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The real losers in the Lance Armstrong affair are the writers and riders who first spoke out

Many of those who inflated the Armstrong bubble will now capitalise on his confession.

Even if you dislike sport, hate celebrity confessions and distrust Oprah Winfrey, you should follow the story of Lance Armstrong. It is a morality tale of huge implications. Beneath the surface, Armstrong’s story is about the power of celebrity and the complicity of the media. It is a depressing tale but a deeply salutary one.

For now, let’s leave to one side the disgraceful negligence, perhaps even co-operation, of the cycling authorities. Consider the role of the mainstream media in the great Armstrong deception. Most cycling journalists knew it was highly unlikely that Armstrong could have raced at that level without drugs. Not only did the vast majority remain silent, they actively froze out the few writers – such as David Walsh and Paul Kimmage – who were brave enough to fight the Armstrong conspiracy. Cyclists were brutal in cutting down whistle-blowers inside the peloton; they called it “pissing in the soup”. The journalistic mainstream mirrored the peloton: they closed ranks against reporters who challenged the comfortable status quo.

It is an indictment of so-called expertise. The writers who were supposed to know more about cycling than anyone else in the world were unable to write what they must have known to be the truth. Was doping really that obvious, even back then? Yes. Even if journalists ignored the persistent rumours and Armstrong’s association with Dr Michele Ferrari, a master of doping, simple maths should have been enough. The 1998 Tour de France was a drug-fuelled shambles in which the leading team got busted for epic substance abuse. The 1999 Tour, the first “Armstrong” Tour, was billed as the “Renewal Tour”, a clean season free from doping, a fresh start. Yet Armstrong was soon clocking speeds that were simply unheard of.

So the press room faced a very simple calculation: either Armstrong was a freak of nature, the greatest natural athlete on the planet, or else he was cheating. They chose to believe the former. It gets worse. It was already clear that Armstrong wasn’t an athletic outlier. His pre-cancer performances in the Tour de France, when he was at his natural athletic peak, were unexceptional. And his “VO2 max” – his innate athletic potential – was not special, way behind the greatest riders in Tour history. In some sports, where skill and technique can trump athleticism, it is possible to make huge improvements relatively late in your career. It is infinitely harder (without drugs) to do that in cycling. As with maths prodigies, you’ve either got it or you haven’t.

So why did the press, with a few honourable exceptions, show so little appetite for the truth? Because they craved access to the stars, especially Armstrong. They relied on quotes from Lance, a few scraps of celebrity gossip to pepper their copy with, perhaps a sit-down with the great man. And Armstrong, like a brutal political spin doctor, was utterly ruthless about dividing the world into two camps – with me or against me, friend or enemy, soft touch or (in Lancespeak) “troll”. Some of David Walsh’s oldest friends in journalism eventually refused to share a car with him because Armstrong made a note of who travelled with the “troll” and cut them off accordingly.

So where does the blame lie? The cycling press can, half-justifiably, blame their employers and their editors, who demanded the usual round of quotes, mini-scoops and interviews. The reporters could argue that they were simply following a narrow interpretation of their professional obligations.

At this point, however, the Armstrong story becomes more uncomfortable: because the editors, of course, were trying to anticipate and satiate the appetites of their readers. In the great journalistic trade-off, the very beginning of the story, the first domino, is the public’s credulous demand for meaningless quotes and soft interviews.

Forget cheating for a moment. Indeed, forget sport. The same pattern of trade-offs is repeated in more serious spheres. It is ironic that the insights of “insiders” are valued more than ever. And yet it is obvious that insiders find it difficult to write stories that might lead them to being excluded from the system of patronage and leaks that oils the wheels of daily journalism. One of the most depressing lessons I learned as a professional sportsman was that players who leak information to the media get a better press than they deserve.

A further irony awaits. Many of those who inflated the Armstrong bubble will now capitalise on his confession. As I write this, Armstrong is due to appear on US television in an interview with Oprah Winfrey, in which he would offer a carefully calibrated confession – just enough to hint at the truth, not so much that he faces ruinous legal challenges and a trial for perjury.

