Starkey: The real heroes in Armstrong saga
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There is a man so intent on defending honest athletes that he ignored the bullying — even the anonymous threat of a “bullet in my head” — and kept chasing Lance Armstrong up hills so daunting they made the U.S. Department of Justice quit.
That is why you should care about this sordid Armstrong affair.
It's why I care, anyway: Somebody out there still is fighting for clean athletes and the integrity of sport in a sports world gone mad.
I know. You're shaking your head at the naiveté. Like any sport is clean anymore. What am I going to tell you next, that this guy cares about the children?
But first let me say I was with the majority, vaguely skimming the multitude of Armstrong denial stories over the past decade, shrugging my shoulders as he stubbornly shot down one doping accusation after another.
That was before Travis Tygart slapped me into reality. Tygart is CEO of the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency (USADA). He is fighting the uphill battle for clean athletes everywhere. He is the one who brought Lyin' Lance to his knees.
Tygart's recent appearance on Showtime's “60 Minutes Sports” blew me away. Not because it revealed the extent of Armstrong's doping but because Tygart used eyewitness accounts to tell of Armstrong and his associates bullying, bribing and cheating people in the name of protecting Armstrong's pristine image and bulging bank account. The same information fortified the USADA report that had prompted Armstrong's surrender. The Justice Department had access to much of it, too, before mysteriously dropping a criminal case against Armstrong early last year.
I'm guessing the television audience for “60 Minutes Sports” was smaller than it will be for the Lance-Oprah interview Thursday night on Oprah Winfrey's self-titled network (Lyin' Lance, apparently, is going to admit he doped — right after Oprah's first guest, a blade of grass, admits that it's green; next week's guest: Manti Te'o).
Here's hoping that when the first tear wells up as you watch Armstrong's “confession,” you think of people such as former U.S Postal Service cycling team masseuse Emma O'Reilly, who has claimed she was turned into a drug mule for the Armstrong-led team. She was among the first to blow the whistle, and for that, she says our hero Lance publicly demonized her as a prostitute and a drunk.
Maybe think of Scott Mercier, who faced a decision I hope my 4-year-old daughter never does: Take these drugs or kiss your dream goodbye.
Mercier joined the Postal Service team in 1997. That was a year before Lyin' Lance arrived, so you can't pin this one on him, but it's the current and future Merciers of the world that Tygart is trying to protect.
I reached Mercier by phone Wednesday in Grand Junction, Colo., where he is a financial advisor. He'd raced with Armstrong in the 1992 Olympics and was on top of the world five years later, having just joined the Postal Service team. Mercier says that is when a Postal Service team doctor slipped him a training chart and a plastic Ziploc bag filled with pills and vials of liquid. Steroids. Each dot on the chart represented a pill, each star a vial of liquid.
Then 29 and training in South Africa, Mercier said he recalls the doctor telling him the steroids would make him “strong like a bull.”
How many athletes, at how many levels of sport, are forced into decision like this these days?
Mercier chose integrity. He left the team. The decision cost him a chance to race in another Olympics and killed his dream of competing in the Tour de France.
But what are those compared to these recent words from his wife?
“Aren't you glad that when you come home, you aren't telling your son (10) and daughter (13) that you lied and cheated for all those years?”
Fifteen years later, Mercier was stunned to receive a recent text from Tygart. They met, and Tygart told him, “Your name came up again and again during the investigation of the Postal Service team. It was unanimous that you were the guy that didn't do the drugs. I'm calling far too late, calling to thank you for the decision you made. You represented the guy we're trying to protect.”
I thanked Mercier, too, for sharing his story. I thanked him on behalf of my daughter and all other children (insert cynical laugh track here). And I wondered if he'd be watching Oprah on Thursday night.
“I'll watch,” Mercier said. “I'm curious just like the rest of the world.”
Thoughts on Armstrong?
“The cover-up is where he really did the damage, at least that's what it appears,” Mercier said. “I know it'd be challenging to be in that situation. I don't have a $100 million balance sheet.
“But I sleep pretty well.”
Joe Starkey co-hosts a show 2 to 6 p.m. weekdays on 93.7 “The Fan.” His columns appear Thursdays and Sundays. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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