In February 2004, not long after Barry Bonds’ personal trainer was indicted on charges of peddling performance-enhancing drugs, my closest friend and I walked on a San Diego beach and talked about an athlete who had escaped scrutiny by the American media even though his success seemed just as suspicious as any slugger’s.
“What does Lance Armstrong mean to you?’’ I asked. The question was not rhetorical, and our walk was not casual. Janie had just finished her second round of chemotherapy, and I had been told to make sure she got fresh air and exercise, to minimize the side effects.
“He means that people will think I have a future,” she said. Janie practiced law, and she had all the markings of an excellent candidate for a judgeship or political office. She knew that her breast-cancer diagnosis would have held her back in the past, but now Armstrong had rewritten expectations for patients by recovering from testicular cancer and then repeatedly conquering the Alps on his bike.
This point has been made many times since 1999, when Armstrong won his first of seven Tour de France yellow jerseys. Because of Armstrong, cancer survivors no longer felt universally shunned and pitied. They found it easier to fall in love, apply for new jobs, get promotions and, above all, look forward.
Armstrong’s advocacy and fundraising for cancer patients have long been cited as reasons to protect him from doping accusations, which finally caught up to the ultimate leader of the peloton last week. He refused to fight the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency’s charges against him, potentially surrendering his seven Tour titles.
I wish I could ask my friend what she thought of his downfall. But Leslie Jane Hahn died in July 2006.
She was a remarkably strong woman. She was an All-America swimmer, a surfer, a triathlete and briefly a golfer. She made a hole-in-one not long after she took up the game. Her office had a framed copy of the famed “Never surrender’’ Winston Churchill quote.
If guts alone allowed people to beat cancer, Janie would still be here. But when I started talking to her about Armstrong eight years ago, I was very tentative, unusually nervous around someone who had always put me more at ease than anyone else. By 2004, I had done a lot of research about Armstrong, but wasn’t sure whether I could ever write about my suspicions. Too many people had invested hope in him.
At the same time, Bonds’ reputation had been targeted, and as a San Francisco Chronicle columnist, I wrote extensively on the topic. Just after his trainer, Greg Anderson, was indicted, a 21-year-old Belgian cyclist named Johan Sermon died in his sleep. Six other active or retired cyclists 35 or younger had died just as mysteriously in the previous 13 months. Ignoring the Armstrong question had come to seem more irresponsible than raising the issue.
Janie and I walked on the beach about two weeks later. I told her that many details of Armstrong’s story didn’t add up any better than Bonds’ sudden power surge. She asked about all the drug tests that Armstrong had passed.
I told her about human chorionic gonadotropin, or hCG. It’s a hormone that occurs primarily in pregnant women but also appears in men with testicular cancer. It also can indicate performance-enhancing drug use. (The substance later led to Manny Ramirez’s first suspension and endless taunts about when he would give birth.)
In his autobiography, “It’s Not About the Bike,’’ Armstrong described how his cancer had been confirmed when his doctor found that he had enormous levels of hCG. I asked a couple of other doctors whether those levels could have surfaced suddenly, in just a few months. They said, as scientists often do, that nothing was impossible, but that such a surge in the hormone would be unprecedented.
Armstrong had raced the summer before his October 1996 cancer diagnosis. A truly comprehensive drug-testing system almost certainly should have picked up evidence of the cancer, as it had for a few athletes in other sports. Yet Armstrong never publicly confronted his sport’s governing body about potential flaws in its screening. Instead, when he returned to cycling, he repeatedly cited the tests as evidence that he was clean.
Janie understood instantly. None of this proved that Armstrong used performance-enhancers, but why would he, of all people, validate the testing process without hesitation?
That night, her husband, David, discussed the issue with us. He mentioned all of Armstrong’s passed tests, and Janie promptly told me to repeat the hCG information. I was surprised. I thought she would want to skip over the topic quickly, and cling to a little healthy denial so she could enjoy the Armstrong inspiration without reservation.
I should have known better. Even when we were 19-year-old college roommates, Janie saw through nonsense faster than anyone I’d ever met. A week after our visit, I wrote about the similarities between Bonds and Armstrong.
A huge, predictable storm followed. Almost no one wanted to hear any ill of Armstrong, except the occasional cyclist who had quit the sport after refusing to juice, or the brave handful of people who had tried to challenge the culture and been vilified for their efforts. Today, a lot of commentators wonder who has been vindicated by Armstrong’s official undressing. Most of the runners-up in his Tour wins have been linked to doping as well, so passing the jerseys to them serves little purpose.
The best answer might come from Armstrong himself, after his last Tour win: “To all the cynics, I’m sorry for you. ... I’m sorry you can’t dream big.”
For athletes who left a sport heartbroken because they rejected the culture, and for those who juiced and didn’t have the inclination or resources to fight back when busted, what happened last week was a big dream. They had no reason to believe that an icon of Armstrong’s magnitude would ever be penalized the way they were.
Cancer patients haven’t lost the most important thing that Armstrong created for them. He has survived 16 years since doctors discovered his cancer. He climbed those mountains, and he ran marathons. He has five apparently healthy children, all born after his cancer treatment. Today, fewer people than ever believe that cancer means certain doom, that it negates their future. Scientists made the survival possible, but Armstrong made the hope almost universal. He doesn’t need the yellow jerseys to keep it going.
Janie never completely gave up on him. She would inquire about possible explanations for suspicious elements of his performance. She was endlessly curious and thoughtful. She was also the most loyal of friends. When she died, nine people surrounded her hospital bed.
The crowd at her memorial service included two other U.S. journalists who had expressed doubts about Armstrong, Brian Alexander and Alan Abrahamson. One of us said to the others: “There are only about a half-dozen Americans who have asked these questions, and three of them were Janie’s friends. What are the odds of that?’’
Brian pointed out that it all made perfect sense, given her blunt personality. He had recently published a book about cloning, and after Janie read it, she told him: “Congratulations, but this is pretty boring. Next time, write about sex.”
Brian’s next book was “America Unzipped.” Janie’s advice never led her friends astray.