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For their own good
Fifty years ago, they were screwed-up kids sent to the Florida School for Boys to be straightened out. But now they are screwed-up men, scarred by the whippings they endured. Read the story and see a video and portrait gallery.
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Doping makes it hard to be a sports fan anymore
By JIM VERHULST
Published July 22, 2007
For seven years in a row, Lance Armstrong won the Tour de France, carrying the hopes and fears of cancer survivors with every pedal stroke up impossibly steep mountains. Those millions of yellow LiveStrong bracelets proved that there can be life after cancer and that a committed athlete can redirect his anger, change the rules and use his celebrity for good.
Most surprising of all, he persuaded Americans to care about a foreign athletic contest - a bike race! - that didn't involve bats and balls, thigh pads and face masks or even Chevys trading paint on the backstretch. Skinny tires, funny lycra shorts, goofy shoes that require the rider to duckwalk when not on the bike and ridiculous helmets were more the order of the day. Oh, yeah, and did I mention that the race took place in France?
Like so many other Americans, I followed his exploits. But unlike so many others, I had tracked the Tour de France nearly obsessively for years and years before Lance started winning. I can name every winner dating back to 1981. In fact, the first year I paid close attention was the last time a Frenchman won his country's own race. Yes, a very long time ago.
However, this year, I'm having a hard time caring. Blame doping and drugs.
Cheating has always been part of sports. But it is so omnipresent now that it has begun to blot out the sun that is the sport itself. Cycling is hardly alone in this, but that doesn't make it better.
This year has been one of awful revelation. The winner of the 1996 Tour recently admitted he doped his way to victory. Until he had to slink away earlier this season, he had been coaching one of the best teams and had honestly pledged to make his team ride clean. The winner of the 1997 Tour retired after too many questions about his involvement with doping came out. The 1998 winner was already long dead after a downward spiral of recreational and performance-enhancing drugs. The 2006 winner - American Floyd Landis - is barred from competing until his doping charges are resolved. Some of the best riders aren't even at the Tour this year, suspended for suspicions of doping. It's finally just too much.
Three American riders have won the Tour. Each one had a great personal story that made him more than just an athlete. You already know of Lance, of course, and his cancer fight. But did you know that the first American winner, Greg LeMond, nearly bled to death after being shot in a hunting accident and later came back to win the closest Tour in history on its last day, a matter of a few seconds in a race that lasts weeks?
And until Floyd Landis got caught up in the latest doping scandal, he too was fascinating. Raised Mennonite, he used bicycling as a means of escape as a kid. Improbably, he rode away from all of the competition on one stage last year in one of the greatest one-day performances ever. To top it off, he did it on a bad hip that made him limp. He put off hip surgery until he completed one of the hardest athletic events in the world. What a story. Until the drug scandal.
Now he may be the first winner ever stripped of his title for doping. But goof-ups by the testing lab and horrible missteps in his own camp mean that no matter the outcome of the case, there will be no resolution. If he wins, people will say he got away with doping. If he loses, people will say he was railroaded. In the end, we'll never really know.
In between this doping mess of the past decade were the Lance years - 1999-2005. Perhaps the most tested athlete on the planet, he has always said his results speak for themselves on the road and in the dope-testing lab. A freak of nature who rebuilt his body after cancer to be the perfect cyclist, he worked harder and more methodically than anyone to win year after year. Cynics don't think it's that simple. But even after all this time, they have no real proof, just whispers and accusations. And it just gets old.
The cynics forget that he was greatest when he was weakest. In 2003, in my view the best Tour ever, he nearly lost the race time after time. On a fast descent, the rider in front of him fishtailed and crashed in pain, breaking a leg on asphalt that was melting in the heat. To avoid him, Armstrong shot off the road, across a hayfield, dismounted and then jumped back on his bike to rejoin riders who had just negotiated a hairpin turn. Another day, Armstrong suffered during a time trial - each rider against the clock - as he slowly dehydrated in the wilting heat. His lips ringed white with salt, he fought not to win, but to not lose. The pain on his face was palpable. Finally, later in the race, as he blasted up a mountain finally looking like the Lance of old, he clipped a spectator's bag and fell hard, shattering part of his bike. He went on to win the stage anyway. It was a show of determination that matches anything I've ever seen in sports, and it was best because he was not a superman but a weakened man battling on through sheer force of will. Drugs wouldn't have helped much there. The grit with which he fought cancer, though, did.
In the early years, I could monitor Tour news only by listening to daily updates from the BBC squawking and hissing on my shortwave. One year, my wife and I were in France during the Tour, so I was able to follow the race in the French sporting papers. My mother-in-law, a Swede who learned French before she learned English, was with us, and she would translate the French to English for me, and I would translate the idioms of cycling to normal language for her. My mother-in-law, translating the French: "It says he was 'dancing on the pedals.' Is that good?" Me: "Yes, that's good. It means he is pedaling beautifully and effortlessly."
In those days it was an adventure to follow the Tour. Now, it's possible to get nearly minute-by-minute results streamed to me in real time on the Internet. But even as it gets easier to track, I'm finding it harder to care. Which great rider will be caught doping this year, his stunning performance a sham cooked up in the doping lab?
It is true that cycling is trying harder than nearly any other sport to clean up. But for me, instead of the death by a thousand cuts, it has become more the death from a thousand blood samples. When the science matters more than the sport, something is wrong.
Okay, I'm not quitting cold turkey. The beauty of the sport as it rolls across the luscious landscape of France, history evident at every turn, is too good to give up completely. And as hard as the Tour is, we can all imagine at least a little bit, if we squeeze ours eyes tightly shut, what it would be like to ride a bike that hard, that fast.
I'll still admire the lithe rider "dancing on the pedals" up the mountain in the same way that others stare in wonder at Barry Bonds' smooth home run swing. While drugs may enhance the performance of both, those same drugs wouldn't make it possible for any of us mere mortals to do those deeds in the first place. The wonderful rhythm of their athleticism exists outside the world of doping.
But I won't invest myself fully in another rider because even in middle age, I don't want my innocence dashed by another drug scandal.
So instead of fixating on the Tour, I'm following Lance across Iowa this week on my own bike. Yes, Iowa. Ten thousand bicyclists will spend the next seven days riding across Iowa in an event called the (Des Moines) Register's Annual Great Bicycle Ride Across Iowa. Armstrong has committed to the ride this year to raise cancer awareness with the knowledge that Iowa, with its first-in-the-nation presidential caucuses, has outsize importance politically.
If you're reading this Sunday morning, we'll already be on the road somewhere in northwestern Iowa. We'll all be riding because we love it, and none of us will be blood doping, you can be sure. Truth be told, I will be no closer to Armstrong than any of the other 9,998 riders. It's likely I won't even see him. But it will be fun, it will be a challenge, and it will be pure - no questions, no worries, no doping.
Even as I follow the Tour with my head but no longer my heart, I just wish that race in France could inject itself with a little of that honest Iowa innocence.