Editorial: Innocence lost

Last updated 10:00 23/01/2013

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OPINION: The opening minute of Oprah Winfrey's interview with Lance Armstrong last week changed everything, and nothing.

Armstrong was one of the most recognisable faces in sport, the most important figure in cycling, a hero to millions of people affected by cancer, and a winner.

And then, with one word uttered in a hastily rigged set in an Austin, Texas, hotel room, that gigantic facade finally gave way under a preponderance of evidence which had been chipping away at the Armstrong myth for more than a decade.

Yes. I took performance-enhancing drugs.

But anyone who has followed cycling already knew this, or was so close to knowing that the knowing of it hardly mattered.

During the 1990s and much of the 2000s, cycling at the highest level was riddled by a cocktail which included, but was not limited to, blood-boosting drugs, human growth hormone, steroids and transfusions.

Champions climbed podiums in a spray of champagne, then the next day fronted press conferences, tears of disgrace running down their cheeks.

Armstrong now says it would have been impossible to win seven Tours de France without being on drugs. But we wanted to believe.

Cycling has always been this way. Before the introduction of private jets and shady sports doctors, there was cocaine, amphetamines and alcohol.

Still, as Armstrong carefully bared the parts of his soul he deemed palatable to the public in that Texas hotel room, you had to pinch yourself that the dream was over.

Those books, the yellow rubber bracelets, the Nike ads, the hope, was over.

So where to now?

If Armstrong was truly honest about anything in his interview with Winfrey, it was that he still wants to compete.

That drive to win remains stronger than any drug he took, and perhaps that's reason enough that his life ban from competition should remain.

Now a failed, disgraced figure, with the buzzards circling over his fortunes and jail still a slim possibility, competing in sports has not been good for Lance Armstrong.

As an aside, Winfrey may have been unfairly maligned last week. She may be far less relevant now, certainly no longer the queen of talk shows, but she's still memorable enough. And that memory is not of a pitbull interrogator. Frost/ Nixon this was never going to be.

As for cycling, the worst may well be behind it.

The exposure of the Armstrong lie could be the amputation which allows the rest of the body to survive.

If those inside the sport are to believed, and credibility is limited right now, the introduction of biological passports which detect fluctuation in blood values over time, has put the pressure back on would-be drug takers.

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The cheats will never be flushed out entirely, but officials are winning more often.

Cycling fans may have to settle for slower races, where riders do not fly up cliff faces without breaking a sweat, but at least they will be watching clean competitors.

And those benefits may be picked up across the world of sport, so that other athletes who would cheat will at least think twice.

Those should all be considered victories in a moral war which was lost long ago.

For any athlete caught in a drugs scandal, the presumption must now be of guilt. Armstrong's admission has robbed sport of its final innocence.

- © Fairfax NZ News

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