Sunday, March 28, 2010

The Enigma of Floyd Landis

Every so often you read a book that has you so captivated time ceases to exist. You become lost in the story and are unable to put the book down until you've finished, often far into the wee small hours. Such was the case with Floyd Landis' "Positively False: The Real Story of How I Won the Tour de France" - maybe one of the best sports biographies I've ever read.

Like most folks I didn't know much about Landis beyond the fact that he'd won the 2006 Tour de France before being disqualified and banned for doping. But as with any story, there's always another side to things.

And Landis has a lot to say.

The first part of the story talks about his upbringing in a Mennonite community in Pennsylvania, his religious confusion and some of the crazy stuff he got up to in his mountain bike days. The second part covers his years as a top class road racer - his hip problems which ended with hip replacement surgery, his time on Lance Armstrong's Tour de France winning Postal team, and his own victory in 2006 after one of the most astonishing comebacks in sporting history.

And finally the last section details the fight to clear his name after the positive doping result. If half of what he says is true then there's a huge problem in the control and administration of drug testing - both with WADA and USADA. Some of the inconsistencies he detailed included confusion and mislabeling of test results and samples, incorrect use of testing equipment, zero transparency from the anti-doping agencies and extremely questionable and sloppy test procedures by the French lab (see his website for examples).

I'm all for drug testing to prevent cheating in sport, but this book made me think about the other side too - it also has to be fair on the athlete. What must it be like to have your career, life and reputation torn to shreds because of faulty procedures and hidden agendas? What if he really was innocent?

Landis points out that USADA (at the time) had prosecuted over 160 athletes with 100% success - not surprising when they are prosecution, judge and jury, and it's in their own best interest to convict (more convictions = more funding). He said that as a defendant he had almost no rights and was denied access to the majority of the evidence USADA planned to use against him. That just doesn't seem right (of course, this is only his side of the story and I'm sure USADA would have a different take on things).

The book was superbly ghosted by Loren Mooney - the narrative made me empathize with Landis, which is always the sign of a good writer. Throughout the book, Landis comes across as honest (sometimes brutally so), humorous and very engaging - a tough and quirky little scrapper who regularly pushed through the pain barrier. I found myself liking him a lot, and finished the book thinking there was a definite possibility that he'd been given a raw deal and hung out to dry.

An incredibly engaging, controversial and entertaining read - the best sports biography I've read in a long time. Highly recommended.


Ryan V. said...

Thanks, Mark. I will check it out.

steve said...

I agree; fabulous sports biography. Captivating!