A Commonplace

What is a commonplace?



 Sat, 19 Jul 2014 12:25:13

Mistah Kurtz - he Not Dead - a review - Seven Deadly Sins: My Pursuit of Lance Armstrong by David Walsh

"The horror! The horror!" Joseph Conrad, Heart of Darkness

It takes just few words to explain why Lance Armstrong and his journey have been admired all around the world. As if a rags to riches story weren't enough. Beating death in the - for men at least - most wince-inducing, leg-crossing form: testicular cancer to become seven times Tour de France winner.

It really is the stuff that legends are made of and very much, with its heady mix of humble beginnings, sore balls and bikes, Boys' Own stuff.

To deny that story and paint a whole lot darker but more truthful one took David Walsh a considerable amount of courage, several whole books and thirteen years. And as Walsh dismantles the façade, this the book takes on some of the form of Conrad's Heart of Darkness. The further we go up the river with Walsh, the more dense and terrifying the jungle and the more menacing the natives. Until finally we discover the man himself in his skull decorated or couch-lined lair with seven yellow jerseys framed on his walls or flanked with piles of ivory. A man who has totally embraced evil and whose bosses and supporters dare not criticise for fear of interfering which his capacity to deliver.

At first Walsh paints a picture of his own Boys' Own sports writing existence. Following the tour with a happy band of journalists. Hanging around like a lovesick teenager trying to get an interview with the stars at the top of their game and the young comers who might be something one day. . When Walsh first meets Armstrong, he is one of the comers. Sitting in the idyllic garden of a chateau. Open, likeable and willing to talk frankly about his difficult upbringing. But almost before we know it, it's 1999, Lance Armstrong's first year back in the Tour de France after his recovery from testicular cancer, his first-time win of the tour. For most journalists - including those in Walsh's happy band, who followed the tour, the story as they say, wrote itself. Young man, who came up from nothing, looked like a promising cyclist, but then got cancer, but then came back from cancer and won the Tour de France.

But something was very rotten in the state of Tour de France cycling. The 1998 Tour had been shown by the French Police in a series of searches and raids to be a performance-enhancing drug-addled shambles which became known as the Festina affair. Ultimately an entire team of Tour de France riders confessed to doping. Their trials, many of which resulted in convictions and suspended jail sentences were still progressing as the 1999 Tour got under way.

Obviously the governing body of Cycling - the Union Cyclistes Internationale wanted desperately to clean things up in their sport. Well, that is to say, they wanted to clean up cycling's image. Whether they actually wanted to clean up cycling is another matter. The 1999 tour was supposed to be the "clean" tour. And maybe it helped that the winner was someone who was recovering from chemotherapy during the disgraced 1998 Tour. What didn't help were the pesky, persistent rumours. Armstrong gave a positive drug tests that was rationalised (as it emerged, much-later) with a post-dated prescription. Armstrong treated cyclists within the tour who were publicly making a stand about not using drugs as pariahs. Why would he do that if he too were clean?

And Armstrong's numbers just didn't add up. Real life isn't like the Movies. In real life, there is no "training montage". People don't go through a few faded-together shots of heartache and struggle dubbed over with inspiring musing and emerge as substantially better athletes. They're most unlikely to do this when they've already been racing at the top level already for several years.

There are hard limits, different for every individual, on how much oxygen can be taken in, distributed around the body through the bloodstream and delivered to the muscles. And these limits can't simply be changed with training, especially at the very top of a sport where everyone is training almost equally hard.

But maybe there are other ways around these limits. Maybe you can get around these natural hard limits with certain performance-enhancing drugs…

Even without any direct evidence of doping (and there was that test). The numbers and the performances for Armstrong looked suspicious. Before he went away to fight his illness, he'd never come nearer the top of the low thirties in terms of a placing in the Tour de France. He wasn't much of a mountain climber, nor was he a time-trialler. When he returned, he was flying up mountains and beating everyone in the time trials and leaping more than 30 places.

Walsh wrote a muted article for the Sunday Times. Perhas weighing in with half a cheer. He suggested caution to anyone who celebrated Armstrong's win.

Over the next decade he went on to piece together a seemingly watertight case against Armstrong, writing a book that - to the shame of the English-speaking legal system could only be published in France detailing the evidence he uncovered.

The "Smoking gun" evidence came from the wife of a former friend and teammate of Armstrong. She heard him tell his doctors, in front of a number of other people, that he had been taking performance-enhancing drugs. The was also evidence from Lance Armstrong's former masseur. She admitted that she had smuggled performance enhancing drugs from Spain to France and had been in the room when the discussion took place about how to beat a positive drug test for cortisone with a back-dated prescription.

Perhaps just as damning, there was evidence that Armstrong had been travelling to the the Italian mediaeval town of Ferrara to meet with the what was regarded as the world's best (worst, depending on your point of view) doping doctor Michele Ferrari.

If anyone took the trouble to look for it, there was a lot of evidence, and over time it kept piling up. A Mennonite drug-taking cyclists gave up the drugs and the tour and went back to Pennsylvania and Jesus. He sent a letter directly to the UCI - the cycling world's hear-no-evil see-no-evil governing body - stating that he had taken drugs while cycling on Lance Armstrong's team and that he had been given the job of watching his own and Lance's blood in a hotel room fridge right up to point where they shiveringly put it back in their bodies to beat a drug test.

Amazingly, or perhaps not, all this while, as the case against him grew piece by piece, Armstrong went on winning Tours de France and then on the back of that, and in an ever more desperate attempt to silence his critics, winning court cases; for libel against the Sunday Times; for bonus money from the insurers of his sponsors; even, at the moment possibly of maximum pride before a fall, managing to shut down a Federal case. When the United States Anti-Drug Agency stepped up after the Federal investigation went away - maybe Armstrong scoffed in his man-cave lined with his seven yellow jerseys. "What can they do to me? I've just put down the Feds?"

