Lance Armstrong and the Door that Remains Ajar

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The truth was bound to be unearthed. Once acclaimed as one of the greatest athletes of any discipline, Lance Armstrong now leaps to the zenith of the sporting scrapheap. In June 2012, the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency (USADA) charged Armstrong with the consumption of illicit performance enhancing substances. While the American cyclist continued to profess his innocence while trying to quash the USADA’s accusations through the federal courts, yesterday Armstrong made the decision not to persist with any challenge to their claims. It can only be assumed that such a move has been taken in a despairing effort to preserve a measure of dignity in light of some allegedly overwhelming evidence. The quest now begins to find a legitimate winner of the seven consecutive Tour de France titles ‘won’ by Armstrong between 1999 and 2005. Therein lies the difficulty. There doesn’t seem to be any…

The truth was bound to be unearthed. Once acclaimed as one of the greatest athletes of any discipline, Lance Armstrong now leaps to the zenith of the sporting scrapheap. In June 2012, the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency (USADA) charged Armstrong with the consumption of illicit performance enhancing substances. While the American cyclist continued to profess his innocence while trying to quash the USADA’s accusations through the federal courts, yesterday Armstrong made the decision not to persist with any challenge to their claims. It can only be assumed that such a move has been taken in a despairing effort to preserve a measure of dignity in light of some allegedly overwhelming evidence. The quest now begins to find a legitimate winner of the seven consecutive Tour de France titles ‘won’ by Armstrong between 1999 and 2005. Therein lies the difficulty. There doesn’t seem to be any…

Nadzeya Ostapchuk, the Belarussian shot-putter aside, the Olympic Games of 2012 was largely devoid of doping controversies. That is not to say that the questions weren’t asked. China’s Ye Shiwen certainly raised eyebrows as she claimed gold and the world record in the  400m individual medley. Records are there to be broken of course, but when you’re a 16 year-old Olympic debutante who happens to post a faster final 50m than Ryan Lochte who claimed the men’s event in the second-fastest time ever posted, it’s inevitable that the eyebrows began to twitch. Then you have the indomitable Usain Bolt – but who would have the audacity to question him?

Bolt is undoubtedly the saving grace of the athletics movement. His arrival on the international scene came at a time when other, more far-reaching sports were making giant strides that left track and field athletes in their wake. But Bolt had the capacity to transcend athletics. Fans of the English Premier League, the NBA and the Ryder Cup were soon being drawn to his charm and sense of fun that was topped off with an incredible talent. The final 10m of his ground-breaking 100m sprint in the Beijing Olympics will be regarded as one the iconic moments of 21st century sport. Usain Bolt, from a small Caribbean island, is now one the most recognisable and marketable characters in the world.

London 2012 was a tremendous success. But where would it have been without Usain Bolt? We must remember the empty seats were an obvious concern at the outset of the two-week schedule with members of the British Army and local school-children being asked to fill the gaps at the gymnastics and archery. However, they were never needed in the Olympic Park. Yes, Jess Ennis and Mo Farah joined the list of cherished Britons but everybody – including the prawn-sandwich brigade – wanted to see Bolt. Everybody wanted to see Bolt win.

Indeed Ennis and Farah have much to thank the Jamaican for. A little over a year ago both athletes would have struggled for coverage in the national press but with the Olympics fast-approaching their profiles increased as the media sought to whet the appetite ahead of the coming of Bolt. With Puma and Virgin Media cashing in on Bolt’s standing, British advertisers were forced to act, but with the Jamaican having signed an unprecedented agreement with Puma in 2010, they were also forced to look a little closer to home. Now both Ennis and Farah have endorsement deals coming out their ears. Even Mark Cavendish, the cyclist, is the star of a new Head & Shoulders ad campaign. In a jubilee year it was the Olympics that became the focal point of the British calendar year.  Bolt raised the bar.

For so long it must have been frustrating for the typical Olympian to see sportsmen in less-arduous codes demand extortionate fees. However, Bolt’s status is now such that he can command 6-figure sums for appearances at meets anywhere across the globe. Others have inevitably sought to ride the crest of that wave. For instance, Yohan Blake, Bolt’s training partner and most capable challenger, recently laughed off a £40,000 offer to partake in a race in Birmingham. It now seems that the athletes understand the economic potential of their pursuits, but it is a little alarming how quickly they have adapted their motivations.

Consider the case of Asafa Powell. Widely acknowledged as the most technically adept of all his opponents, Powell has failed to pocket the medals that matter in a sport dominated by Usain Bolt. It is hard not to have some sympathy for Powell. Knowing that he will never amass the funds garnered by his compatriot, Powell has been forced to pick up prize money at events that rarely concern the sports most famous name. It is only for the big international events that the superstars gather. The Olympic Games, for example, do not offer competitors the chance to earn a fortune in 9.58 secs but it does offer exposure. But ultimately the preying sponsors are not interested in the also-rans. It must be hard to compete to the best of your ability knowing that your best just won’t be enough. Powell pulling-up in the 100m final in London was no great surprise, just as his withdrawal from the World Championships in Daegu last year wasn’t either. In his mind, Powell was already beaten at the starting blocks of both events – and he had his priorities. For instance, Powell drew criticism in light of his conduct in South Korea in August of last year. While the sprinter maintained that he had a groin injury, Jamaican officials were a little circumspect. As leader of the Diamond League for 2011, all Powell was required to do was simply line-up in Zurich just weeks after the Daegu debacle. Powell did just that and ran superbly for the first 60m before remembering that he was supposed to be injured.

Now, what if Usain Bolt was doing the unthinkable and treating himself to all sorts of banned substances? Asafa Powell would feel hard done by for one. We know that the relevant authorities sought to test 6,500 athletes at London 2012. There were over 14,000 competitors resident in the Olympic Village over the course of the Games. Ye Shiwen was not subjected to such tests. Experts have their opinions on the Bolt matter as we get closer and closer to the 9.5secs mark. But ultimately Usain Bolt can laugh in the faces of those sceptics. He knows, as do they, that he is untouchable, just as Lance Armstrong was at the height of his career. Depriving the world of Usain Bolt would do irreparable damage to not only the 100m sprint, but to the integrity of the Olympic Games. Asafa Powell may be a terrific specimen, but he does not pack the Bolt punch. Then again, just as the International Cycling Union trawls through the archives to find someone to take the many Tour de France titles on offer, you’d have to wonder how many sprinters would have valid entitlement to Bolt’s crown.

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