“The last thing I’ll say to those who don’t believe in cycling…the cynics…I’m sorry for you. I’m sorry you can’t dream big…This is a great sporting event and you need to believe…there are no secrets..so vive le tour. Forever.”
Lance Armstrong, 2005.
Love him or hate him, there is a unique absence of middle ground on this issue – most people belong in one of two camps. The fall of Lance Armstrong in recent months is not so much about the lies, the deception or the bullying. It’s about the person he was, the image he owned and the legend he had forged.
I admit to being a cycling fan. I grew up on an annual diet of late nate repeats on SBS of The Tour. I bought my first road bike in 2004, and cycled every week until 2008. I gave it up because what I saw was a sport full of egos.
I helped create the image – a mythical image, a story tale…Trying to perpetuate the story made me a bully.
I admit to a sense of morbid fascination with the unfolding story this week, as Armstrong faced the cameras for the first time, with the truth. When he failed to respond to the USADA ruling last year in which he was stripped of his 7 titles and banned from competitive sport for life, I knew it was bad news. And it was.
Armstrong was diagnosed with cancer at the age of 25, and won The Tour less than 3 years later. 7 years later, he was still winning. In 2006, his team mate Floyd Landis took The Tour, and lasted only 3 years before admitting he had cheated, implicating Armstrong in the process, and the cycling world unravelled. What we have seen in the last few years is a single-file peleton of grown men scurrying in a desperate bid for a way out, and the safe confines of the shadows cast by The Truth.
Armstrong maintains he never failed a test and back when he rose to glory for the first time, there was no test for EPO (a red blood cell count enhancer), and in fact the nature of the early years of blood doping meant that cheats were clean when they went to competition - so when he says he never failed a test, he is telling the truth. The telling blow actually came from backdated tests of Armstrong’s samples from 1999.
The chance of levels at that kind occuring naturally are less than 1 in a million.
Let me be very clear – he lied, bullshitted, bullied and deceived the people that he loved and the people he owed respect. And there is nothing that will save him from their persecution. I watched his interview – and to a large extent I believe him when he says that he is beginning to understand that, and he’s sorry.
But having read several rejections of his apology over the weekend, this is not a discussion that deserves glossing over. Armstrong clearly demonstrates a historical disregard for social norms with respect to lawful behaviour, deception, irritability and aggressiveness, reckless regard for the welfare of others and a lack of remorse. He is, by his own indirect admission, a sufferer of Antisocial Personality Disorder.
My experience with mental health leads me to say this in no uncertain terms: the man needs to be be forgiven. I reject claims that the two interviews recently aired failed to produce an apology. Responsibility for the image that perpetuated the monstrosity of the entire ordeal to some extent must fall on the shoulders of those around him too. The fundamental shift in my opinion stems from the change he presents to us – a man of once reckless disregard for others and the consequence his action would have upon them, to a man who hangs his head in shame, and can explain the difference between his state of mind then and his state of mind now.
Did we pull off the most sophisticated, professionalised and successful doping programme – no – it was conservative, risk-averse, and aware of what race mattered. I viewed it as very simple – we had oxygen boosting drugs, that were beneficial for endurance sports – that’s all you needed. My cocktail was only EPO – but not alot – transfusions, and testosterone – which I almost justify with my history of testicular cancer.
Indeed, there are few who acknowledge that blowouts of this degree cannot possibly be blamed on a single person - and I have to agree. It is impossible for one man to conquer the world in the way that Armstrong did without the support of others, and to a large extent, the negligence of those in power. And therein lies the root of the problem. Society would frown upon a recovering addict being posted on an internship in a pharmacy – why should it not frown upon the presence of those with obsessive and narcissistic tendencies in a high-pressure, glorified environment that ultimately beholds its conquerors on the level of the divine?
I don’t want to make excuses for any one or accuse them…but my opinion was that it was that widespread.
My issue with the response to this story is the reality that led to his undoing. I completely agree that there are many people who will watch the interviews and write him off, having been believers for so long. Nobody is demanding forgiveness – that would be unfair. But this is a complicated story, a complicated problem, and there is much more to it that lies beyond the facade of lies and manipulation. Problems of negligence on a systemic level that perpetrate a destructive culture within an elite community. So just how is it that the entirety of the blame can lie on one man?
The definition of cheat is to gain an advantage on a rival or foe. and I didn’t view it that way. I knew I was held to a higher level than the others….but the important thing is that I am beginning to understand it. I see the anger, the betrayal in people. These are people that believed me and in what I was saying they have ever right to feel betrayed.
Does he deserve to be punished more than the others because of the roots he laid outside the sport, and the ferocity with which he stood his ground and defended his cause? Armstrong admits to being a deeply flawed and complicated man. To that facade, there is no excuse, and redemption will only be granted by his own forgiveness of himself. To the other side – the mentally ill side – here he begins what he calls, The Process.
“All the sponsorships, and all the faith of the cancer survivors – that would go away. And don’t think for a second that I don’t know that. It’s not about the money for me”. Those are the words of a guy who felt he was invincible and was told he was invincible…who needs to be exiting through this process.
If another human being stands before you and tells you they are ready to ask for forgiveness – who has the right to prevent him from beginning that journey? In my opinion, it’s not the deceit that takes brains, it’s recovery.
My biggest hope from all this, is the well-being of my children. They need to not be living with this for the rest of their lives…but this conversation will live for ever.
There are major issues with the ideology of elite sports, and Armstrong does not deserve to be sat on a pedestal and to be exemplified for his wrongs more than any other drug cheat. Let’s not forget that his recovery from cancer was, in reality, a miraculous thing, the result of which has raised more than $500 million for cancer research. If he is ready to get better, as he says he is, and he is ready to turn his life around, as he indicated last week – who are we to stop him, or wish misfortune upon him?
If doping really is as widespread as he believed it to be in the elite cycling community (prior to the Biopassport control introducing in the mid 2000′s that monitors athlete’s blood levels over a significantly longer period of time than the one-off doping tests conducted only during competition in the late 1990′s), the recovery of the image of the sport will depend largely on the way the UCI moves reestablish an ideology of respectable sportsmanship amongst a group of men who whose worldview has become evidently and tragically distorted by the pressures of elite competition.
This may not be the most popular answer, but I think I deserve it (to race again). Others got 6 month bans, I got a life sentence. I’m not saying it’s unfair, I’m saying it’s different. I deserve to be punished, I’m not sure I deserve a death penalty.
He is a flawed human being, but a human nonetheless. And there is little else more honorable than standing before the world and offering yourself, and your flaws, to the mercy of others.
If there was a reconciliation commission, and I was invited, I would be the first man in the door.
So, does the punishment fit the crime?