It’s been just over a year since Lance Armstrong came clean about riding dirty in a worldwide exclusive interview with Oprah Winfrey right here in Austin, Texas.
Through tears and angst, the seven-time Tour de France winner solemnly confessed to the illegal doping practices that coloured his years of competitive cycling.
In his very public confession, his obvious remorse was on brighter display when describing his children’s continued support (and defence) of his years of lies.
With no shortage of media coverage about Lance since that day and features in the world’s most prominent publications outlining his rise from a troubled childhood, battle with cancer, illegal use of performance-enhancing drugs, admitted dishonesty and all the turmoil that has followed, I wondered how the layman feels about Lance? Does the former hero retain hero status? Has he become a villain in that man’s eye? Or does any of it even matter?
Before I accepted this assignment, I had little opinion over what the world has ultimately defined as quite the “scandal”. I’m not a cyclist, and while I recognised the prominence of the Tour de France, I knew little about its doping history or anti-doping policies, which only came into effect in the mid-60s — some 60 years after the Tour began in 1903. I was more familiar with Lance’s namesake as a heroic figure in the cancer community, both as a survivor and internationally acclaimed philanthropist.
I’ve spent the past few months reading article after article and also talking about Lance to anyone with an opinion or a story to share. I’ve spoken to musicians, (non- competitive) cyclists, artists and family members of cancer patients. I also talked to an authority on the subject, in response to a message I tweeted that encouraged anyone with a strong opinion to reach out to me.
A matter of moments after that tweet, I had an email from Lance Armstrong himself — it simply said: “I have a strong opinion. Let’s chat.”
Game on. Let’s do it.
Lance and I met at a local Austin watering hole on a Sunday afternoon for a few local brews. True to his roots, he chose Shiner; I opted for Fireman’s #4. The next hour was a damn good hour.
Not known in the media as someone who shies away from confrontation, Lance got straight to the point and my questions responded in kind. We made an informal toast and then he launched into it.
“You’ve got to be raw. Raw is the word of the fucking story,” Lance said.
To display such rawness, Lance began with a solid salvo: the drugs weren’t (necessarily) his biggest offence. “I hear this from people every day, it wasn’t the doping — that wasn’t the real problem. The real problem was, in most people’s minds, the brashness and stubbornness of my denials. The reaction and action against people who tried to call me out — that’s what has people upset,” he said.
Since we did meet on a day that is historically dominated by confession and forgiveness, it should come as no shock that the Sunday Lance and I met also marked the end of his “tour of redemption” as some have called it. He’d been in France and Italy apologising in person to some of the people he most offended during his period of denials and outlash — including Filippo Simeoni, who was the brunt of a much-publicised confrontation in 2004 in which Lance said his [own] behaviour was very much “out of line”.
Lance acknowledges due apologies to a number of people, but brought my own opinion full circle when he said, “Some people claim to be affected and railroaded when they really weren’t. And you have to know the true story to understand that. Others I was a complete asshole to.”
It seems being an asshole was perhaps Lance’s biggest offence. Describing his old ways of operation, he said, “I was a fighter on the bike and in training. (I) took a boxing mentality to cycling and didn’t take shit from anybody. I didn’t have the wisdom developed yet to enter a conversation with other people… the maturity, when talking to another human being.”
With that awareness he said, “I’m going to travel the world, look (them) in the eyes and say I’m sorry. I’m fucking embarrassed. If my son did (that), we’d have a long conversation. I was totally out of line. I’m taking the time to try to do the right thing.”
Apologising may be regarded as a proactive beginning to redemption but many people feel Lance isn’t repentant.
Perhaps it’s because he still maintains his “boxing mentality” and his ability to maintain face, but Lance maintains he is “truly sorry”.
“It’s commonly said that I lack remorse. That just isn’t true. The worst are the (cancer) survivors who were the staunchest supporters.
“That’s the community that I have to truly be sorry to, and it might take me the rest of my life. Time will ultimately tell. It may not fix everything, but it will soften things over the years.
“It’s never going to be like 2005.” When it was time for round two, Lance asked the old-guy bartender if he could start a tab. The bartender laughed and said, “We’re old school, man.” Lance smiled and said: “Fast money makes fast friends.”
Lying was indeed Lance’s second biggest offence, though that dishonesty often accompanied his aggression. It seems his aggression was the by-product of his frenzied need to, well, cover his ass. It’s these outbursts that have calcified the many lingering negative opinions. But Lance gets it. “That anger, that reaction, I understand. I feel like I was stuck, I couldn’t have changed the story. I don’t know anyone, even with courage, who would’ve told the truth then. First time I was asked... what do you say?”
“I was a kid who came from relatively nothing... uneducated, basic upbringing, squeaked through high school. What was I going to go back to? Mowing lawns?”
“It was a high-octane era,” Lance recalled. “It was just an arms race, and we all jumped in. I haven’t figured out in my own mind if I have regrets about doping. We weren’t animals making the decisions, we were human beings.”
And in many ways, this high-performance era helped cycling evolve. “The sport grew by leaps and bounds. The industry benefited immensely, the companies involved and our sponsors.”
Lance said that some feel as though he profited from a lie. It’s hard to argue with this, considering the money involved in his continued success.
Some think that lie was a years-long, medically elaborate doping lie that propelled him far beyond his competitors. But, many of the folks I talked to believe this is a (mis)conception.
“Lance is an athlete. It’s not like the drugs gave him superhero abilities. Doping didn’t make him fly,” said Gigi Baffi, an account manager at GSD&M, an Austin ad firm that enlisted Armstrong in more than a few of its successful campaigns.
