04 June 2018

What Do They Need To Believe?

Call me a conspiracy theorist, but I believe that the first major work of American fiction in the new millennium was The 9/11 Commission Report.

If that is the case, then the last major work of American fiction of the previous century may well be It's Not About The Bike.  And another major work of American fiction from this millenium may well be Positively False.

Matt Hart did not echo my opinion about The 9/11 Commission Report in his Atlantic Monthly article last month. He did, however, say that INATB and PF are narratives that "now read more like fiction" than the autobiographical narratives they purported to be.

Now, I'll make a confession:  I was a Lance fanboy/fangirl (I underwent my transition during the time Lance was racing.) almost until the time Oprah interviewed him.  At least, I was willing to give him the benefit of the doubt because--call me naive--I still adhere to the principle of "innocent until proven guilty."  Though the rumors echoed everywhere (or so it seemed), he had not failed any drug tests--or, if he did, the results hadn't been made public.

I started to entertain doubts about him a couple months before the interview, when the US Anti-Doping Agency released its report. Even then, I took the stories about Lance's doping with a grain of salt because many of the accusations came from his rivals, including Tyler Hamilton and, yes, Landis.  

Armstrong and Landis in the 2004 Tour de France.

Reading Hart's article didn't change my opinion about any of those riders, the USADA's report or the whole sad story.  If anything, it re-enforced something I already believed:  that Tour de France, UCI and other officials looked the other way while those riders were doping, much as Major League Baseball did when bulked-up players like Mark McGwire and Barry Bonds shattered home run records.  

In 1998, MLB was in a very similar position to that of professional bicycle racing:  Both were trying to recover from public relations fiascos.   The Festina team was expelled from the Tour de France that July for doping and the team's soigneur was arrested as he re-entered France from Belgium.  People were understandably upset and angry:  They felt betrayed by athletes they, if not idolized, then at least admired.

For the previous few years, US baseball fans felt betrayed, but for a different reason:  the players went on strike in August of 1994, cutting the season short by nearly two months.  Worst of all, in fans' eyes, there was no World Series that year for the first time in nearly a century.  The strike continued long enough to delay the 1995 season opening.  When play resumed, resentful fans stayed away through the rest of that season, and the two that followed.

So, MLB and the UCI were faced with a similar problem:  bringing the fans back.  That is why I believe both organizations did nothing while McGwire, Armstrong and others were "juicing".  McGwire's epic season, in which he and Sammy Sosa battled to become baseball's new home-run king, generated excitement and brought fans back to the park.  The following year, the story of Lance rising from his deathbed to the peaks of hors de categorie climbs in the Tours piqued interest in old and new cycling fans, especially in the US.  Skeptics--especially those in France--were seen as resentful curmudgeons who simply couldn't accept a brash American winning the Tour.

Although Hart paints Landis more sympathetically than he does Armstrong, it's clear from the articles that there are no heroes in the whole sordid saga of professional bicycle racing in the past two decades. 

It's been said that we tell the stories we need to believe--or have others believe. (Every nation in history has done this.)  Perhaps the sport, and others, will find another compelling story to get people interested again.  Then, if that story--like Lance's--is revealed to be that of a cheat and liar, or simply a fiction, some fans will walk away but those who remain simply won't trust the athletes or sport as they once did.  Thus, it remains to be seen whether those sports and leagues* will ever emerge from the cloud of suspicion that shrouds them. 

*--As bad as the UCI is, it can be argued that FIFA, the International Olympic Committee and other sports authorities are even more corrupt.


  1. The saddest thing about Armstrong is that the main premiss about INATB was the rebuilding of his body after his cancer to that of one with the perfect musculature for cycling and not a gram wasted on bulk elsewhere. As a premier athlete before his cancer there is no reason why such a focussed and determined person could not have dominated but now we shall never know. He had an added advantage of great sponsorship and state of the art testing facilities. He was already probably ahead so going for an untestable medical advantage must have been just too irresistible.

    The French watching TV coverage always puzzled me by their unanimous disbelief in him. He smugly walks free, that puzzles me.

    Ball kicking and every dirty thing associated with it horrifies me...

  2. Coline--You have described the really sad part about the story: Lance didn't have to cheat in order to win. He really had everything going for him, but it wasn't enough. That's a pretty fair definition of hubris, if you ask me.