If there was one glorious thing about the now-ended retirement of Lance Armstrong from cycling, it was that Sally Jenkins couldn’t use the column space of the Washington Post to blow sweet nothings to this amazing, brave, game, brick house of a man. Jenkins, of course, is the prominent Post sports columnist who a decade ago started writing books not about Armstrong or on Armstrong, but with Armstrong.
The distinction means everything. In the years since the collaboration started, Jenkins has proudly written her conflict of interest all over every Armstrong column she can get by her editors. Yes, the Post does routinely disclose the conflict, which gets the reader absolutely nowhere. Herewith just a few excerpts—-there’s much, much more, but it all sounds the same—-from Jenkins’ columnar hero worship, starting with the most recent iteration:
July 13, 2009: This Tour by rights should have been all about Contador, who is clearly, incontrovertibly the next great. Instead here is this grizzled boot-faced Texan hanging around, suggesting he’s still raw and it’s not quite his time yet. Armstrong even said on Sunday he might ride in one more Tour.
I don’t know how all this will turn out, but I’ll make one prediction: Contador may resent it right now, but in years to come he’ll appreciate the fact he rode as an equal with Armstrong in this race. Love him, hate him, or suspect him, Armstrong is a competitor of towering mental strength and cuts an indelible figure of bravado on the bike when he dances above it, as someone once remarked, like a cat climbing a tree. Contador will be glad that he had at least one chance to measure himself against that.
July 10, 2009: The e-mail that came from Lance Armstrong was cryptic, as always. “It’s happening,” he wrote.
By it, he meant everything: the fruition of his un-retirement, the promising liveliness in his legs, his menacing creep up the standings of the Tour de France, from 10th to second by a fraction, and the international frenzy he has caused by contending again at the age of almost 38.
“So what are you going to do next to electrify the world?” I asked. “Go over Niagara Falls in a barrel?” He’d probably race the water to the bottom.
“Ha,” he replied.
In fact, the next thing Armstrong is likely to do is take the lead in the Tour. One thing I know about Armstrong, my friend and book collaborator of a decade now, is how much he loves a confrontation.
July 26, 2004: It will be interesting now to see whether Armstrong remains motivated. He’s spent so much of his life in embattled striving, whether in fighting illness, or competing in the grueling Tour. For years, Armstrong has carefully weighed every morsel of pasta he put in his mouth, and denied himself basic comforts in pursuit of Tour titles.
He has spent months away from his family, lived an almost monkish life. He has elevated the race with cutting-edge training methods and technology, turning it into an almost scientific undertaking. He has probably made the race look too easy. Few people, perhaps no one, can understand the toll the race has taken on him. The thinness of his face and the jutting of his cheekbones only suggest it.