Many credit the high-intensity nature of cycling to the continued use and abuse of such drugs. Because of this stigma, even more people think the playing field isn’t all that uneven. Doping has always been part of the sport. The truth is, Lance was not the only cyclist violating the rules. Many violations came to the surface in the same window of time; and while he was certainly guilty, he still won — seven Tours in a row.
Local music manager and film producer, Pat Cassidy, also pointed out the pressure of the industry, “Doping in sports has become a necessary evil for many athletes, especially for athletes that are competing on the world’s stage.” Kevin Paskawych, a data consultant, points out, “In sports, a 10th of a second can be the difference between success and mediocrity.”
When a fragment of a second means millions of dollars and success, and you are the only one who may be able to achieve that 10th, the distance between legendary success and a fading relevance is a high-pressure one.
Still, Lance said the training was the most important element of his victories. “That’s the shit that worked, the training. The drugs were the last little piece.”
Performance-enhancing drugs are not new, not to sports, academics, the professional world or even sex. Some of the most epic performances, musical or athletic, and the most beautiful artwork, thought-provoking stories, brilliant design work and bright ideas came from a combination of brilliance and drugs, be it espresso or Scotch, cocaine or EPO, Adderall or LSD.
The first reported death in cycling occurred as early as 1886, following a cocktail of both cocaine and caffeine. How about other sports? Let’s not forget about the epic 1970 no-hitter thrown by Doc Ellis against the Padres. We have LSD to thank for that. And, of course, legendary sluggers Sammy Sosa and Mark McGwire both admitted to using performance-enhancing drugs. Hunter S. Thompson, whose self-described breakfast of champions included bacon, margaritas and cocaine, is yet another classic example.
Kamal Soliman, of Austin-based musical ensemble Lance Herbstrong (that Lance Armstrong sometimes plays drums with), agreed: “I don’t judge Lance because I don’t judge without being in someone else’s shoes. Everyone makes mistakes, but the number of good things he’s done for so many are significant.”
“Forget the fucking drugs,” Kamal went on. “The truth is, there’s few people who can go into the White House, dine with the president, lobby and advocate for change. He battled cancer and raised immense funds for others and still rose to the top. He’s got my respect forever.”
Many agree with this notion. Bobby Fitzgerald, of Austin bluegrass band Whiskey Shivers, said, “Globally, nationally and locally, he’s fostered educational programmes, increased awareness and brought financial aid to those in need.”
Some people believe Lance was crucified because of his notoriety. Others, myself included, think his public shaming has been a misdirection of focus. He lied. He “cheated”. He was an asshole. He’s also human. There are liars, cheaters and assholes everywhere, in politics, in sports and in business. And many of those have been forgiven for far worse and have done far less for humanity. The reality is, Lance’s lies and dishonesty only directly affected those he lashed out against, and those who rode with or against him; on the other hand, his battle with cancer and commitment to cancer advocacy have had a tangible and measurable impact, and inspired millions.
Lance made a great point, “There’s never been an athlete or public figure raised a half-billion dollars over a relatively short period of time, and also has an organisation.
“As of a year ago, it was the most kick-ass cancer society in the world. The American Cancer Society would have traded places with us in a heartbeat.”
Out of the countless stories the foundation’s support created, I heard a particularly touching one when I sat down with Jon Goudreau, a hospital man in the US Navy and a lover of pedalling two wheels on an open road.
He had no personal opinion about Lance. However, his mother was one of Lance’s biggest advocates.
Jon’s mother was diagnosed with leukaemia in 2003 and looked to Lance, who was five-deep in Tour de France victories, for inspiration. “She loved his perseverance, she loved his Texas charm, and she loved how he overcame his battle with cancer to achieve incredible feats,” he said. “He [Lance] was the embodiment for hope. He faced death in the face and he had overcome it. For my mom, he was Superman. On her wrist, she wore a yellow bracelet that had LiveStrong emblazoned into the rubber that laid next to her admissions tag and allergy bracelet. She wore it when she was going through chemo, through a bone marrow transplant, and she wore it when she was discharged. She saw her struggle as a journey, as a race she just had to ride out.
“At the end of the day, It’s not about drugs and it’s not about the sport. It’s about what it means to be human and what it means to be a superhero for just a second in time. You can strip Lance of everything he has in the cycling world, but you can’t strip his humanity. He helped my mom through all of her treatments and was a beacon of hope to her. Sadly, my mom didn’t make it to the finish line. She passed away when I was 18.
“If she was here today, I wonder what she would say about Lance. My mom was my hero. And even if she has fallen, her lessons and all that she taught us still carry on today through my sister and I. Heroes fall and fade away, but it’s the message that lives on and inspires us to reach for our dreams.”
Lance will undoubtedly spend a significant amount of time moving forward, making apologies, seeking redemption and loving his children.
And while this has been an incredibly tumultuous and difficult uprooting to his life, even he sees the light.
“In the long run, I will be benefited by this,” Lance proclaimed. “It may take a while, but I’ll be better because of it. I’ll certainly know where I stand with everyone in my life after this. That right there is almost worth it. To really see... look around the trench and see who’s there. That’s invaluable. It’s raw for me. That just makes me, you know, so you don’t trade old friends for new friends. But some people do.”
And, once the legal headaches have been dissolved, we can look forward to another book chronicling the chaos of the past decade. Armstrong says: “It’ll be raw — a combo of Raging Bull, Chariots of Fire, Breaking Bad and Brian’s Song. And at the end, people just get to decide.”
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