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Lance Armstrong's years of denial

Lance Armstrong's years of denial

In July 1999, when Lance Armstrong won a shock first mountain stage victory in the Tour de France, AFP’s report noted “the inevitable suspicion which always surrounds such an exceptional performance.”

That suspicion proved justified.

On Thursday, after a decade-and-a-half of bluster, bullying and deceit, Lance Armstrong finally admitted the worst-kept secret in sport: that his record seven Tour de France victories were powered by banned drugs.

Suspicion has dogged the US rider’s career and doubts accumulated from the moment he won his first Tour back in 1999, especially after that July 13 climb when he burst from the pack and took control of the race.

“Armstrong attracted all manner of reflection after he left the best climbers in the Tour de France for dead on the climb to Sestrieres,” the AFP cycling correspondent mused.

The win was the first of a series that saw him dominate the race for seven years, during which time he would haughtily dismiss any hint his achievements were drug-tainted and claim he was victim of a “personal vendetta”.

With no proof that he was taking banned substances, Armstrong rounded on his critics after winning his seventh and last Tour on the Champs-Elysees on July 24, 2005.

“To all the cynics, I’m sorry for you… I’m sorry you can’t believe in miracles. This is a great sporting event and hard work wins it,” he said.

Through his years at the top, Armstrong insisted he was the victim of deep-seated French chauvinism, rendering press and public alike incapable of accepting an American’s supremacy in the sport that was a national obsession.

Disdain and accusations of doping were heaped on his achievements, despite his recovery from cancer that threatened not just his cycling career but his life.

“A boo is a lot louder than a cheer. If you have 10 people cheering and one person booing, all you hear is the booing,” he said.

After his seventh Tour victory, Armstrong was lauded by then-US president George W. Bush, who told him: “Our country and the whole world is incredibly proud of you.”

Bush, a keen sports fan and fellow Texan, described Armstrong’s achievement as “a great triumph for the human spirit”.

Always aggressively defensive against doping accusations, Armstrong pointed to the fact that he had been tested more than 500 times in his career and never failed a single test.

And with no proof to go on, the doubters were left with little recourse until his former team-mates finally broke ranks, providing testimony that formed the basis of the devastating US Anti-Doping Agency report last year.

After Armstrong’s first Tour win in 1999, France’s then-sports minister and stalwart anti-doping campaigner Marie-George Buffet summed up the impotence of the critics, which would grow over the years.

“I don’t go along with suspicion and rumour,” she told AFP at the time. “The three men on the winners’ rostrum have not tested positive, therefore, I have to respect the winner.”

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