If you live in Austin, you can almost breathe the Lance Armstrong legend in the air. Everybody intimately knows the tale and its grand parameters. Who has such athletic accomplishments; especially after cancer? His greatness and, indeed, humility were made even more manifest when he established a foundation to help in the global quest to end cancer. We have in our midst, many Texans believe, an individual who is exceptional in character and achievement.
The Armstrong profiled by interviews and narrative in the 60 Minutes report on CBS is difficult, if not impossible, for many people in Austin to process. The arc of Lance's story has been always upward from the time he was pronounced cancer free. He got healthier, faster, fitter, wealthier, and more magnanimous with time. Every chapter of this American tale was written with bold strokes through nothing more than focus and determination.
There are now, however, several of Armstrong's teammates during the period of his ride to glory, who are sketching out an anti-hero. The young man they describe thinks of regulations and rules as opponents to be defeated. Each of Armstrong's teammates, meanwhile, is being attacked for a lack of credibility, and, in fact, their own confessions about doping turn them into liars. Tyler Hamilton, Floyd Landis, Stephen Swart, Frankie Andreu, and, if CBS is correct, George Hincapie, were all part of a deception to use performance-enhancing drugs (PEDs) to win. The points of attack are pretty easily established for Armstrong's legal and public relations team.
But is Lance the only person telling the truth? Are most of his teammates jealous and petty and pathological liars? They seem to have created an alternative reality with their words.
Armstrong is dismissing Hamilton, as he has other accusers, for lacking credibility. The level of detail described by Lance's former teammate, however, is difficult to ignore even for casual observers of this controversy. Hamilton, who appeared drawn and a bit emotionally tortured during the taping, told of flying in a private jet to Spain with Lance where they were both transfused with their own red blood cells, a process called blood doping, which improves endurance. He also claimed Armstrong shipped him drugs, that they both put drops of testosterone oil into each other's mouths after a race, and that he was in the room during conversations with a controversial doctor who was teaching them how and when to use PEDs. Lunch bags of goodies, according to Hamilton, were given to riders that had earned their way into the inner circle. He also said he saw Armstrong use EPO and indicated there was a program driven by Armstrong and the team coach Johan Bruyneel. A similar description was provided by Swart to Sports Illustrated. Regardless, Tyler Hamilton either has a very active imagination or he has opened the door to ignominy for an American icon.
In his interview, Hamilton also said Armstrong had tested positive for drugs in the 2001 Tour of Switzerland and that the International Cycling Union (UCI) had worked with Armstrong and Bruyneel to cover up the bad test. The UCI said there was no truth to the allegation.
The greater revelation in the 60 Minutes' story is the inclusion of George Hincapie in the narrative of Lance accusers. Armstrong has described Hincapie as "a brother," and he was at the Texan's side through all of his tour victories in France. He is also, by reputation, a man of great charm and one of the nicest guys in sports. Hincapie has never been accused of doping and that has provided reassurances to Lance's supporters. If he can hammer up the hills with Lance and not come under suspicion, then why can't Lance be clean? According to CBS, though, Hincapie has testified before the federal grand jury investigating the Armstrong case and has told jurors that Lance and he used PEDs. Hincapie declined CBS's request for an interview but appears to have parsed his language carefully when asked about the report by answering, "I don't know where they got their information." He did not say that CBS was wrong or inaccurate, only that he didn't speak with them and he had no idea where their claims originated. Wouldn't he have denounced their reporting as incorrect, if it were? There seems no simpler way to defend his friend Lance.
The people who have been the most consistent and insistent in their claims against Lance Armstrong are Betsy and Frankie Andreu. Frankie rode with Lance on his US Postal team and says his contract was not renewed when he refused an Armstrong request that he meet with Dr. Michele Ferrari, the Italian physician who reportedly gave the team doping protocols. (Ferrari has been banned from the sport in Italy.) Frankie and Betsy Andreu testified under oath that they were in a hospital room with Lance when he listed for his oncologist the PEDs that he had used in training and racing. Armstrong has vehemently denied their story and also placed them among his growing list of jealous liars. Frankie, who was a commentator covering the Tour de France for Versus Network, believes he lost his job this year as a consequence of speaking the truth about Armstrong. Work has not been the only casualty in their lives, either. Hincapie, who stood up at their wedding and was once one of their best friends, no longer speaks with the couple.
Armstrong's attorney Mark Fabiani has energetically attacked 60 Minutes and CBS for taking the word of liars and promoting people trying to sell books. An Austin supporter of Lance even suggested to me that editors sat around and tried to figure out a way to embellish little bits of rumor into a story so they could sell more advertising. CBS, it is important to note, is launching the career of its new anchor, Scott Pelley. By reputation and performance, Pelley's work is exemplary, and neither he nor his editors are likely to take any chances in the wake of the Dan Rather resignation over the National Guard story involving George W. Bush. The safe assumption is that the Hincapie part of the Lance story was nailed down before producers even brought it up for discussion.
The question most often asked about Lance Armstrong, though, is how can he beat all the doping riders during the doping era if he isn't doping? The Texan's focus and determination are a part of his legacy and given the dimensions of his ambition there is always the possibility he might have overcome cheaters. An obsessive man is hard to stop. The larger issue being confronted in Austin and elsewhere, though, is what do we make out of Lance if he becomes a fallen man? Sports analysts often argue he is the greatest athlete to ever live and his foundation has positioned him as a profoundly important humanitarian in raising cancer awareness. If his achievements on the bike are found based, at least in part, on fraud, does that diminish him as a role model in the fight against cancer?
The answer in Austin, at least for now, appears to be an unequivocal and resounding, "No!" The community, publicly at least, embraces its hero and the Lance Armstrong Foundation (LAF). Business and political leaders tend to be eager to sit on the foundation's board. (LAF's communications and public relations efforts have lately, though, been stylized to suggest their work is much broader than just being a Lance endeavor). His popularity, enhanced by LAF, has been sufficient that many people have suggested he has a bright future in politics and public service.
The people who ponder Lance's tomorrow want the investigation into Armstrong to be terminated. "It's a waste of taxpayers' money," I keep getting told by my cycling friends. "Why don't we move those resources where they are needed?" It is not, of course, that simple. The investigation has reportedly broadened to include allegations involving defrauding the federal government and moving illegal substances across state and international boundaries. Prosecutors can hardly turn their heads and say, "It's just a bicyclist. It's Lance, his career is over, and he's fighting cancer." As Betsy Andreu has suggested, it's hard to say bad things about a person who is doing so much in the fight against cancer.
Armstrong, though, has no shortage of detractors in his hometown, but the prevailing sentiment is probably that the investigation needs to come to an end. There is, however, only one thing that will now make the Armstrong case disappear from the news.
And that is for the legal process to make a final determination of the truth.
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