For as long as I can remember, Lance Armstrong has been a man to whom many terms have been attributed. He has been the personification of professionalism, strength and, perhaps most importantly, inspiration. The winner of seven consecutive Tour de France titles between 1999 and 2005 having already successfully battled testicular cancer which had spread to his lungs, abdomen and brain, Armstrong acted as an inspiration to a generation. All this changed however within the last year, when Armstrong was found guilty by race authorities of doping throughout his career, and using a cocktail of performance enhancing drugs, resulting the stripping of all his Tour titles, his Olympic Bronze medal, and a lifetime ban from competitive cycling. This dramatic fall from grace follows years of allegations and accusations of illegally enhancing his performance through a mixture of drugs and blood transfusions. In an attempt to see his side of the story heard, Armstrong recorded an interview with American chat show royalty, Oprah.
The interview’s opening was powerful, with Oprah landing several piercing blows with a succession of yes/no questions, the first of which was Armstrong’s admission of guilt, for the first time, of doping. He denied bribing officials to hide positive blood-tests and interestingly vigorously denied doping in his 2009 comeback. Whilst admitting he was a bully to those around him, Armstrong denied claims he attempted at any time to force other riders on his team to dope.
The crucial aspect of the interview was the revelation – albeit a hugely unsurprising one – that Lance Armstrong insists he wasn’t the only cyclist on the Tour guilty of illegally enhancing his performance, insisting that winning the Tour clean would have been ‘impossible’ and that the five ‘clean’ riders from the two-hundred competitors were ‘heroes’. This is a reflection on the side of this saga that I feel is not being properly addressed. Armstrong is being hung, drawn and slaughtered by the media, celebrity and general population of the world – and rightfully so. But what must be considered is that to this end at least, Armstrong is probably telling the truth. It is impossible to imagine that Armstrong was alone in doping in cycling. He even went as far to say that doping was like “saying we have to have air in our tyres, we have to have water in our bottles”. In a bizarre twist of trying to somewhat justify his actions, the disgraced cyclist claims to have looked up of the definition of ‘cheater’ and claimed not to qualify as doping was so widespread that he did not gain an unfair advantage. If you have to look up ‘cheater’ in the dictionary to consider your guilt, you’re probably guilty. The extent of the cover up operation was truly remarkable, even upon reading it, you can’t possibly comprehend it until you hear it come from Armstrong himself, upon being asked about Emma O’Reilly, a masseuse who exposed early doping, who was branded an ‘alcoholic prostitute’ and sued by Armstrong, he claimed he couldn’t remember if they had sued her, conceding “We sued so many people… I am sure we did”.
Armstrong himself used detective skills that Sherlock Holmes would be proud of, concluding that he is “probably not the most believable person in the world right now” less than half an hour after stating that the whole situation was “one big lie repeated a lot of times” upon admission that he deceived the sporting world for over 25 years. Elementary, my dear Armstrong.
It was the second part of the interview however, where many commentators got what they were waiting for. Tears. Circling around Armstrong like a pack of vultures, the press were condemning crocodile tears before a single drop fell down Armstrong’s cheek. Naturally, celebrities – as well as Donald Trump – took to the twittersphere to give their two cents, slating Armstrong with #LiveWrong and #LieStrong – a pun on Armstrong’s ‘Livestrong’ of charity bracelet fame – trending worldwide throughout the interview’s screening. I, if indeed the only one, pitied Lance Armstrong. His face as he discussed the moment with his son suggested that the gravity of what he had done had only then become apparent to him. He stopped speaking, if only for a moment, and looked empty, a shell of a man who for having shown so much strength in his life, finally looked defeated. Not by cancer, not by cyclists, but by himself.
The fact of the matter is, this public trial was never going to be fair. Headlines were written days in advance, Armstrong was accused of lying before the interview finished, and written off as doing it for the wrong reasons without explaining himself. I’m not an Armstrong apologist. Indeed, I was duped along with the rest of the world on this one. I can’t help however to look over this with a twinge of sadness as the greatest story of overcoming adversity and triumphing in sport was revealed to be a lie. As I look back over the interview footage, I can’t help but feel slightly sorry for Lance Armstrong. The discussion of being asked to step aside by Livestrong, his charity foundation, and the tears as he discussed telling his son that he should stop defending him reminded me of one thing that this whole process seems to have forgotten: Lance Armstrong is a human being. Arrogant, yes. Deceitful, yes. But deep down I do not believe that Armstrong’s long record of doping and the subsequent cover up came from anything other than an unquenchable desire to win. The evidence clearly shows that 90s cycling was an era dominated by athletes who had artificially improved their performance and to that regard, although Armstrong can not be considered much better, he should no further be condemned. His crimes were abhorrent but he was a victim of his time, his ego, and his raw desire. Lance Armstrong won the Tour de France seven consecutive times between 1999 and his 2005 retirement. Doping or not, that was one hell of an achievement.