I was ready to be done with Lance Armstrong earlier this week before his interview with Oprah. I was convinced he was only doing the interview in an attempt to have his life time ban from sanctioned sports removed, and had been feeling very disappointed in him following his complete separation from the Livestrong organization this fall. As I’ve written previously I had been aware Armstrong must have been doping long before the USADA’s Reasoned Decision was released. Following the suspensions of most of his main rivals between 2006-07, it became virtually impossible to believe Armstrong hadn’t been doping right along with them. In this post I plan to cover the interview, and why despite his admitting to being a cheater, a bully, and a jerk I still can’t hate Lance Armstrong.
During his sit down with Oprah Armstrong finally admitted what most had known for a long time, yes he cheated, yes he was a bully, yes he was a jerk, yes he would like his ban to be reduced. After admitting to all these things many people still seem to not be satisfied. One sticking point for many people, including one of Armstrong’s primary critics former 3 time tour winner Greg LeMond, is that Armstrong says the Tour de France couldn’t be won without doping in his opinion. To quote LeMond from his interview with Cycling News he stated: “Armstrong has destroyed anyone who has been successful in cycling,” LeMond told Cyclingnews. “I get pissed off when I hear that you can’t win the Tour without doping. Look at Andy Hampsten [winner of the 1988 Giro d’Italia, third in the 1989 Giro and fourth in the Tour in 1986 and 1992) – there was no way he was on any doping program.” However if you go back and watch the interview with Oprah shortly after he first says you couldn’t win the Tour de France without doping in his opinion, he corrects himself to say in that generation (EPO generation) you couldn’t win without doping. In this assertion I believe Armstrong to be absolutely correct, doping was so widespread during that era it would have been impossible to win any of the three grand tours without artificial assistance. To further prove this point, in an article released today by Cycling News former Rabobank rider Thomas Dekker confirms doping was widespread during that time (link). In the same article an unnamed former Rabobank rider says EPO was first used by the majority of the teams riders at the 1996 Tour de France.
Another issue many had with the interview was that Armstrong didn’t explain the doping program, and his influence over the other riders. While I think it was unnecessary and defiant for Armstrong to avoid questions about how the program worked, I also feel that the other riders already laid out who it worked quite throughly in their statements to the USADA (link). Armstrong said he lead by example, but refused to agree to pressuring teammates into doping. While I believe there was pressure to dope as a member of Armstrong’s teams, I feel that same pressure existed on all elite cycling teams at the time, and that anyone coming up as a pro cyclist would have been aware of the doping culture. Additionally virtually all of these riders continued to dope after moving on to other teams, so insisting they were doping because Armstrong forced them to is unfair in my view.
While I think many of the complaints about Armstrong from the interview are unfair, there are a few things I still struggle with after watching. Armstrong insisted he was racing clean during his comeback in 2009 and 2010 despite the USADA claiming the chances of his blood levels from those tours occurring naturally was less than one in a million. It’s hard to think of a reason why Armstrong would still feel the need to lie about these years, and for that reason I would like to believe him, but at this point that isn’t an easy thing to do. I was also surprised and disappointed no mention was made of Johan Bruyneel, Armstrong’s long time tour director. Bruyneel certainly played a large part in his teams doping program, and was charged by the USADA for his involvement. Bruyneel had planned to fight the charges, taking the case to arbitration, but following Armstrong’s interview Bruyneel said he would cooperate with prosecutors(link). It would have been interesting to see Armstrong’s response to questions about Bruyneel, but since he generally said he didn’t want to talk about other people we may not have gotten any interesting answers.
Ultimately the interview with Oprah didn’t teach us a lot of things we didn’t already know. Armstrong primarily just confirmed most of the statements made in the USADA’s case against him. He also confirmed that he would like to compete again, while he acknowledged that he accepted the punishment given to him. I don’t blame Armstrong for wanting to compete again, he currently has what essentially amounts to a lifetime ban from all of sports. Armstrong’s punishment is in my opinion astronomically beyond with anyone else in any sport has received. Even someone like Pete Rose who received a lifetime ban from baseball still could have in theory competed in another sport if he had wanted to. Armstrong can’t run a marathon, or compete in a triathlon, or a 10k or any other sanctioned competition. Baseball players such as Barry Bonds and Roger Clemens have essentially received no punishment aside from not being allowed in the Hall of Fame (Clemens played in the minors last year). Fellow cyclists have also received punishments that amount to a slap on the wrist compared to what Armstrong received. Most got no more than two years and those of spoke to the USADA about Armstrong received six month suspensions. I feel this interview with Oprah will draw things to a close with Armstrong, at least for the time being. And after everything that has happened, no matter how much I want to hate Lance Armstrong I still can’t do it. I don’t blame him for doing the same things everyone else was doing to get an advantage. I don’t blame him for wanting to compete again. The things he’s done to other people are hard to look past, but only some of his victims were truly innocent. While I accept Armstrong as the biggest liar in this situation, I think it’s important to remember all his teammates lied for a long time as well. When you have a huge group of liars trying to save a little bit of their reputation by coming clean it’s hard to know for sure what is true and what isn’t. Things that I know are true are that Lance Armstrong was a great cyclist and great philanthropist, and someone who changed a lot of people’s lives, most he made better, some unfortunately he made worse. While I know I am certainly in the minority at this point in my views on Lance Armstrong, even after everything that has happened I still can’t bring myself to turn on him. I will leave you, as I did when I originally wrote about the USADA’s case against Armstrong, with a quote from George Hincapie’s sworn affidavit, which helps me still see the positive despite all the negative with has come to light. “I continue to view Lance Armstrong as a great cyclist, and I continue to be proud to be his friend and to have raced with him for many years. I have witnessed many important things that Lance has done for his fellow man through battling cancer and being a role model for many. My testimony is not intended to take away from, or diminish those things. Lance and I, and our teammates, raced on the Motorola Team, on the U.S. Postal Service Team, and on the Discovery Channel Team during a time period when our sport was inundated with performance enhancing drugs. The doping controls were not very good and we came to believe that we needed to use banned substances to compete at the very highest levels. While I understand the choices we made were wrong, I understand why we made them, at the time, we felt justified in making them. I do not condemn Lance for making those choices and I do not wish to be condemned for making them.”