The truth won’t always out: Tiger would still be burning bright if he hadn’t crashed his car

Ed Smith's "Left Field" column.

Tiger Woods. Photograph: Getty Images

Was Lance Armstrong unlucky? Not in the moral sense – we know he fully deserved his fall. But what about in terms of simple probability? Was his fall inevitable? Or, having got away with it for so long, could Armstrong have reasonably expected to escape safely into the hills?

The same question could be asked about all great scandals. In analysing events that lead to public disgrace, we comfort ourselves that the truth cannot be silenced indefinitely. I’m not so sure. Take away a single, contingent thread from the story and the ending could easily have been very different.

The fall of Tiger Woods is a classic example. It was not philandering, if that is the right word for it, that led to Woods’s disgrace. It was crashing into a fire hydrant in Florida. If he’d controlled his steering wheel better, Woods could have indefinitely retained his rotating cast of hostesses and escorts. After all, the golfing world had known for years about Woods’s double life. But the story had never broken. The press had been scared to write what they knew because Woods, like Armstrong, froze out journalists who didn’t indulge his controlling personality.

The fans, however, at least the perceptive ones, had also long known that Woods wasn’t the man he pretended to be. Simply watching him on television – snapping and snarling his way around a golf course – was proof enough. Woods’s carefully controlled image as Mr Perfect was fully contradicted by the evidence. But there was little enthusiasm for joining up the dots. We were too lazy to revise the established narrative.

Then suddenly: car crash! Wife wielding golf club! Smashed fire hydrant! Woods in hospital! There was a new urgency in the relationship between the media and the public. Until then, the public’s reverence for Woods had discouraged the media from telling the truth about his double life. That changed when the bonnet of a Cadillac crunched into government property.

It was not the steady drip of rumour or evidence against Woods that led the dam to burst. It was a single dramatic catalyst. That changed the lens through which Woods was seen. The public’s over-reverence was transformed instantly into amused contempt and the man who had been untouchable was suddenly fair game. Woods’s mask of impregnable mastery had slipped forever and the deluge began. Pause for a moment and consider the logic: if Woods had kept a single marital row inside the house, he could easily still be lecturing the world today on family values, backed by advertisers promoting him with fraudulently idyllic family photos.

It is a pattern we see repeated in more serious spheres. The journalistic investigation into phone-hacking was old news long before it became big news. The New York Times investigation about the News of the World broke in September 2010. Yet it didn’t fully penetrate public opinion. Long article, lots of words but old news, no? For all the mounting evidence, it was far from inevitable that the story would develop sufficient momentum to close a newspaper and lead to a massive judge-led enquiry.

The catalyst that changed everything was the revelation that the News of the World had hacked Milly Dowler’s phone. Instead of weighing up evidence, public opinion was now driven by a visceral emotional reaction. The hunt to expose the News of the World gained a momentum that would not recede. Without that single revelation the story might well have died down again, as it had many times before.

This brings us back to Armstrong, so long a master at escaping the knot of disgrace. The cyclist controlled his fraud with considerable efficiency for 15 years. The press was muzzled through a mixture of intimidation, complicity and litigation. The cycling authorities were terrified of opening up a Pandora’s box. The peloton was mostly frightened into silence.

Armstrong could have managed this corrupt alliance of interested parties for a long time to come but even he hadn’t accounted for a whistle blower who was prepared to go the whole way, whatever the consequences. This was Floyd Landis, raised a Mennonite in rural Pennsylvania, whose once clear sense of right and wrong had been corrupted by the culture of drug cheating inside Armstrong’s team. Landis won the Tour de France the year after Armstrong’s retirement but immediately failed a doping test. That was routine enough. What was different was the effect the guilt would have on Landis’s attitude towards the truth.

Dopers who confess usually do so in a hedgy, cautious manner. Not Landis. As David Walsh relates in his book Seven Deadly Sins, Landis confessed with an almost religious fervour, as though he was purging his sins and reverting to the values of his childhood. Landis spilled everything. Armstrong had victimised plenty of people and got away with it. Landis wasn’t like other people and that made all the difference. His confession led to the federal investigation that ultimately toppled Armstrong.

There is an air of righteous satisfaction in the public reaction to Armstrong’s fall, but we should be cautious about putting an optimistic spin on his disgrace. The real lesson, depressingly, is that that a cheating bully can survive at the top for a very long time. Indeed, he can survive indefinitely – so long as there isn’t a sensational catalyst that captures the public imagination.

It sounds like a weary defence of Armstrong to say that if he’d had more luck, if just one of his enemies had possessed a different personality, he could have avoided catastrophe. In fact, it is quite the opposite. If he was indeed unlucky, we can sadly deduce that there are plenty more Lance Armstrongs out there, pedalling happily into the hills.