Friday, July 28, 2006
Chicago Tribune (MCT)
U.S. cyclist Floyd Landis described his successful comeback attempt in the Tour de France as "the Hail Mary pass," a desperate plea to a higher power when the situation seems hopeless.
Of course, he also knew divine intervention helps those who help themselves, so Landis' bold and relentless attack in the Tour's final mountain stage last week was responsible for his sporting salvation.
Riding with a hip so severely deteriorated it will need replacement, Landis improbably made up an enormous time deficit and went on to win a Tour that began under the cloud of yet another massive doping scandal.
The sad thing is he has become champion of the greatest event in a sport that seems beyond salvation, its integrity irreparably clouded by doping scandals.
"I think the sport is doing what it can do," Landis said Monday when asked about re-establishing credibility. "I can't remember another sport that would throw out its top two riders"_as the Tour did on the eve of the race's first stage.
Despite the weakened field, with the top four finishers from 2005 excluded for links to doping, the 2006 Tour still was the third fastest in history. Landis ascribes that performance level to the run of flat stages early in the race and what he felt were prevailing tailwinds.
The two fastest Tours, four of the top five and seven of the top nine were won by Lance Armstrong, who made the superhuman so commonplace his achievements have not escaped strong suspicions about doping.
There is no small amount of irony that a deadly disease has made Armstrong's reputation bulletproof in the U.S. _ at least until the tasteless jokes about homosexuality and French soccer players in his monologue as host of the recent ESPYs.
That Armstrong beat cancer and is helping others try to do the same is admirable. Yet it should be no better defense against wide-ranging accusations that he used performance-enhancing drugs than the fact he had only one confirmed positive drug test, for a banned corticosteroid (his use of the substance, a pain reliever, was allowed by a medical exemption allegedly written after the doping control).
It is too easy to beat doping controls with undetectable drugs or masking agents. That makes it unfortunately impossible for clean athletes to prove they are clean and allows cheaters to do so with relative impunity.
How much different is Armstrong's case from that of Barry Bonds? There is no smoking gun in either, yet enough smoke in both to suggest there is a fire. But the U.S. public clearly does not see them the same way, because of the cancer and an irrational feeling that the French hate Americans, especially Armstrong.
Three weeks ago, the Los Angeles Times did an exhaustive story based on testimony under oath from arbitration hearings involving Armstrong and a company that did not want to pay him a contractual bonus because of suspicions he had doped. The case was settled in Armstrong's favor before a ruling was issued.
Some of the testimony, from an Australian researcher, supported the likelihood, as a French paper reported last year, that Armstrong had used the banned oxygen-booster EPO in the 1999 Tour. Former teammate Frankie Andreu and his wife, Betsy, gave testimony that Armstrong admitted in 1996 to use of a number of banned drugs.
Armstrong denied it all, also under oath. Neither his denials nor any of the evidence against him is conclusive.
Yet readers of the Los Angeles Times plainly have drawn their own conclusions, as reflected in angry letters to the editor, such as one that began, "The front-page story about doping allegations against Armstrong is a disgrace."
Consider also Sports Illustrated. One week in May, the magazine's cover subject was Armstrong, lauding his fight against cancer with no mention of the suspicions trailing his career. The next week, the cover was Bonds and "The Long, Strange Trip to 715(ASTERISK)," the asterisk emphasizing suspicions surrounding him that were fully spelled out in the story.
The difference between Armstrong and Bonds? One is seen as a selfless saint and the other a surly sinner.
So the public will buy without reservations Armstrong's statement that he has been cleared by the results of a recent investigation by an allegedly independent investigator, even if the truth is the investigator was far from independent and his investigation far from complete.
But the public thankfully is skeptical over Bonds' assertion that he thought his trainer was giving him flaxseed oil and a rubbing balm rather than what other evidence suggests were steroids and other strength enhancers.
What does this all have to do with Landis? It means there cannot fail to be questions raised about his heartwarming success story, because he spent three years with Armstrong's team before switching to a Phonak team that has fired four riders and sidelined three because of involvement with doping. Olympic gold medalist Tyler Hamilton, serving a two-year ban, is among those fired.
Phonak, a Swiss hearing-aid company, ends its cycling sponsorship at the end of this year, with the financial company iShares becoming the team's primary sponsor. Phonak Chairman Andy Rihs reportedly told iShares officials, "Think it over well before you get involved in cycling, because you will never have any guarantees about doping."
So you can believe Lance Armstrong or not, hail Floyd Landis or not, but be guaranteed of one thing: Doping in cycling, and other sports as well, is an incurable cancer.
(c) 2006, Chicago Tribune.
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