was to invite a backlash because of the amount of money he has raised to fight the disease. This was a guy who would go mountain-biking with then-President Bush in Texas. This was Hollywood’s favourite athlete. How could he be anything but pristine?
It’s worth remembering too that xenophobia contributed to America’s refusal to even ask legitimate questions in the first place. The fact almost all the speculation about Armstrong and steroids came from Europe was significant. Remember, he owned the Tour in the same era when France was so hated in America (for failing to support the wars) that some people here started calling chips Freedom Fries rather than French Fries. Plenty were willing to believe any allegations against Armstrong were either sour grapes at losing to an American or politically-motivated attempts to denigrate somebody who was then the country’s most famous sporting export.
The interesting thing here is Americans should now be more appalled than everybody else in the world and they aren’t. Not by a long shot. For the last year, there has been constant talk that the US Postal Service may have to declare bankruptcy and mail will no longer be delivered to homes six days per week. This is the same US Postal Service which sponsored Armstrong’s team to the tune of more than $30m between 2001 and 2004. In 2001 alone, the USPS paid him nearly $1.5m in personal bonus payments for his performance at the Tour de France.
With that title no longer in his name, surely there should be a public clamour for all those bonus payments to be returned to the ailing mail service. It won’t help save the institution but it will at least remove some of his ill-gotten gains. We won’t our hold our breath for that to happen though. Why? Because there are enough Americans out there who won’t care whether or not he finally even comes clean about cheating.
Many of those “fans” treat sport as part of the entertainment business. They care not a jot how athletes perform great feats as long as they perform them. This much has been demonstrated most recently in the willingness to accept arch-cheat Mark McGwire back into baseball as a coach despite the stench of steroids coming off his career. Others will equivocate about Armstrong’s achievements and argue that all the rest of his cycling peers were cheating too so that makes what he did okay.
However, he handles his mea culpa, he will most likely live strong and prosper. At least in America.