Media jackals are quick to convict bicycle champ

Aug 1, 2006 5:26 AM

With the world in flames, it seems totally irrelevant to be writing about the games men play.

But they play them, war or not, straight or otherwise, and we have little use for the cheaters.

We do have special sympathy, however, for Floyd Landis, the Amishman from the little Mennonite town of Farmersville in Pennsylvania. We grew up not far from there, but that has nothing to do with our feelings toward Floyd.

Sitting, bewildered, in the jackal’s den of a hostile worldwide press conference, and later that night on Larry King’s inquisition, he had the blank stare of a deer in the headlights. We think he really was, not fully comprehending either the ecstasy of his amazing victory in the Tour de France cycling race, perhaps the most rigorous test of stamina in world sports, or the agony of what was happening to him in its wake.

His first post race test came back positive for a high ratio of testosterone to something called epitestosterone. Few knew what that meant, but it did not prevent the media wolves from immediately circling their prey, and he was no match for what followed.

Groping for explanations, he said he had a beer, and that might have done it. Certainly a beer seems to raise testosterone levels, if not in a laboratory then in the barrooms where it inspires false confidence, broken jaws and other sad consequences.

The comment, however, was taken as a guilty plea by some writers, including some top ones, who should have known better, but who could not resist the urge for the kill. A headline in one of America’s self-proclaimed great newspapers read, "Whiskey Defense: Another Whopper," taking for granted that what Landis said was not a possibility, but a lie.

I live this torturous course daily, with horse racing. It is a devastating problem with few definitive answers, and a lot of guessing.

I happen to believe that Floyd Landis is not a liar, and not a cheater. I know the Amish, and I know how he was brought up. I know that his life’s dream was to win the Tour de France, and I know that his performance in Stage 17 was one of the great cycling triumphs of all time, making up eight minutes against some of the toughest cyclists in the world.

The press, quick to hail him, was just as eager to destroy him a day or two later. Their wise-ass headlines and assumption of guilt rendered a second test relatively unimportant. Landis, a plain man from a plain clan, had to rely on simple reasoning. He told the press, "You should believe me because at this point I think it is an injustice to put me in this category in the first place." I happen to agree with him.

Lance Armstrong, like the legendary Jack Armstrong of fiction before him, was the All-American boy. He could do no wrong in the American mind. But Armstrong also was a sophisticated media fighter, not only in his unprecedented seven Tour victories but also in his battles with testicular cancer. They made him an icon. Floyd Landis is neither of those.

He is an Amishman from a town called Farmersville hopping on a bike as a kid and that he ultimately ascendied the highest mountain of accomplishment in that sport is iconic material.

I hate cheaters with a passion, and have spent much of my life trying to get them kicked out of horse racing.

Somehow, watching Floyd Landis, I do not think he is a cheater. I think he is a tragic figure, his life shattered at 35. He said he had eight previous tests in the Tour, all clean, and 16 all told, none positive until the final one. His personal doctor says he had not taken testosterone, and I believe him. Overlooked so far is what William Bremmer, an endocrinologist and chairman of the department of medicine at the University of Washington, said about all this.

He said some men have naturally higher rations (than the usual 1 to 1) between testosterone and epitestosterone. "There are a few men who have ratios as high as 8 to 1 or 10 to 1."

That’s pretty significant, but unfortunately it doesn’t fit in a headline.