Uphill task for heroic Armstrong to prove detractors wrong


Record breaking cyclist Lance Armstrong’s decision to return to professional cycling at the age of 37 has provoked more questions than answers, writes Fearghal Kerin.

The greatest sportsman of this century and arguably the greatest of all time, Lance Armstrong, this month announced his intention to return to cycling for the 2009 season, including next summer’s Tour de France event.

Most would assume that for a seven-time winner of the event, having already conquered brain, lung and testicular cancer that there would be little left to prove for the celebrated Texan, but simple logic goes out the window when discussing Armstrong.

With his fifth consecutive win in 2003, Armstrong equalled the record set by such legends of the peloton as Miguel Indurain, Eddy Mercx and Bernard Hinault. By 2005, Armstrong had left the others behind with an previously unimaginable seven consecutive wins.

By dominating what is generally accepted as the world’s toughest sporting event Armstrong is out on his own amongst modern sportsmen

For any man, this would be remarkable, but for someone who survived the series of illnesses that Armstrong suffered through, these achievements bordered on superhuman.

Diagnosed with a chance of survival of around three per cent, Armstrong beat all the odds to stay alive. That he returned to professional sport was all the more stunning. But by going on to dominate what is generally accepted as the world’s toughest sporting events as he has, Armstrong is out on his own amongst modern sportsmen.

The inevitable fame and exposure amongst the American media that came with his success was used as a springboard for Armstrong’s LiveStrong campaign (famous particularly for the yellow wristbands which became a must have fashion-accessory in 2004) to raise money for cancer research.

However, his achievements earned him mistrust and dislike, particularly amongst the European media who have long projected the image of Lance as a user of EPO (erythropoietin), a substance used by cyclists that helps transport of oxygen throughout the body.

That five of Armstrong’s teammates on the former US Postal team have since either tested positive for banned substances or admitted using them has left Armstrong under unprecedented scrutiny throughout his career, despite his never failing a single drug test amongst the hundreds he was subjected to.

Armstrong’s period of dominance coincides with a dark time for the Tour de France. Countless top cyclists have been exposed or admitted cheating, including the bannings of Ivan Basso and Jan Ulrich who were both predicted to take the mantle from Armstrong after his retirement after eternally living in his shadow.

As the face of world cycling since the turn of the millennium, Armstrong will always be inextricably linked with this reputation as a sport in turmoil, while the question is continually asked: if Armstrong is clean, how could he possibly have consistently beaten a peloton full of cheats?

This element of doubt was key to his decision to return to racing. In riding this tour, Armstrong will undertake stringent, daily drug tests, unlike those ever taken by any athlete in history.

This, it is hoped, will forever rid Armstrong of pesky rumours about the validity of his previous wins. His long-time coach and confidante, Chris Carmichael explained their thinking by saying “if Armstrong comes back and wins the Tour and has absolute transparency in drug-testing and people are then still speculating, they’re either ignorant or jealous”.

Of course, all of this is only relevant if Armstrong wins an eighth Tour. Should he perform poorly amongst the treacherous slopes of the Alps, should this be taken as proof that since he is now undoubtedly clean, the previously-successful Armstrong was clearly taking performance enhancers?

Clearly not; after two years out of the sport living a celebrity lifestyle, including high profile relationships with singer Sheryl Crow and actress Kate Hudson, in addition to his advancing years, Armstrong could never be expected to perform at the level he once did.

However, the European media are likely to portray any failure as just that, rendering his comeback ill-advised as it threatens to tarnish his reputation irreparably.

Many sportsmen, including Mohammed Ali and, presently, David Beckham, have failed to know when to call it a day and the fear is that Armstrong’s desire to prove people wrong, raise awareness of the disease that failed to conquer him or simply his love of the race could be a decision that the heroic cyclist comes to regret.

What, in other circumstances, might have been the concluding heroic twist to the one of the great sporting stories seems destined to be mired in acrimony.

Alternatively, success, unlikely though it is, will copperfasten Armstrong’s place in the annals of sporting history and put to bed the rumours of foul play once and for all, something that every sport’s fan in the world would surely hope to see.

While victory seems unlikely just now, so do most of Armstrong’s achievements to date. Certainly the odds of success here are more favorable that those he faced in his bid to save his life. Another remarkable victory will prove that purity not only remains but can rise to the top in the most maligned of all sports.