“Dear Americans, We Told You Armstrong Was Doping!”

Illustration by Peter Ansell for La Jeune Politique.

Illustration by Peter Ansell for La Jeune Politique.

Last week, the greatest champion in the history of cycling confessed that his celebrated seven-year winning streak on the “Tour de France” was attained by means of the most elaborate doping scheme ever set up. Lance Armstrong recorded an interview with famous American talk-show host, Oprah Winfrey, and his confession brings  thirteen years of controversy between the French and the Americans to a close.

Let’s review the facts. Lance Armstrong, whose only major success so far has been a victory in the 1993 World Championship, was diagnosed with testicular cancer in 1996. Cured the following year, he managed to win the most famous cycling race, the Tour de France, for seven consecutive years beginning in 1999. In the peloton, he dominated without any rival. But the champion was criticized by the press, and throughout the years, revelations and accusations emerged about a possible case of doping. After denying all of these accusations for years, Armstrong was finally condemned by the United States Anti-Doping Agency (USADA) in August 2012 and stripped of all his titles.

There are many in France who despise Armstrong, and for them, this condemnation comes as no surprise. The years of the Armstrong domination coincided with those of the Bush Presidency, which did not help things as there was elevated tension between the two countries anyway.

You may ask, why is he bringing Bush into this? Just hear me out:

Both men are Texans, apparently friends, and are equally despised in France for cultural and political reasons. To us, they represent an America that has distanced itself from Europe,  a post 9/11 America that reacted by trying to reassert their strength on an international stage. This demonstration of strength, whether it be through foreign policy or cycling, was a way for Americans to feel like they were on the offensive rather than the defensive.  In diplomacy, George W. Bush went to war in Afghanistan and later in Iraq. In sports, Armstrong dominated the Tour de France. Both men reassured America of its strength. But neither Armstrong’s outrageous winning streak, nor George W. Bush’s decision to invade Iraq nor, to be honest, the personalities of the two men, helped America’s image abroad.

Tensions emerged when France vetoed the UN resolution supporting the war in Iraq and these tensions were found again in the mistrust about Lance Armstrong’s performances. His popularity was so much higher in the United States as Armstrong embodies the American ideals of second chances, of never giving up, of the perpetual fight for success. Armstrong and his foundation became the perfect image  all of these strong American values. Then, it came as no surprise that accusations from French journalists during Armstrong’s reign were received on the other side of the Atlantic with mockery and accusations of jealousy.

However, the Armstrong Empire collapsed under the accumulation of testimonies from his former partners against him, along with mounting scientific proof that no human being could perform as well as he did without doping. Today, it is clear that Armstrong and his former manager Johan Bruyneel had set up a doping system and was also working with the pharmaceutical industry, the anti-doping agencies and even the International Cycling Union.

Perhaps his downfall is a sign, as good as any other diplomatic sign, a political shift in America as well as of the progress that these two nations have made over the last few years. Just as Bush’s war in Iraq lead him to record-breaking unpopularity, and the conservative-right to electoral defeat in 2008, Armstrong is now banned for life from cycling competition, and his image will remain one of cheat and shame.  At least, it reveals that no doping system, as complex as it might be, is protected from justice, in France or in the United States. It also teaches us a lesson: patriotism, on either side of the Atlantic, can often lead us to blindly support people or values, cities or countries, with a dramatic lack of constructive criticism.

Hugo Argenton is LJP’s French columnist. He lives in Lille, France. The opinions expressed in this editorial are his own and are not indicative of LJP’s views.

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