Over the last few months we’ve been joyfully re-viewing the whole boxset of The West Wing. In one episode, the White House Press Secretary C.J.Cregg was asked about Something Very Bad Happening in Saudi Arabia, and she replied
I’m not outraged, I’m barely even surprised
This almost exactly sums up my detached, unimpressed, resigned state of mind regarding Lance Armstrong.
I was going to wait until after his full interview with Oprah Winfrey, but it’s become clear to me this morning that there’s not a whole lot my words can add to the discussions. I’d recommend you look to excellent writers and journalists like CNN’s Bonnie Ford, The Sunday Times’ David Walsh, or the BBC’s Matt Slater. Nevertheless, for the record, this is What I Reckon…
I worshipped Armstrong during his career. I discovered the TDF in the 1980s as Greg Lemond rose to the top, Miguel Indurain then dominated, and Lance was the next hero. His story and his performances were amazing. That look he gave Ullrich, the improvised ride across the field, everything. I kind of resented L’Equipe and those who constantly sniped and sought to knock him, just because he was better than all the French riders. Except he wasn’t. He was a cheat, and more than that, a (now self-confessed) bully. He perjured himself under oath on countless occasions, won damages in courts by lying, earned millions in sponsorship and inspired a generation. Except he lied, over and over again.
I read “It’s not about the bike” last summer under the cloud of accusations and imminent publication of USADA evidence. Almost immediately afterwards I read David Millar’s autobiography, and the differences between the two books and men couldn’t be more clear.
When I read Armstrong’s book I was immediately struck throughout that it was a very partial version of his story, told on his terms, to create the memory and legacy he wanted. So many people he mentioned were described as “very good friends”. It’s as though the only people he ever met were very good friends. Anyone else simply isn’t important, or even worthy of comment. You’re either with him, or you’re nobody. This has been reiterated in the Oprah interview, in which she named all the names and he responded. Pretty much only George Hincapie emerged as a “good friend”. I wonder how George feels about that.
In complete contrast, David Millar lays everything out, from the doping to disagreements with Bradley Wiggins, from his own hero worship of Lance, to being ignored later. Millar talks openly about how his long journey to the dark side started, with vitamins and iron tablets, then injections, then everything else. He talks about the shame he brought on everyone who supported him, including Dave Brailsford, who was in the restaurant when he was arrested. Even now on Twitter he talks about what he has lost (his gorgeous house in Biarritz), and acknowledges that’s all his own fault. He describes his duty as an ex-doper to educate the sport and its leaders as well as new riders.
Armstrong doesn’t seem to accept, understand or even seem like he’s lost anything. He seems proud of his life, of his achievements. His tweets immediately following the publication of the USADA dossiers said he’s “unaffected” and merely linked to more news about his charity raising pots of cash for cancer. A few weeks later he came over all American Psycho and posted this stunningly arrogant picture:
It feels to me that he has felt his legacy isn’t about the bike. It’s all about the cancer. Because he can control that story. In that story he’s a hero.
But now, in a twist that even a hack Hollywood script couldn’t begin to justify, he now seems to blame the cancer for his behaviour; it was the cancer that made him a bully, that made him destroy fellow riders in the peloton who dared speak out against doping, that made him call his own soigneuse a whore and trash her name through the courts.
I don’t even begin to know what he hopes will happen now. He seemed to throw a line to the cycling authorities about testifying in the context of ‘truth and reconciliation’. He’s barely said sorry, merely admitted that he has done things wrong. But in his own mind that doesn’t actually mean cheating, merely doing what he had to, to achieve a “level playing field”. In that moral universe, does that mean I could steal money to put me on a level playing field with the very rich?
I was given Bradley Wiggins’ book My Time for Christmas, and while it’s certainly not the greatest work on the subject ever published, it again highlights the ‘unusual’ psyche of Lance Armstrong. Wiggins, like Millar and others before him, and the tremendous documentary Chasing Legends, recognises throughout everything he says how cycling is a team sport. Dirty or clean, no man can get through the Tour de France without a lot of people to help; team-mates prepared to sacrifice themselves for the team, support cars, coaches, drivers, mechanics, soigneurs, doctors, physios, management and sponsors.
Now on the one hand, that entourage that surrounded Armstrong during the years he was systematically doping must include people who knew what was going on, and haven’t come clean. More to the point, the sport of cycling then was so riddled with doping on every level, it seems impossible that the authorities were completely ignorant. I’m hoping some of this might even come out in the second part of the the Lance/Oprah broadcast…
…but on the other hand, I’m not holding my breath. From the very start, from the first words of his first book Lance Armstrong has told his side of the story, and it’s a story that focuses entirely on himself. With near psychopathic clarity he seems oblivious to ‘normal’ morality, and utterly lacking in empathy. He is a liar and a cheat on a massive, almost sociopathic scale. He was my hero, but I hope this is my last word on him. He doesn’t deserve any more of my time. I’ll point my daughters to newer role models.
Bonnie Ford’s piece for ESPN at the time of the USADA dossier is a brilliantly detached, but very sad summary. Case closed.