Armstrong’s confession is just the latest and most high-profile in a line of confessions of convenience. Tyler Hamilton, Armstrong’s former team-mate and ex-doper, won last year’s William Hill Sports Book Award for his ghosted autobiography. It was a deeply seductive book and Hamilton enjoyed a wonderful round of sympathetic interviews for his book tour. It was hard to open a newspaper without reading a quote from Hamilton: “Lance should tell the truth”, “the truth really will set you free”, “a weight off my shoulders”. The only way to get a better press than promoting Lance Armstrong before the fall was to dish the dirt on him after his disgrace.

There is an eerie symmetry here. We might call it reputational overshoot. When a hero’s shares are booming, the market rewards ever-greater price inflation. When those shares are tanking, short-sellers become the kings.

The real losers in this game are the clean riders and the writers who contradict the mood of the moment, those who spoke out against doping at the time. There is a market for the truth but it is a very fickle one. We’ve all got some thinking to do about the rise and fall of Lance Armstrong.


Ed Smith is a journalist and author, most recently of Luck. He is a former professional cricketer and played for both Middlesex and England.

This article first appeared in the 21 January 2013 issue of the New Statesman, The A-Z of Israel

Photo: Getty Images
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What's to be done about racial inequality?

David Cameron's words on equal opportunities are to be welcomed - now for some action, says Sunder Katwala.

David Cameron made the strongest, clearest and most high profile statement about ethnic inequalities and the need to tackle discrimination ever yet offered by a British Prime Minister in his leader’s speech to the Conservative Party conference in Manchester.
“Picture this. You’ve graduated with a good degree. You send out your CV far and wide. But you get rejection after rejection. What’s wrong? It’s not the qualifications or the previous experience. It’s just two words at the top: first name, surname. Do you know that in our country today: even if they have exactly the same qualifications, people with white-sounding names are nearly twice as likely to get call backs for jobs than people with ethnic-sounding names? … That, in 21st century Britain, is disgraceful. We can talk all we want about opportunity, but it’s meaningless unless people are really judged equally”, said Cameron.
While the proof of the pudding will be in the eating, this was a powerfully argued Prime Ministerial intervention – and a particularly well-timed one, for three reasons.

Firstly, the Prime Minister was able to root his case in an all-but-universally accepted appeal for equal opportunities. It will always prove more difficult in practice to put political energy and resources behind efforts to remedy discrimination against a minority of the population unless a convincing fairness case is made that values cherished across our whole society are at stake. Cameron’s argument, that any party which tells itself that it is the party of the ‘fair chance’ and ‘the equal shot’ must have a response when there is such clear evidence of discrimination, should prove persuasive to a Conservative Party that has not seen race inequalities as its natural territory. Cameron argued that the same principles should animate responses to discrimination when it comes to race, gender and social class. Put like that, wanting job interviews to be fair – by eradicating conscious and unconscious patterns of bias wherever possible – would strike most Britons as offering as clear a case of the values of fair play as wanting the best baker to win the Great British Bake-Off on television.
Secondly, Cameron’s intervention comes at a potential "tipping point" moment for fair opportunities across ethnic groups. Traditionally, ethnic discrimination has been discussed primarily through the lens of its impact on the most marginalised. Certainly, persistent gaps in the criminal justice system, mental health provision and unemployment rates remain stark for some minority groups. What has been less noticed is the emergence of a much more complex pattern of opportunity and disadvantage – not least as a consequence of significant ethnic minority progress.

Most strikingly of all, in educational outcomes, historic attainment gaps between ethnic minorities and their white British peers have disappeared over the last decade. In the aggregate, ethnic minorities get better GCSE results on average. Ethnic minority Britons are more likely, not less likely, to be university graduates than their fellow citizens. 

