PARIS — Just two weeks before France learned that Lance Armstrong would confess his sins to Oprah Winfrey, readers of the popular French journalism and investigation website Rue89.com elected the Texan as "The Sports Bastard of the Year." In an open race, he won easily, with more than 40 percent of the vote.
Still, that selection may say more about Rue89's edgy readers than general sentiments here toward Armstrong. It isn't that the French were ever particularly fond of the seven-time Tour de France winner, but feelings here are, well, a little complicated. For one, a singularly focused, supremely confident, and utterly doubt-free American was always going to stand out in a country known for endless self-questioning, philosophical debate, and world-weary skepticism. And, yeah, he once inspired questions about a changing world in which an American could so thoroughly dominate a race long led by Europeans. But the main issue was something else: A whole lot of French people wanted to believe in Armstrong's cancer recovery-to-Tour-triumph storyline, but just couldn't bring themselves to do so.
So now, as word spreads that the man who transformed the world's most prestigious cycling race into the Tour de Lance, is finally coming (sort of) clean, there is a measure of vindication. But unlike the 'Say it ain't so, Lance' reaction of Armstrong's remaining die-hard fans in the United States, the response here has really been: Mais, bien sûr!
Daniel Baal, the former president of the French Cycling Federation and a former Tour de France organizer, put it this way: "In 1999, some of us had our doubts. But we couldn't prove it." That changed when the French sports daily L'Equipe published a devastating investigative report in 2005. "The Armstrong myth was finished," Baal explained, adding, "For me, the Armstrong page was turned long ago."
That said, the French attitude toward Armstrong is more complex than simple schadenfreude. The years of Armstrong's dominance were part-nightmare -- a cheater was winning and getting away with it -- but they also had dreamy elements. His heroic narrative, straight out of Hollywood, in so many ways, broadened the popularity of a race that projects France's natural wonders around the world. (In other words, Armstrong's success brought further glory for France.)
Yet that same Hollywood narrative, and Armstrong's superhuman performance, made many French people suspect that they were watching a fictional tale. The French watch tons of big-budget Americans films, and the early Armstrong narrative was a perfect fit. Too perfect, in fact -- and that inspired disbelief. (The French may watch such clean storylines on celluloid or on their televisions, but they rarely fully give themselves over the way that most people do in other countries, largely because they have a hard time believing that the world can be simple.) And as each Tour de Lance sequel ended the same way, with Armstrong atop the winner's podium, it only re-enforced the impression that none of this was possible, especially in a sport already marred by near-constant doping scandals. But Armstrong's acknowledgement, after all this time, is a reminder of how deeply France's race was tainted.
Interestingly, the clearest sense of vindication does not come from normal French people or even riding fans; it comes from the French media, who have been doggedly pursuing the story for years, producing books with titles like L.A. Confidential: The Secrets of Lance Armstrong and The Great Imposter: One Tour Too Many.
French journalists on the Armstrong beat faced relentless attacks from Armstrong, his teammates, and his PR reps. They were asked: What sort of an asshole suggests that a guy recovering from cancer would put his body at further risk by doping just to win a bicycle race? Other French reporters were told, during Armstrong's "miracle" race of 1999, that their suspicions about the American were the "jealousies of old Europe." (See Armstrong's good friend Robin Williams breaking out his best Pépé le Pew accent to mock suspicious French fans in this 2002 interview with Jon Stewart.)
The headlines in recent days have been merciless. A Jan. 17 article in Libération, which has relentlessly pursued the story for years, ran under the title: "Armstrong: Me, doped? Never!" Accompanying articles highlight how the Texan would bring up his cancer to defend himself, not to mention his efforts to humiliate or destroy the credibility of those who accused him, whether other cyclists, race officials, or reporters.