But the USADA case was a case too far, and the one that finally finished him. Sworn depostions in previous cases had made his position more precarious. Ultimately the mandatorily dodgy French-titled governing body, the UCI (Union Cycliste Internationale) was given no option but to strip Armstrong of his seven Tour de France titles whilst expressing surprise and astonishment at the evidence of Armstrong's wrongdoing that had come to light (slightly reminiscent of Claude Raines' outrage at discovering gambling in Rick's bar in Casablanca). And all of a sudden, that was that. Game over, Olly Olly Oxenfree, Mornington Crescent. Armstrong was scheduled to give a mea culpa TV interview with Oprah.

All of Amstrong's sponsors deserted him in a single seventy-five million dollar day (what's the antonym of kerching!?) And that wasn't the end of it. The people who'd lost money to him when the courts had decided that he wasn't doping, rather understandable wanted that money back and then some.

In the final fifth of the book Walsh is clearly having to rush something to the publishers to make sure he gets in on the denouement of the story. Events are finally overtaking him. Plot threads and names of Armstrong's accusers fly a bit too thick and fast.

But for well over the first half, this is a book written in a beautiful lilting, jokey style. And it's very good on the difficulties of the moral choice that Walsh has to make to turn away from his friends in cycling journalism. At one particularly disturbing turning point, they literally kick him out of their car and leave him on the verge. So frightened are they that any association with him might "upset Lance" and result in their access to celebrity cyclists being cut off.

The realisation that he can't keep his conscious clear and keep writing Boys Own stories is the point where Walsh leans hard on the tiller and points the book up river into his own heart of darkness.

It's a fascinating, well written ride, but as Walsh did with his 1999 story on Armstrong's first Tour de France, I feel I need to just add to it, a dissenting note of caution.

All the time he was righting this particular wrong and deciding to turn away from the devil and towards the truth and the light (forgive the florid language, but this book is called "Seven Deadly Sins", David Walsh was writing for the Sunday Times one of the newspapers in the News International group. This is an organisation that we discovered, over some of the same timeframe as Lance Armstrong's downfall, was actually an organisation of organised crime at least in the form of phone tapping and payments to police, and quite possibly, in at least one case, murder.

When Walsh watched Lance Armstrong's final admissions of guilt, he watched them from Rupert Murdoch's Union-beating Wapping Bunker. As the Lance Armstrong story unfolded, so did the News of the World.

Much has been made of the smirk on Armstrong's face in his interviews with Oprah. Walsh himself puts it down to a lack of emotional intelligence. But it's not a look that Walsh should be unfamiliar with. It's one that we've also seen on the face of Rebekah Brooks and Rupert Murdoch. If not his boss's, then his boss's, boss's boss's face.

It's a look that seems to say "Well, what do you expect me to do? I play to win. Don't you understand, these are the REAL rules?"

How might Walsh defend himself and his bosses against these accusations? No real evidence, just innuendo, there have been lengthy court cases and no convictions (except the sacrificial one of Andy Coulson). Would he be man enough to admit how eerily, eerily similar these defences would be to the ways in which Armstrong himself, and his supporters defended him for over a decade.

This isn't really to criticise Walsh. Rather it's just pointing out that the tragedy and the idea of a hero's downfall being brought about through hubris, is just another form of fairy story. Perhaps with a broader emotional range than the Boys' Own stories that we look to replace when we're no longer children (thought clearly, not so much in sports writing) but a fairy story, none-the-less. It's dark chocolate to the Boy's own milky bar, but it's still bad for your teeth and not really that nourishing for the brain or aligning of the moral compass.

Did Armstrong as the bad guy really get his comeuppance? Or did he give his partial confession on Oprah as a firebreak strategy to stop the flames spreading to his genuinely powerful friends in the US Postal service. Genuine power-hungry sociopaths who sponsored him and the doctors who save his life.

With the notable exceptions of a couple of cyclists who absolutely refused to dope, Walsh's heroes are not traditional good guys. They are mostly former team mates (or their wives) of Armstrong who were party to his cheating. They cheated, they took his money while they did it. And they only began to talk when he stopped paying them (or their husbands).

And to people more worried about what's rotten in the state of British newspaper publishing with its potentially deleterious effects on democracy than men racing as fast as they can on bikes, the image of David Walsh watching the TV interview that "vindicates" him in the silent offices of "Evil Central" in Wapping, doesn't exactly give us a perfect feeling of closure. One wonders what Murdoch's reaction would have been if he had had the direct control over Walsh's submitted copy that some fear he has over other stories. What would he have done with that first ambivalent, doubt-filled article about Armstrong's win of the Tour in 1999. When the Hitler diaries story, published exclusively in the Sunday Times turned out to be fake, his response was to shrug and say "We're not in the news business, we're in the entertainment business".

Walsh writes a tragedy and detective story all rolled into one. And he does it very well. But beyond this safe trading station is something even more shadowy, another bend in the river, maybe another two, before we finally get to the heart of darkness. The dragon-slaying Columbo's bosses pay corrupt officials and snoop on the answerphone messages of missing girls. Hard on the tiller as the story takes this meander, and it isn't finished yet. The knights in shining armour who ride up to save us from these newspaper villains turn out to rather want to silence all of the press in order to (in my end is my beginning) prevent the press from reporting on their drug-taking...

To bring it back to Walsh's Catholic imagery, maybe the only true saint is a dead one. Maybe the rest of us are all just poor sinners and it's Kurzes all the way down. Maybe that's what Kurtz really means by "The Horror! The Horror!"