Why didn’t anybody listen to Lemond? Why don’t we learn from history?

I began cycling for real in the 1990s. This was in no small part due to Greg Lemond. He was an American sporting hero. And, as history teaches us, he still is, now more than ever. History reveals so much. Darn hindsight is crystal clear.

In the late 1990s through 2005, when Lance Armstrong’s unbelievable exploits captivated a nation, Greg Lemond dared to suggest it might all be: not so believable. He broke the silence–the code of honor. And he paid dearly.

Lance Armstrong and his backers threatened and slandered him. This ruined his business. The irony is striking: the perpetrators of perhaps the greatest sporting fraud of all time trampled over something beautiful and real. Lemond wasn’t the only victim.

The doping culture ran talented sportsmen out of the sport, like local masters champion, Dr. Greg Strock, then a promising young rider who refused to submit to the doping culture.

When Mr. Lemond retired prematurely from the sport, I remember him saying something about a mysterious mitochondrial muscle disease. It turns out his muscle cells were fine; it was that his competitors’ cells were enhanced. He knew; and when he tried to open the eyes of Americans to something too good to be true–a cancer survivor who came back against all odds to “win” seven Tours–no one listened.

I thought I was done with Lance and the fraud. Expunged. I swore off reading about it. I needn’t explain the fraud to non-believers anymore. Oprah and others had done that. My imaginary friend chastised me for wasting valuable reading time on doping books and articles. I could have been reading more literary fiction.

But this 30-minute interview with Greg Lemond brought it all back.

His description of Lance’s extortion, deceit, slander, threats, bring it back. It’s a bad story. I don’t want it to make me cynical. Cynical is not heart-healthy. Yet this story is worth noting. It can teach. It informs. It underscores something I’ve grown more interested in: the value of history. I’m surprised how little we learn from history, in medicine, in politics, and in human nature.

Gosh, were we duped. “What am I on? I’m on my bike 6 hours a day.

JMM

6 comments

  1. I am not a cyclist. I initially thought I’d just watch a minute of Greg Lemond’s interview with Phil Donahue. But once I started watching – I literally could not stop. It is a captivating interview. The story is chilling – like a fiction novel, except that it is true. That this could happen so recently in this country is “unbelievable” – but it did. If you want to gain insight into the effect Lance Armstrong had on cycling – this is highly recommended viewing – but as Dr. John says, be forewarned that this is a “bad story”.

  2. Is it even healthy in a wholistic way to be on a bike 6 hrs a day? Honest question.

  3. “Unbelievable?” Sadly, I disagree. It’s very believable. We love our heroes. And we guard them by refusing to see what’s obviously there. We refuse to acknowledge the obvious even when others (usually former heroes turned villains like LeMond) are rubbing our noses in it. We happily buy the what-am-I-on hype, not only from Lance but others. That’s one irony here. Lance certainly isn’t unique. Cycling isn’t unique. But that’s what we’re being fed. Lance was “one bad apple.” Bullshit. I’m not an insider. But there’s enough evidence in the public domain to convince me that football, baseball, track and field, and other major sports are full of bad apples. These sports are tougher targets, however. There’s much more money at stake and many more greedy hands in the various cookie jars. And now Lance is their scape goat. Don’t believe the hype. Lance didn’t invent doping. He didn’t perfect doping. Lance doped and he bullied people to keep it a secret. That’s nothing new. Yes, Lance seems to have been a particularly loathsome and effective bully but perhaps that’s because we placed him atop a particularly tall pedestal and invested him with particularly enormous power. But of course Lance’s pedestal, like all pedestals, came with the threat of a very long fall from grace. The fear of that fall combined with his great power seems to have made Lance a particularly nasty bully. But certainly not unique. The master of the obvious in me tells me that Lance’s story is only unique in that it’s being told.

  4. Lance didn’t invent doping, true. But what he did do that IS particularly sickening and somewhat unprecedented was to destroy any person in his path that was a threat. This is sociopathic behavior and something easily nasty enough to get a ‘typical’ person severe punishment. He has pretty much skated free… But what really bothers me is the people who seem to be comfortable forgetting all of that evildoing and still herald him as a great person. What? I guess ‘those’ people can’t get their heads around how different they might feel if some sociopath did those things to people ‘they’ cared about. What does that say about people who could forgive such behavior? Sad…

  5. Doping and Performance Enhancing Drug use are really tough problems.

    Once when I was a teaching attending in Cardiology I had a student who was going into Orthopaedics. He had been a world class decathlete. We were discussing steroid use and he admitted that he did it. There were two things that he said that provided a perspective: 1. In this sport when fractions of a second or meter can be the difference between medaling or not an athlete will do anything to get that edge; 2. If someone else was using androgenic steroids, and if they worked, you would be foolish not to use them too. As a young person, you believe in your immortality. Lionel Alzado’s tragic end hadn’t even come up in those days. We now believe that other than being “dishonest” steroid use (and perhaps other performance enhancing tricks – blood doping (how is that different from high altitude training?), HGH, and other drugs that we probably don’t even know about) is probably harmful over time.

    In my opinion, the Lemond fiasco was that he tried to do the “right” thing and tried to clean up his sport. Floyd Landis may also have been in this mode. Unfortunately, the “big guys” in the sport didn’t want to admit that there was trouble and used their power to crush the littler guy – they succeeded.

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