A hotline to the White House but France hangs up on Armstrong
Wednesday August 24, 2005
Just over a century ago, in its earlier guise as L'Auto, the French daily sports paper L'Equipe was responsible for founding the Tour de France. Its feelings of proprietorship towards the great race, then, are hardly surprising. And one way of interpreting yesterday's allegations of traces of EPO discovered in samples of urine taken from Lance Armstrong during the 1999 Tour is to see it as the French cycling establishment's attempt to take back the race from an American who colonised their most precious sporting event as effectively as Hollywood, rock 'n' roll and Levi jeans took over the minds of French teenagers 50 years ago, to the disadvantage - some would say - of the indigenous culture.
In France, a certain element has always resisted this kind of US imperialism. For Greg LeMond to win the Tour three times was one thing. It was quite another for Armstrong to obliterate the record of five wins first established by one great French cyclist, Jacques Anquetil, and equalled by another, Bernard Hinault, as well as by Eddy Merckx of Belgium and Miguel Indurain of Spain, all representatives of cycling's Old World. The absence of a single Frenchman among the pretenders to the Texan's throne is another source of frustration to L'Equipe's writers and, perhaps, its readers.
After initially finding him difficult to love, eventually the French cycling public more or less capitulated to the cowboy with - as one of the newspaper's correspondents put it yesterday - the voice like ice cubes, the steely gaze, and the lips forever on the brink of a smile full of menace. Not to mention the posse of bodyguards and the hotline to the White House.
On the centenary Tour two years ago there was certainly little sign of resentment as Armstrong drew level with the record held by his four great predecessors. Only the tidal wave of spectators from the other side of the Atlantic, turning the verges of the routes départmentales into a sea of stars and stripes, might have irked them during the two more recent tours. They were there to celebrate as Armstrong first set a new mark and then, in a crushing example of American might, doubled the distance between himself and those he had surpassed.
Yesterday's publication of what are claimed to be the a posteriori tests of Armstrong's B samples, however, reawakens all the old doubts that led to cries of "dopeur!" being directed at him from the roadside earlier in the decade. Those were the days when L'Equipe could only express its doubts about the nature of some performances in coded headlines referring to "Le Tour à deux vitesses" - the two-speed Tour, meaning one speed for the dopers and another, slower, gear for those who raced clean.
There is also, perhaps, the question of moral revenge for the shadows cast over French cycling in 1998 by the Festina affair, when the discovery of drugs in the vehicle of Willy Voet, one of the team's soigneurs, led to the disgrace of Richard Virenque, France's pin-up boy. Virenque spent years adamantly denying that he had used illegal substances. But then he cracked, and served a nine-month suspension before being welcomed back as a prodigal son when he won the climb up Mont Ventoux in the 2002 Tour.
Armstrong's first Tour victory came the year after the Festina scandal, at a time when the race organisers were attempting to promote a new, drug-free image for the event. EPO was already illegal, but there was no test capable of determining its existence. That arrived in 2000, although the authorities were not ready to use it on samples from the Tour's riders until a year later.
Yesterday L'Equipe published the results of Armstrong's Tour dope tests between 2001-2004, in other words after EPO had become detectable. In 36 separate tests during the four Tours, no illegal substances were discovered.
In 1999, however, riders using EPO had no reason to suppose that it would ever be detected. And even now the retrospective analysis of that year's tests cannot be used as the basis for stripping riders of their prizes, since only the B samples have been tested. The A samples, which would be used to corroborate the initial findings, no longer exist. So Armstrong's lawyers could presumably claim that while evidence may exist, proof does not.
Questions hang in the air, and some of them will probably remain there. In the light of the lengthy investigation conducted by the Paris police into the possible use of drugs by Armstrong's US Postal team in 2000, why did the French authorities wait until December 2004, more than four years after the test was developed by scientists in the national drug-screening laboratory at Châtenay- Malabry, before examining samples that were already five years old? And why has it taken until now for the results to be leaked to L'Equipe?
Those preparing to confront Armstrong's legal team in the variety of court proceedings in which the rider is bringing actions for defamation will heartened by yesterday's news. For one or two of them it will be like seven Christmasses arriving at once. Less easy to assess is the effect it will have in the wider world on the reputation of a man whose victory over a virulent form of cancer inspired countless thousands of fellow suffers around the world.
To make a historical analogy is to venture on to treacherous ground. But it can be said with some confidence that L'Equipe is unlikely to be casting similar aspersions on the achievements of Anquetil, whose five Tours were won on amphetamines and goodness knows what else.
It is almost half a century since Maître Jacques posed the most famous rhetorical question in the history of cycling: "Do they expect us to ride the Tour on mineral water?" His Legion d'honneur ribbon, and his sacred status, went to the grave with him. Armstrong might not be so fortunate.