As a result of that progress, Cameron’s intervention comes at a moment of significant potential – but significant risk too. Britain’s ethnic minorities are the youngest and fastest-growing sections of British society. If that educational progress translates into economic success, it will make a significant contribution to the "Great British Take-Off" that the Prime Minister envisions. But if that does not happen, with educational convergence combined with current ‘ethnic penalties’ in employment and income persisting, then that potential could well curdle into frustration that the British promise of equal opportunities is not being kept.  Cameron also mirrored his own language in committing himself to both a ‘fight against extremism’ and a ‘fight against discrimination’: while those are distinct challenges and causes, actively pursuing both tracks simultaneously has the potential, at least, depolarise some debates about responses to extremism  - and so to help deepen the broad social coalitions we need for a more cohesive society too.

Thirdly, Cameron’s challenge could mark an important deepening in the political competition between the major parties on race issues. Many have been struck by the increase in political attention on the centre-right to race issues over the last five to ten years. The focus has been on the politics of representation. By increasing the number of non-white Conservative MPs from two to seventeen since 2005, Cameron has sent a powerful signal that Labour’s traditional claim to be ‘the party of ethnic minorities’ would now be contested. Cameron was again able to celebrate in Manchester several ways in which his Cabinet and Parliamentary benches demonstrate many successful journeys of migrant and minority integration in British society. That might perhaps help to ease the fears, about integration being impossible in an era of higher immigration, which the Home Secretary had articulated the previous day.

So symbolism can matter. But facial diversity is not enough. The politics of ethnic minority opportunity needs to be about more than visits to gurdwaras, diversity nights at the party conference fringes and unveiling statues of Mahatma Gandhi in Parliament Square. Jeremy Corbyn’s first speech as Labour leader did include one brief celebratory reference to Britain’s ethnic diversity – “as I travelled the country during the leadership campaign it was wonderful to see the diversity of all the people in our country” – and to Labour bringing in more black, Asian and ethnic minority members - but it did not include any substantial content on discrimination. Tim Farron acknowledged during his leadership campaign that the Liberal Democrats have struggled to get to the starting-line on race and diversity at all. The opposition parties too will no doubt now be challenged to match not just the Prime Minister’s rhetorical commitment to challenging inequalities but also to propose how it could be done in practice.

Non-white Britons expect substance, not just symbolism from all of the parties on race inequalites.  Survation’s large survey of ethnic minority voters for British Future showed the Conservatives winning more ethnic minority support than ever before – but just 29 per cent of non-white respondents were confident that the Conservatives are committed to treating people of every ethnic background equally, while 54 per cent said this of Labour. Respondents were twice as likely to say that the Conservatives needto do more to reach out – and the Prime Minister would seem to be committed to showing that he has got that message.  Moreover, there is evidence that ethnic inclusion could be important in broadening a party’s appeal to other younger, urban and more liberal white voters too – which is why it made sense for this issue to form part of a broader attempt by David Cameron to colonise the broad centre of British politics in his Manchester speech.

But the case for caution is that there has been limited policy attention to ethnic inequalities under the last two governments. Restaurateur Iqbal Wahhab decided to give up his role chairing an ethnic minority taskforce for successive governments, unconvinced there was a political commitment to do much more than convene a talking shop. Lib Dem equalities minister Lynne Featherstone did push the CV discrimination issue – but many Conservatives were sceptical. Cameron’s new commitment may face similar challenges from those whose instinct is to worry that more attention to discrimination or bias in the jobs market will mean more red tape for business.

Labour had a separate race inequalities manifesto in 2015, outside of its main election manifesto, while the Conservative manifesto did not contain significant commitments to racial inequality. The mid-campaign launch in Croydon of a series of race equality pledges showed an increasing awareness of the growing importance of ethnic minority votes - though the fact that they all involved aiming for increases of 20 per cent by 2020 gave them a slightly back-of-the-envelope feel. 

Prime Ministerial commitments have an important agenda-setting function. A generation ago the Stephen Lawrence case opened the eyes of middle England to racist violence and police failures, particularly through the Daily Mail’s persistent challenging of those injustices. A Conservative Prime Minister’s words could similarly make a big difference in the mainstreaming of the issue of inequalities of opportunity. What action should follow words? Between now and next year’s party conference season, that must will now be the test for this Conservative government – and for their political opponents too. 

Sunder Katwala is director of British Future and former general secretary of the Fabian Society.