x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 25 July 2017

An unfair race when the golden boy is accused of doping

Reaction to Lance Armstrong's fall from grace has been remarkably sympathetic compared to other cases.

Sadness. Not anger. Not indignation. Just sadness.

Last week's news that Lance Armstrong has been stripped of his seven Tour de France titles and banned for life by the US Anti-Doping Agency, has left most of his fans unhappy, but not blaming him. His decision not to contest the ruling only seems to have garnered more sympathy.

Anyone who's ever seen Armstrong climbing the Hors catégorie ("beyond categorisation") inclines of the Tour de France will know the Herculean effort and almost superhuman willpower it takes to climb mountains. In Armstrong's case, that endeavour could be seen as a metaphor for his life. By battling and beating testicular cancer, Armstrong did more than anyone to raise awareness about the disease and inspire other cancer patients.

But the news was hardly a shock. Charges against Armstrong had been doing the rounds for years; many just chose to believe he was different.

When Armstrong made his comeback at the 2009 Tour de France - in hindsight, an ill-advised choice - he was re-entering a race in which antidoping officials had been pursuing him for a decade. The belief was that he had boosted his performance in past Tours by transfusing his own blood during the race - a banned practice that is hard to detect in conventional tests.

A week after the news, many fans still sympathise with Armstrong, and not without reason. Despite the antidoping agency's unequivocal ruling, his supporters maintain that he has never failed a blood test. Donations to his cancer foundation, meanwhile, continue to rise.

We've been here before, of course, perhaps most famously in the case of Canadian sprinter Ben Johnson, who was stripped of his Olympic gold medal in the 100-metre sprint at the 1988 Seoul Olympics after failing a drug test.

But the contrast between the reactions to Johnson and Armstrong could not be greater. In a fascinating article on Johnson, published on CNN just before the recent London Olympics, James Montague captured the Canadian runner's fall from grace. "He was sent back in disgrace to an angry Canada that had embraced its adopted son only to feel humiliated in the eyes of the world," Montague writes. "Johnson left for Seoul as a Canadian and returned Jamaica-born."

But it was not just Canadians who were outraged. In the eyes of the world's media, Johnson had gone from legend to pariah in a matter of days. Perhaps it was because Johnson had just defeated the golden boy of athletics, Carl Lewis, that he was so mercilessly vilified.

While Johnson deserves little sympathy, he was competing in an era in which testing was borderline abysmal. The book The Dirtiest Race on Earth, by Richard Moore, details how six of the eight finalists in the 100-metre that Johnson won would eventually fail drug tests or be implicated in doping scandals. "The question is," Moore writes, "why would you not if you know your competitors are getting away with it?"

But while Johnson defeated the golden boy in his sport, Armstrong is the golden boy of cycling. A hero to cancer campaigners, a role model to kids and athletes alike, and a darling to Hollywood celebrities. Crucifying Johnson was one thing; doing the same to an American hero is quite another.

We have not heard the end of the saga. Did Armstrong give up the fight because he's guilty? Or is he really taking the moral high ground?

"Don't cry for me," Armstrong said a few days ago. Rehabilitation is possible. Diego Maradona, arguably the greatest footballer ever, was sent home in disgrace after the first two matches of the 1994 World Cup in the United States after testing positive for ephedrine. Today, even after colourful forays into coaching, including in the UAE, he remains a hero to millions.

Of course, no one ever cried for Johnson either. All athletes should be equal in the eyes of the law. In the eyes of the public, however, some are clearly more equal than others.

 

akhaled@thenational.ae

On Twitter: @AliKhaled_