We're at the halfway point of the Tour de France, a 21-stage, 3,500-kilometer event that is arguably the most grueling feat in professional sports.
But the media spotlight isn't on the man in the yellow jersey. It's not even on the 2-second margin
between the greatest Tour de France rider of all time, seven-time champion Lance Armstrong, and teammate Alberto Contador.
No, the real story so far lies in the relationship between Armstrong and his recently disgraced -- and still-beleaguered -- Team Astana and its sponsors in Kazakhstan.
Armstrong, who in lieu of payment is flying the colors of his cancer-fighting Livestrong foundation
, has what can only be described as an ambiguous relationship with his Kazakhstan-based team.
You might recall U.S. ex-President Bill Clinton's pillorying over his charitable foundation's ties
to Kazakhstan's autocratic president and Kazakh money.Foreignpolicy.com
provides the back story of Armstrong's craven or glorious (take your pick) return to the Tour under the Kazakh yoke. It also spells out the argument of detractors who regard Armstrong's comeback as a blatant act of self-promotion:
"Whether you believe that Armstrong's return is primarily about raising cancer awareness or is also, as has been floated in various forums, a springboard to a political career, racing the sport's highest-profile event for Livestrong-Nike would sure beat a scrum of unpronounceable natural resource companies from an obscure Central Asian republic with a president for life and a spotty human rights record.
"But until July 26, when the race finishes in Paris, Armstrong will not be riding for Livestrong, Nike, or even his bike shop. He's on board for state holding company Samruk-Kazyna, natural gas producer KazMunaiGas, and mining concern Kazakhmys. Lance may yet break away from his competitors on the race course, but he can't quite drop his sponsors just yet."
Dutch novelist Tim Krabbe
, in his intense and classic 1978 meditation on the art of cycling, "The Rider," described the sport in sublime terms: "Road racing imitates life, the way it would be without the corruptive influence of civilization."
Few have been as unswervingly faithful to Krabbe's analogy as the 37-year-old Armstrong, for whom a victory would represent a stunning physical accomplishment.
But could an Armstrong win -- this year, under these circumstances -- deliver a blow to the heart-pounding purity of a sport that has already been wracked by drug and doping scandal?
The answer revolves around one central point of Armstrong-gate, and another question that is at least as old as the modern Olympics movement:
1) Has Armstrong compromised his or his foundation's integrity by riding for a "president for life" like Kazakhstan's autocratic Nursultan Nazarbaev?
2) Is it OK to root for or against athletes based on their "political" affiliation?
-- Andy Heil