Lance Armstrong’s fans have always defended him to the end, even after the evidence that he used performance-enhancing drugs (PEDs) stacked so high against the cyclist, and from so many corners, that there was really no credible way to defend him anymore. Even though I am generally ambivalent about cycling, I couldn’t help but notice Armstrong’s career and the way it polarized people; from the cancer to the seven-straight Tour de France victories to the doping allegations (and Armstrong’s relentless attacking of whoever was making them), it’s been quite a ride.
Perhaps since I’m so dispassionate about Armstrong and cycling in general, it gave me a more grounded view of Armstrong than his supporters had. I never hated Armstrong, but I couldn’t help but feel that, in spite of his wonderful work with charity, he was also a cheater and a jerk. History has proven that view to be correct, which Armstrong freely admitted on Oprah Winfrey’s show last Thursday and Friday.
At the same time, maybe my detachment from the Armstrong saga has left me with a clearer head to view him going forward than his enemies have now. I watched all of Thursday’s show, and about a third of Friday’s, and spent some time following Twitter and doing Internet searches to see how others felt Armstrong came off after confessing to cheating in each of his seven Tour victories. Many ripped Armstrong for not being sorry enough. Some think he’s still not telling the whole truth. Some think he’s doing this selfishly to try to get back into racing, and Armstrong himself admitted he’d like to do just that. There’s probably some truth to all those things; if you didn’t get a chance to see the Oprah’s interview, here’s a fair and objective take by Alessandra Stanley at the New York Times that sums it up quite well.
In short, it was not a perfect appearance for Armstrong. There are some things that still need to be explained; for instance, a 2012 U.S. Anti-Doping Agency (USADA) report says that that the likelihood that Armstrong didn’t cheat between 2009 and 2010 is “less than one in a million.” Armstrong continues to deny this. Armstrong also denied that he offered USADA a $250,000 bribe. USADA says it is standing by its story, and frankly, its side may be more believable.
Let’s put all that aside for a moment to return there shortly.
One reason people have supported Armstrong all these years is his courage. They admire the way he trained at one of the world’s more grueling sports; Armstrong said himself that by the time the race had started, he knew he’d already won. What really put Armstrong over the top in the minds of his admirers, of course, was using that drive to beat cancer and coming back as strong as ever.
I am not diminishing what Armstrong did in beating a deadly disease, nor the inspiration was for others in doing so. I’ve been blessed with great health all my life, and so I can’t identify with what that’s like. But at the same time, though, beating cancer was just another act of self-preservation, which, to put it lightly, is the only thing that’s ever really concerned Armstrong. Few have ever mastered it more so than he.
That’s one thing that made Armstrong’s confession, flaws and all, so remarkable. It’s not part of his makeup. As he admitted Thursday, the only response he has ever known is to fight.
When folks made allegations at Armstrong throughout his career, he punched back with full force. Reporters Pierre Ballester and David Walsh published the 2004 book, L.A. Confidential, which detailed Armstrong’s drug use. British newspaper The Sunday Times re-printed those allegations; Armstrong sued the paper and settled out of court.
In 2006, former teammate Frankie Andreu and his wife, Betsy, gave sworn testimony that Armstrong admitted to use of PEDs in 1996. It was part of a lawsuit between Armstrong and SCA Promotions, which was attempting to withhold a $5 million performance bonus because of the swirling allegations. By the time everything was said and done, SCA paid Armstrong $12 million.
Federal prosecutors went after Armstrong between 2010 and 2012 on doping charges, based on allegations from former teammates Floyd Landis and Tyler Hamilton. The Armstrong machine went into denial mode, and the investigation was dropped last February.
Last October, the International Cycling Union (UCI) banned him for life based on that previous evidence, as well as statements from three more teammates. Armstrong’s lawyer called the decision “a one-sided hatchet job — a taxpayer-funded tabloid piece rehashing old, disproved, unreliable allegations based largely on axe-grinders, serial perjurers, coerced testimony, sweetheart deals and threat-induced stories,” which is typical of how the Armstrong camp treated those who spoke out against him from start to finish.
The thing that made Armstrong’s confession truly stunning is that it put his personal fortune of an estimated $100-125 million at stake. Maybe Armstrong felt the legal tide was inevitably and irreversibly turning against him, but his team of powerful attorneys had managed to beat every rap before despite massive evidence against him. Just ask O.J.: fame and power can buy the best lawyers, who can in turn make even the most obvious and damning charges disappear.
Instead, Armstrong handed himself over to his enemies on a silver platter. SCA Promotions and The Sunday Times are already looking to get their money back. The US Postal Service, which sponsored Armstrong’s team, could potentially get as much as $90 million out of Armstrong. He may have to return money he already won, and perjury charges could also follow.
People are the sum of their actions. Armstrong exhibited some long-needed self-awareness to Oprah last week, saying he’s always been both “jerk and humanitarian,” adding, “now we’re clearly seeing more of the jerk part than the activist.” Assuming that Armstrong is still lying about a few things, killing off the jerk remains a work in progress.
But it seems to me that Armstrong is trying to do just that. People have to learn what they are before they can un-become it, and Armstrong, who is been in denial for decades, still probably has a bit of self-assessment to do.
Coming clean is a long process, and one that many of Armstrong’s contemporaries in other sports (are you listening, Mr. Bonds?) haven’t started. Despite the fact Armstrong’s confession may not have been everything we all wanted, it was a nearly unprecedented step for those who have walked in his shoes, and especially for Armstrong himself.