France's Duel with Lance Armstrong


July 20, 2006 — -- A recent headline in the French newspaper "France Soir" welcomed America's cycling hero Lance Armstrong with a biting headline: "Welcome to France trouduc" (a gentle translation of "ass****").

Armstrong, a sports poster child for American media outlets, is something of an Alfred E. Newman in France, where he won the gruelling Tour de France seven times to earn his cult status in America.

He's back in the country this week visiting his Discovery cycling teammates. This time, he has extended an olive branch -- on Tuesday, he said during a press conference in the French Alps that he loved France, the French people and the French culture.

Armstrong plans to be on the Champs-Elysees in Paris when the Tour ends on Sunday. Meanwhile, many French people can't wait for him to leave.

Why? While the usual criticism centers on doping allegations, this time it's because of something he said.

During his opening monologue for ESPN's ESPY Awards, Armstrong said of the French soccer team, "All their players [France] tested positive. . .for being ass*****."

Armstrong said afterward that he didn't consider his comments offensive -- a statement the French aren't likely to warm to ever since their soccer team lost the World Cup championship game.

"Well, if they'd lived with me and heard me at home, they'd have known that was a step down," Armstrong said.

Armstrong's hopes of discreetly visiting his Discovery cyclist teammates during their Tour de France this year were quickly dashed by the French press' harsh welcome.

Armstrong has gotten used to harsh treatment by France's media. In August 2005, one month after his seventh consecutive Tour de France victory, the French sports daily newspaper l'Équipe made an allegation that Armstrong tested positive for the banned performance enhancer EPO during the 1999 Tour -- the year of his first win.

Also, last month, the daily Le Monde newspaper reported that Armstrong had admitted he took banned drugs at the time he was treated for cancer.

The newspaper published testimonies gathered from October 2005 to January 2006 by a court in Dallas that confirmed that Armstrong allegedly told a Indiana University Hospital doctor on Oct. 28, 1996, that he had taken performance-enhancing drugs, including erythropoietin (more commonly known as EPO, a blood-boosting hormone that became popular in the late '90s among cyclists eager to improve their speed.)

However, Armstrong has always refuted these allegations. He has never tested positive for the use of banned drugs.

Still, the French are wary of him.

"It's the possible combination of several things: A lot of people thinks he is arrogant. He won the tour seven years in a row. He can be seen as somewhat boring and the suspicions over his alleged use of performing-enhancing drugs have loomed over his head for years," said John Lichfield, a correspondent in Paris for The Independent, a British newspaper.

"He made efforts to try to resolve problems, but it did not come naturally for him," Lichfield added.

There are other reasons, too, said Anthony Breton, a journalist for the 24-hour sports news channel Infosport.

"Armstrong did not like to communicate. He was rather reserved. Everything was calculated with Armstrong," Breton said. "It was all about marketing."

And he's still struggling, apparently.

"There are some aspects of France that are more difficult for me to understand" Armstrong said in an interview with France 2 TV last night.

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