Pedaling Away from Principle
"…you could, like me, be unfortunate enough to stumble on a silent war. The trouble is that once you see it, you can’t unsee it. And once you’ve seen it, keeping quiet, saying nothing, becomes as political an act as speaking out. There’s no innocence."
"The Tour de Crawford." The words blared from a red, white, and blue piece of spandex that George W. Bush presented to Lance Armstrong at his Crawford, Texas ranch. The gifting followed a 17-mile bike ride where they gazed at the landscape that Bush calls "my slice of heaven." Armstrong gushed about Bush’s riding prowess afterward, saying to ABC News, "That old boy can go … I didn’t think he would punish himself that much, but he did." By the way, the war and occupation of Iraq "never came up."
This is bitterly disappointing. Armstrong took a strong stand against the war right after his amazing 7th consecutive Tour de France victory. With the sweat still pouring down his face he said, "The biggest downside to a war in Iraq is what you could do with that money. What does a war in Iraq cost a week? A billion? Maybe a billion a day? The budget for the National Cancer Institute is four billion. That has to change. Polls say people are much more afraid of cancer than of a plane flying into their house or a bomb or any other form of terrorism."
Armstrong’s Texas Toady Two-Step is even more maddening given that Crawford is not exactly neutral vacation space for George W. Bush these days. In fact his five-week siesta has been gloriously disrupted by the real world. Cindy Sheehan lost her son Casey in the Iraqi carnage, and came to Crawford to make her anguish Bush’s problem. She has requested an audience with the President, and legions of supporters have flocked to her side. Sheehan, with striking moral and political clarity, is demanding not only answers, but immediate and total troop withdrawal from Iraq. She has garnered international attention at a time when Bush’s poll numbers have never been lower. Yet Bush scoffed at the idea of meeting with Cindy, saying, "I need to get on with my life."
This is the political hornet’s nest Lance Armstrong biked into. This is where Lance had an opportunity to to not just talk the talk, but also walk the walk. But Armstrong neither talked nor walked. Maybe its unrealistic to think that Lance could have suggested a bike detour to Camp Casey. Perhaps it’s a flight of fantasy to imagine that Lance would organize a Critical Mass Bike Ride to jam the gates of Crawford. But his utter silence, given both what he knows about Iraq, and the presence of Camp Casey, spoke volumes.
To understand how Lance Armstrong can float so blithely from "Man of Principle" to "Man of Crawford," we need to understand the sport of cycling and the unique position that Lance occupies within this cloistered world. His privileged status compels him to stand alone, apart from his fellow riders, as sure as it compelled him to ride with Bush, and leave Camp Casey in the dust.
The Vicious Cycle
If ever there was a sport that needed a union, it is professional cycling. Riding on "the Tour" is literally a question of life and death. In the past decade two professional riders have crashed and died while racing, one on Lance’s team. Also, during this year’s Tour, a top Australian amateur, Amy Gillett-Safe, was killed while training in Germany. Team directors and doctors have ultimate control over riders and their health choices, reminiscent of the old NFL days when Novocain substituted for medical care. The one-day spring races, "the Classics," are run over courses designed to be long and brutal-including cobblestones, narrow farm tracks, steep hills, and of course they are commonly raced in the rain. As cycling maven Jesse Sharkey said to me, "The difficulty of the conditions is part of the allure of the sport, but the travesty is that riders themselves have virtually no say in any of the basic features of the racing world-from the courses to the clothing they wear, and often even what they eat and drink."
Lance is perhaps the sole exception. He is one of the only cyclists who sets his own terms. He is like Michael Jordan on the 1996 Bulls or Eddie Murphy in the 1982 season of Saturday Night Live. He is a man apart, the tour be damned. Armstrong decides what events he will do (very few) and what conditions he will race under (he dropped out of the Paris-Nice race this year when the weather got nasty.) In other words, while the overwhelming majority of cyclists eke out a living, Armstrong does it his way. He sees no benefit in solidarity and therefore doesn’t exercise it. To be fair, all of the above are the basic realities of the sport – Lance didn’t invent them. But his position would give him the freedom to speak out for a more just system. Drug testing is a great example of this. In a sport with more physical pain than getting a lap dance from Dick Cheney, drugs have been for many the breakfast of champions. In 1998, the Festina team doctor was caught with a car full of doping supplies and 400 vials heading into France. Like most drugs in professional sports, doping in cycling has always been a team-sponsored affair. However, when the media and police frenzy erupted, it was riders who were dragged naked from their hotels, cavity-searched, and jailed. French champion Laurent Jalabert, speaking on behalf of all the riders in the race, said: "We are revolted by what is happening. We are treated like cattle and in consequence today we will no longer ride."
But Lance, in his June 2005 interview with Playboy, takes the company line,
"…all I can say is thank God we’re tested. When baseball players were charged with using steroids, what was their defense? Nothing. Saying ‘It’s not true.’ Whereas my defense is hundreds of drug controls, at races and everywhere else. The testers could roll up here right this minute. They knocked on my door in Austin last week. In a way it’s the ultimate in Big Brother, having to declare where you are 365 days a year so they can find you and test you. But those tests are my best defense."
This strain of ‘anti-solidarity’ in Armstrong’s character was on sad display in his ride with Bush. While they worked up "a healthy sweat," family members of the fallen waited in vain to hear a plausible reason why Casey Sheehan and so many others continue to die. Lance had ample opportunity to ask the same question. He chose silence. Not only with Bush, but also toward those at Camp Casey who thought they had an ally in Lance Armstrong. As his lady-friend Sheryl Crow once sang, "Did you see me walking by? Did it ever make you cry?"
DAVE ZIRIN’s new book "What’s My Name Fool? Sports and Resistance in the United States" is published by Haymarket Books. Check out his revamped website edgeofsports.com. You can receive his column Edge of Sports, every week by e-mailing email@example.com. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.