I am a cycling fan in that I love riding bikes and I follow professional cycling. I have been doing both since I started cycling "seriously" in 1985. That means that I have been paying attention to professional cycling since before Greg Lemond won the Tour de France the first time and, thus, have watched the entire arc of Lance Armstrong's career, from punchy one-day rider, to cancer patient, to the miraculous run of TdF wins, to retirement & comeback, to the USADA penalty and now, the Oprah interview. I have never loved Lance, but I was also never a Lance-hater. I have wished for a long time that cycling could move on from Lance and that other athletes would seize the spotlight, but for better or worse that day has not yet come. And so, here are my thoughts on Lance which, I hope, will be my own Last Words on Lance.
First, credit where credit is due. Lance Armstrong is a focused, determined and talented athlete. He was at the start of his career and was throughout. Many athletes who hit a pinnacle like winning a TdF have a hard time maintaining the intensity or desire that got them there - too many distractions for a champion and too much temptation to enjoy the fruits of that labor. Not Lance, though. He seemed to finish each win with an equal or increased desire to win again. Year after year, he did everything possible to win and then win again. After each victory, he challenged everyone involved to step up their game that much higher to win again. He demanded that of his equipment suppliers, his teammates, his organization and his sponsors. In doing so, he raised the level of competition each and every year. He forced innovation of clothing, wheels, frames and even watches and sunglasses. And he demanded that the suppliers not allow anyone else to have the innovations until after the race, by which time he would be working on the next iteration. And, because of his success, he increased his budget for this process each year and kept pushing to not only win, but to utterly dominate the TdF every year.
That was obvious to even a casual observer of the process and sport.
And if your determination to win is that focused and that overwhelming, is it surprising to learn that doing "everything possible" to win would include performance enhancing drugs?
Here are a couple of basic points on PEDs for the casual observer. First, the margin between winning and not winning the TdF is very, very narrow. One year I read the difference between 1st and 40th was 3%. That is the case at the top level of every single sport. Second, PEDs in the 90's, oxygen vector doping (including EPO, EPO variations and blood transfusions) make a LARGE difference. And the longer the duration of an event, the more difference they make. In other words, they may not make much difference in a 100 meter dash (although they help there too), they will make a big difference in 10,000 meters and a bigger difference in a marathon - so how much do you think they would help in a 3-week race? The answer - HUGE.
Next point, passing PED tests - Tyler Hamilton said these were not drug tests, they were IQ tests. In other words, the tests look for drugs in your system at that moment. If you understand the process and the tests, the trick is not to "get lucky", the trick is to devise a system that is better than the testing system. If your avoid-detection budget is dramatically larger than the detection budget, do you think that would help? How about if the detection system is open and transparent in exactly how it works, when it will do testing, how the science works and just what they are testing for, do you think that helps you to understand and then design your avoid-detection system?
And lastly, on the "level playing field" discussion. Yes, it is true that most people who were at the top of the sport at that time were cheating. Does that make it better? No, it makes it worse. And did the drugs actually make a "level" playing field? No. Two reasons - first, the way the drugs work, a person with a lower natural hematocrit level actually gets a bigger boost than someone with a higher natural hematocrit level. Ironically then the guys who were less competitive with no drugs become dominant with the oxygen vector drugs. It doesn't just bring up their level to the level of the non-drugging athletes, it makes them much better. Does it turn donkeys into race horses? No, but it makes the mid-pack race horses the winning race horses. Sounds like cheating to me.
And second, as for Armstrong, when he had the biggest budget, pushed his suppliers to develop better equipment for him and not share it with any other competitor, hired the best doping doctor in the world and then paid him to not work with any other athlete, does that sound like "level playing field"? No, it makes it sound like Armstrong-world where he wanted to have the best of each and every element and make sure that no one else had it. Like him or not, you have to be impressed at some level with the focus and determination to bring himself to that level year after year after year, but you can't excuse it by saying "I was just doing what everyone else was doing," because that wasn't true with any single element of the program from the fabric of his jersey to the medical program he was on. No one else had private jets to facilitate their program or any of the other apparatus that Lance's budget provided him. It wasn't level, it was slanted Lance's way and that is the only way he played for years and years.
And the other element of Armstrong during all of these years is the way he dealt with critics or problems. He took the same focus, the same determination, and the same overwhelming budget and turned it full force on anyone who dared to criticize him. He didn't dismiss his detractors, he tried to annihilate them. He used scorched earth tactics to not only try to silence anyone who spoke the underlying truth or questioned him, but he used the scorched earth process to scare away anyone thinking about speaking the truth or questioning him. His behavior towards some economically powerless individuals was nothing short of barbaric and reprehensible, particularly the now familiar trio of Emma O'Reilly, Betsy Andreu and Mike Anderson. All three dependent on Lance in some way for their livelihoods (Emma and Mike directly, Betsy's husband), but all at dramatically huge disadvantage when Lance starting calling them liars, sickos, trolls and worse, and then turned high-priced lawyers on them with virtually unlimited budgets to destroy their credibility and, in the process, trying to destroy them. There are many examples of this disgusting and horrible behavior from Lance Armstrong, both small and large, and no amount of apology will ever re-set the tables.
