Lance Armstrong's damning legacy to sport

HERO TO ZERO: Lance Armstrong after winning the 2005 Tour de France. He has now been stripped of all seven of his titles.
HERO TO ZERO: Lance Armstrong after winning the 2005 Tour de France. He has now been stripped of all seven of his titles.

Lisa Norden is a hero.

The 27-year-old spent Friday night throwing up and visiting hospital after a severe bout of food poisoning. Less than 12 hours later she swam, cycled and ran through the hilly streets of Auckland, pushed, scratched and harried all the way by the planet's best female triathletes.

And at the end of it all, superwoman raised her arms in the air, fourth in the race but world champion for the year.

You wanted to punch the air at the sheer scale of Norden's achievement.

Her willpower could defeat whole nations. I once saw Tiger Woods spew his way to victory at Bay Hill, but he only had to walk for five hours. Norden's effort was truly superhuman. And there's the rub.

The feeling just won't go away. All sports fans now suffer from Armstrong syndrome. Once upon a time we believed in our heroes. Edmund Hillary climbed Everest and Colin Meads moved mountains. Their deeds made us strive to exceed the puny limits of our humanity. But now we just don't know any more.

I want to celebrate Norden's achievement but Armstrong has denied me that celebration this weekend.

After the UCI stripped the American doper of his seven Tour de France titles, president Pat McQuaid said: "Lance Armstrong has no place in cycling. Lance Armstrong deserves to be forgotten in cycling."

No chance. Armstrong's notoriety looms not just over cycling, but all sports.

Norden said after her victory: "I didn't think I was going to be able to start the race. I dug the deepest I ever dug in my whole life."

But was the spade her own or was it administered by a team of pharmacologists? We know she took an anti-nausea injection. That's one drug in her system. Were there any more? "Ask Armstrong" is the new game for all sports fans.

As a species, we're pretty good at forgetting, otherwise life could become intolerable. But Armstrong might take a little longer to get out of the system. Armstrong, the American hero and the American anti-hero - first man on the Moon and hypocritical, lying, bullying cheat.

Lancelot's cheating brought down a noble kingdom and little Lance is doing the same to sport. We watched Javier Gomez and Jonathan Brownlee try to break each other at the finish of the men's triathlon, two more heroes running beyond the normal levels of endurance.

But how far beyond normal were they? Ask Armstrong.

The Spaniards have a long history of drug taking in both cycling and athletics. The Brownlee brothers sleep in an oxygen tent, a contraption that stimulates the body to produce more red blood cells. Is there really a great deal of difference between the tent and EPO, a naturally occurring hormone that is injected into the body to stimulate red blood cell production? Ask Armstrong.

Triathlon is the sort of power and endurance sport that is a perfect laboratory for pharmacologists. Fifteen years ago an Australian bodybuilder wrote a book in which he detailed the widespread use of drugs.

Triathlon, he reckoned, was fertile ground for blood doping and amphetamine use. It's more fertile now that the top athletes can earn $500,000 in prizemoney and sponsorship.

In 2008, we witnessed Tiger Woods win the US Open with a wrecked knee and two stress fractures in his leg? Was there anything this man could not do, we wondered.

Three years later we discovered that Tiger was into vicodin, an addictive painkiller, and had been treated by Tony Galea, a "blood-spinning" doctor associated with illegal drug importation.

"He never gave me HGH [human growth hormone] or PEDs [performance enhancing drugs]," Woods said.

"What was he doing at your house then?"

"Well, he's worked with so many athletes."

It's not the sort of answer that inspires confidence. A quarter of Tiger's fellow golfers admitted that they didn't believe him. What about the rest of us? Was Tiger clean? Or Rafael Nadal or Usain Bolt or Australia's testosterone-fuelled rugby players at the weekend? Ask Armstrong.

There is so much guilt by association and much of it is the fault of the UCI. The reaction of cycling's governing body to Armstrong comes too late.

Ten years ago almost every European journalist worth his salt knew that Armstrong was a user but the authorities were complicit in the coverup.

You wouldn't mind if the UCI had pointed out that the tour had a century of drug use behind it and the fans were not interested in defiling their heroes.

But the UCI wouldn't say: "Let them eat dope," because cycling would have lost its Olympic status. So the UCI pretended to the world they were moral guardians while looking the other way. The rest of sport is now suffering from the fallout.

At the weekend, the noble horse Frankel, the "best ever" according to many a good judge, won a 14th straight victory and rode off into retirement unbeaten.

Matthew Engel, writing in the Financial Times, called it a weekend of beauty, drama and history that transcended sport. He compared racing to the Church of England, "patronised by royalty, its calendar and rituals as time-honoured and beautiful as the liturgical equivalent".

Horse racing, once the dirtiest sport of all, gave us a glimpse of nobility on Sunday morning, a book of common prayer, an article of faith. Frankel, an equine superstar trained by a cancer-ravaged man, proved himself worthy of belief.

Has it really come to this? A kingdom for a horse?

Ask Armstrong.

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