Thursday, 4 April 2013

SEVEN DEADLY SINS: My Pursuit of Lance Armstrong, by DAVID WALSH

SEVEN DEADLY SINS: My Pursuit of Lance Armstrong
Simon & Schuster, 2012, 426 pages, $27 (pb)
Review by Phil Shannon

After four shots at the Tour de France and placing no higher than 36th, and after life-threatening testicular cancer, Lance Armstrong returned to the world’s most prestigious and richest bike race in 1999 and won for each of the next seven years.  Magically, he was a changed man, writes David Walsh in Seven Deadly Sins – changed, as we now know, because he was “chemically enhanced”.

Walsh, a British sports journalist and one of the few to query the heroic, back-from-the-brink Lance myth, notes how, after being repeatedly beaten by doped-up European teams, Armstrong decided to join the drugs arms race by taking the performance-enhancing drug, EPO with spectacular results.

His moving, success-against-the-odds, cancer-survival back-story wooed adoring journalists but Walsh smelled a rat.  After French police and customs busted most of the 1998 Tour’s leading contenders for filling their tanks with EPO, Armstrong left his death-bed to spearhead the 1999 Tour as the clean-skin poster boy.

Armstrong’s performance, recording the fastest Tour time in history and effortlessly outpacing the EPO generation, was, however, suspect to Walsh who got on the case, interviewing cyclists, doctors, masseuses, trainers, coaches and other Armstrong intimates, unearthing a lengthy history of doping by Armstrong and its cover-up by team officials.

This history included backdated medical prescriptions, visits and million dollar payments to the “world’s dirtiest doctor” in Italy about to go on trial for doping professional riders, the use of makeup concealer to hide needle marks, brown paper bags full of EPO, syringes emptied of EPO.

What was keeping Armstrong’s secret under wraps, however, were his formidable intimidatory weapons.  Personal bullying of clean, and drugged but conscience-stricken, riders enforced the code of silence on drug-taking in cycling whilst a former team doctor interviewed by Walsh received a call from Armstrong saying ‘I have lots of money, good lawyers, and, if you continue to talk, I’ll destroy you’.

Armstrong’s pockets were indeed deep, with multi-million annual income from prize money, merchandise, corporate sponsorship and product endorsements.  This funded many legal stoushes, ending in settlements in Armstrong’s favour always stopping short, however, of proceeding to court where perjury almost certainly would await an under-oath Armstrong.

Strategic donations also bought complicity in the cover-up.  Six-figure donations to world cycling’s governing body took care of any positive drug tests which had slipped through the net.  An affidavit from Indiana University Hospital testifying that Armstrong was drug-free was secured, courtesy of a $1.5 million endowment for a chair in oncology at the hospital where Armstrong, under treatment for cancer, had confessed, for clinically necessary reasons, to a history of ‘EPO, testosterone, growth hormone, cortisone and steroid’ use.

Restrictive British libel laws also proved friendly to Armstrong in keeping critical English language books and articles out of circulation though these were few enough as most journalists were readily co-opted to the Armstrong cult by the threat of being denied media access to the super-hero’s magic circle.  Any doubters could be further held at bay by the cynically exploited shield of Armstrong’s support for cancer charities.

These elaborate defences, however, crumbled when two of Armstrong’s highest profile, former teammates, Tyler Hamilton and Floyd Landis (the first, post-Lance Tour winner in 1996), put on record their own drug use which also implicated Armstrong in damning detail.  Their evidence against Armstrong “served as the thread that, once pulled, unravelled the myth much like a two-dollar sweater”.

Armstrong chose not to contest the resulting lifetime ban and retrospective disqualification of all his results following publication of the 2012 report of the United States Anti-Doping Agency (USADA) which confirmed what the USADA head called the ‘greatest heist sport has ever seen’.

Armstrong, who richly profited as a cheat and a liar, deserves opprobrium but so does the capitalist culture that sport operates in with the systemic values that entice individual moral transgression, values involving unhealthy competition for a success measured by obscene wealth and defined by the glorification of the elite individual by a passive, spectating many.

Walsh, a self-described media “revolutionary”, only skirts around this analytical framework, however, in a somewhat self-indulgent book (as much about the journalist as his quarry) but one which adds journalistic colour to the destruction of ‘LanceWorld’, a grubby fantasy which should have been buried long ago were it not for the drug-soaked corruption of sport by money.

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