Wednesday, July 24, 2002 Updated: July 25, 10:21 AM ET
Let's jeer it for Lance!
By Mark Kreidler Special to ESPN.com
Hey, that Lance Armstrong, not bad for a blood-doping, cheating dog, eh?
But don't take my word for it. I'm not even there. Take the word, instead, of many of the fans who have lined the routes of the Tour de France, waiting for that special moment when Armstrong rides past them and they are able to salute him on his way to a fourth consecutive title with the celebratory moniker, "Doe-PAY! Doe-PAY!"
Not everyone in the crowd at the Tour de France is a Lance Armstrong supporter.
Rough translation, for those keeping book at home: "Blood-doping, cheating dog!"
Actually, the real translation from the French is simply "Doped!" but the point is made. It certainly has been for Armstrong, who took a few moments out of his busy schedule the other day to rip those fans who've been ripping him.
"I think it's an indication of their intelligence," Armstrong said after a strong sprint up Mount Ventoux had stretched his lead in the standings to more than four minutes. "I'm not here to be friends with a bunch of people who stand at the side of the road, who've had too much to drink and want to yell, 'Dope!'
"It's an issue of class: Do you have class, or do you not have class? That's not the way a classy person acts."
OK, first mistake: Injecting the word "class" anywhere in this discussion. And the second: Missing the point entirely.
Screaming "dope!" in sports anymore isn't about class, or even about a working grasp of the French language. It's about history. Falling back on the doping angle in reference to any great individual athlete has become not merely the refuge of the frustrated fan of some other competitor, but the second or third thought of peers, colleagues and, needless to say, journalists everywhere.
There's an across-the-board accumulation of evidence there, some of it verifiable (from the ancient likes of Ben Johnson straight on through), much of it anecdotal (I'll take Canseco Manuscripts for $100, Alex). Given time and the cruel beauty of insinuation and guilt by association, that evidence can threaten to overwhelm even so great an achievement as Armstrong's.
Want to take down someone at the height of his athletic mastery? Toss around a casual accusation of cheating. The thing's damn near indestructible. A clean test won't erase it, because dirty athletes pass doping tests all the time, we're told. A personal declaration of innocence? That's the air-clearing equivalent of the dreaded vote of confidence on behalf of a manager -- a sure sign something ugly is afoot.
For four years now, Lance Armstrong has been the cyclist to catch at the Tour de France.
When Armstrong, a cancer survivor, won his first Tour, it was a remarkable story. When he won his second, to many people, it was better still. And, naturally, by the time he got to a third, he had to be cheating.
It bears note, of course, that Armstrong competes in one of the sports with the highest recent incidence of discovered cheating. In something of an ironic spin, many of the people sniping at Armstrong during this Tour have been cheering a French favorite, cyclist Richard Virenque, who two years ago admitted he took drugs with the Festina team that was ejected from the 1998 Tour after a supply of banned substances was found in one of its cars. (Sometimes one's greatest sin, it would seem, is country of origin.)
Still, this is bigger than Armstrong. There's no point in taking it all so personally. We do this all the time, alternately being awed by and suspicious of our greatest athletes -- and let's go directly here to the erstwhile American pastime, baseball, where such luminaries as Mark McGwire, Sammy Sosa and Barry Bonds all have dealt with public murmurs of cheating to gain a performance edge.
You don't think the taint of doping leaves a mark beyond the obvious? Consider the case of Marion Jones, the world's dominant current female track and field athlete. Jones went to the Sydney Games in 2000 planning to concentrate on winning five gold medals, and instead found herself appearing at news conferences called to discuss her then-husband's suspension as an Olympic shot-putter because of steroid use. The insinuation was so thick you could cut it with a pair of spikes: If Jones was married to a cheater, what were the odds, really, of her being clean?
This is not to vouch for Armstrong's honesty -- and that is quite the point. At this dot on the sporting timeline, with so much documented cheating and so much more rumored, it is considered positively naive to take an athlete at his word about much of anything related to his own performance beyond the most rudimentary recounting of what happened out there today.
And so Armstrong is just going to have to live with it, with the subversion of blanket accusation and the impossibility of disproving it. He likely will come riding to the finish of his fourth straight Tour de France title this weekend, cheered by thousands, jeered by hundreds (or thousands) more. He'll hear the words "Doe-PAY! Doe-PAY!" from some of those in the crowd, and he will ride past sure in the knowledge that he will never, ever be able to do a thing to dissuade them. He will take the crown and almost certainly be asked about the subject of cheating, and whatever his answer, you can be sure it won't completely satisfy.
You know what that makes him, officially?
Only this much, with certainty: A star.
Mark Kreidler is a columnist with the Sacramento Bee and a regular contributor to ESPN.com