Shocks of the Year #3: Lance Armstrong comes clean about being dirty

Shocks of the Year #3: Lance Armstrong comes clean about being dirty

29/12/2013 at 09:19Updated

This year, sport has been rocked by a string of incredible happenings across all sports.

The Rundown has picked out the biggest seven stories among the multitude of scandals, surprises, outrages, revelations and horrors that we've seen in 2013, and will be counting them down between Christmas and New Year.

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Shocks of the Year #3: Lance Armstrong comes clean about being dirty

Ten years ago, in my first job in sports journalism, one of my colleagues got a phone call I'll never forget.

It lasted 10 or 15 minutes – an unusually long time for this particular hack to be on the phone to anyone other than his wife. And even more unusual was the fact that the portion of the call we heard consisted mostly of silence: instead of this reporter rattling off words like a gattling gun sprays bullets, he was uncharacteristically silent - other than the occasional "no!", "amazing..." or "you're kidding!"

By the time he got off the phone the whole news desk was listening in, intrigued.

"It's Armstrong," he said. "They've got him. The smoking gun."

The call had been from one of my colleagues's friends, a journalist who was working frantically on a book after having apparently obtained proof that Lance Armstrong had doped his way to multiple Tour de France titles. At the time – before the 2004 Olympics, remember - cycling's status among sports in Britain was perhaps two or three per cent of what it is today, yet this was still staggering news about a global superstar.

For years, though, it seemed that the call had been a red herring. Road cycling had disappeared off my radar little - except for the few weeks a year of the Tour de France -and Armstrong had become a global icon for his sporting achievements and his work raising money to fight cancer.

As for the book – which turned out to be the now famous "LA Confidentiel – Les Secrets de Lance Armstrong" – well, it was only published in French. The very fact that there wasn't a publisher in the English-speaking world who would touch it seemed to add weight to Armstrong's indignant refutation of its claims. And that went double when British courts even ruled in Armstrong's favour when The Sunday Times ran allegations based on the book, which had been co-written by their own correspondent David Walsh.

In all honesty I assumed that the "proof" had probably been shaky and circumstantial at best - and at worst, fabricated maliciously. The idea that it was a smear campaign orchestrated by the jealous and the suspicious seemed preferable to the idea that Armstrong was anything other than an inspiration.

That's not to say that I didn't retain a few suspicions. Was he too good to be true after all? Could one man really be so much better than the rest of a dedicated field for so long? The very fact of his brilliance and domination invited suspicion.

Answers to those questions finally came – even if it took almost a decade. After months of increasing noise, US authorities took the plunge in late 2012 and banned Armstrong for life. He didn't fight back immediately - and given that he had fought many such moves against him before, it seemed that the cyclist was merely biding his time, considering his next move.

In January 2013, all that changed: this time, there would be no fightback. Armstrong had been biding his time - but only to mull over the manner in which he'd decided how best to come clean. The suspicions had grown stronger for many months - but the final confirmation, from the man himself, sent shockwaves through sport.

Had it all come out back in 2003, it would have made few headlines in Britain. But by the time Armstrong sat down for an interview with Oprah Winfrey, cycling had become one of the most popular sports in Britain, thanks to the exploits of Chris Hoy, Bradley Wiggins and Victoria Pendleton among others.

And that made the shock even greater: just a few months after that glorious summer of 2012 when Britain fell head over heels with cycling, we discovered that its greatest exponent of the last generation had been one of sport's greatest villains.

Toby Keel