And so with this background, it brings me to the most recent element of the Lance Armstrong saga - his USADA case and his celebrity confession with Oprah.
First, I thought that Oprah brought everything to the table that could be reasonably expected from her. She is not a detail level sports journalist, much less a cycling specific one. She is a celebrity interviewer; the most famous one, but that is what she does. She did, however, bring up uncomfortable topics and pushed back at points. Did she skip things I would like to have heard about? Yes. Did she fail to follow up on things I wanted to know? Yes. But she did hold Lance to some things and didn't pull punches from a celebrity interviewer perspective.
As for Lance? The first moments were riveting. After all the years and all the defiance, I was glad that he plainly admitted those things including doping through all seven victories. At least that topic was resolved for all the Lance-lovers and Lance-haters. After that, however, the real Lance returned in full force. The one that is focused and determined to win and to tilt the table his way.
I do not believe that he wasn't doping during the 2009/2010 comeback. I have read that his bio-passport information left a 1 in a million chance of him NOT doping during this period, not to mention that a) he is still Lance, b) he was still working with the best blood doping doctor in the business and c) he was third at the TdF despite set-backs, problems, years out of competition and his advancing age.
I also don't believe that he wasn't well aware that he had sued Emma O'Reilly. How many low-paid employees did he sue? Yes, more than one, but he has been questioned about Emma O'Reilly repeatedly. It is utter bullshit that he didn't know that he had sued her. He also flatly denied that anyone on his behalf had offered to make a "donation" to USADA, despite the very credible assertions from people who have no reason to lie and have not yet lied about anything.
One of Lance's big things with his teammates that confessed and then accused him was this simple equation - if they took drugs and lied about it, they are liars, so how can we trust them now? Reasonable question, but here is how you know whether you can trust them - you listen to them and see if what they say now is actually the truth or appears to be the truth, has verifiable elements of authenticity and accuracy and if the rest of it fits into the truths and known facts. That's how we determine whether liars are now telling the truth and whether they deserve the opportunity to trusted or forgiven.
If, on the other hand, their confessions appear to be true only on the specific items that can't be plausibly denied anymore and then suspicious on other elements, then you shouldn't trust them. If they continue to contradict things that seem to be true without sufficient explanation, or if they continue to contradict people that have always spoken clearly and truthfully, then you shouldn't trust them. If they continue to assert things that can be proven to factually untrue or at least have a likelihood of being true in 1 chance out of one million, then you shouldn't trust them.
And so it was with Lance. After the few clear and direct statements, his obfuscation, misdirection and hubris continued to emerge repeatedly after that, all of which indicate that he was not telling exclusively the truth; that he isn't truly sorrowful for cheating and lying and destroying people in whatever way that he could; that he doesn't understand and didn't demonstrate remorse or contrition; and that ultimately he is not worthy of trust or redemption in the eyes of thoughtful people.
And thus I come to my last point. We, as a nation and even as a world, are not made up of thoughtful people. We inexplicably pay attention to scads of people like the Kardashians who are not worthy of any attention. We ignore large and important truths about the world around us. I personally spend more time reading about professional cycling in any month that I do during the entire year combined learning about large policy issues or any number of important topics. And, as a result of our interest in celebrities and our enormous capacity to forget, Lance Armstrong accomplished most of what he needs to in order to start the climb back on his pedestal for the public at large. It is just a matter of time, regardless of whether he cooperates in any further investigation, regardless of whether he names any names, regardless of whether his ban stands, and regardless of how many settlements are made or how much of his personal fortune is spent avoiding actually making amends with those who deserve it, his time with Oprah will satisfy the curiosity of most people. It will put to bed the questions about Lance, even though hundreds of important questions remain unasked and unanswered. It will slowly open the door for Lance to start making cancer related appearances again, which will pave the way to his involvement in Livestrong again. And that will open the door to appearance fees and endorsements again. Hell, Nike went back to supporting a man who fought dogs to the death, how can they not get back on board with a guy whose only crime was wanting to win?
And yes, this process will be dismay those who rightly hate him for all of the cheating and lying he has done. It will seem unfair to those astounded by the riches he achieved by cheating and being ruthless. And it won't make right any of the wrongs against the individuals or the sport. But it will happen and it's just a matter of time. And for that reason, I am moving on and intend for these to be my last words on Lance Armstrong.