By the time 60 Minutes aired Sunday night, I had digested every element of the show I could in advance. I’d parsed quote upon quote and laughed at Lance Armstrong’s attempts to discredit the single most storied broadcast news magazine on the planet.
As the fader brought up the iconic sound of the stopwatch ticking, I leaned forward in my chair and waited. While I knew what I would see in broad strokes, I hoped for two things. First, I wanted to see Tyler Hamilton’s demeanor. Was he contrite? Was he conflicted? Was he vengeful? Second, I wondered if I might hear anything that would surprise me.
Different people saw different things as they watched Hamilton unfold the events of his past. What I saw was a guy who was uncomfortable in front of the camera, uncomfortable telling what he knew. And while I perceived remorse, I saw a man in depression, a man in pain over all he had lost.
I was uncomfortable watching him.
Part of my discomfort stemmed from old anger. Hamilton had represented the best cycling had to offer. He was educated, decent and—we all thought—clean. When he went down he took a number of people with him. People placed faith in him and had all but mortgaged the farm to help him succeed and track that success. He was the anti-Lance and in 2003 we thought we had found in him a story of extraordinary courage and determination. His was a story to rival Lance’s, in part, because he was so polite, so self-effacing.
Most of my discomfort stemmed from wondering just how much punishment is enough. He’s lost everything he built in his career, but he wasn’t doped for the whole of his career. Is that just? And the interview barely glanced at his career-ending positive test for DHEA. I have to ask, Do we really know the full story about him taking DHEA? How could he be so stupid as to take a banned substance as his sole recourse to depression? I struggle with that explanation, but that’s a minor point. The larger question is how much punishment is enough? After stripping a rider of success, should he also be stripped of a future?
Back to that interview: I’ve heard people assess it as a tired re-hash of the accusations we’ve heard against Armstrong for years. It wasn’t. Hamilton made two surprising statements. His first was that he actually saw Armstrong use performance-enhancing drugs. No one has made that claim previously. He second was that his team management worked with the UCI to cover up a positive drug test at the 2001 Tour de Suisse. Armstrong made “donations” to the UCI and the cycling public never heard a word.
For those of you who doubt Hamilton’s ability to tell the truth—any truth—remember, this nugget has been corroborated by the anonymous source 60 Minutes spoke with for the story. The source revealed that the FBI took a sworn deposition from the director of the lab that tested Armstrong’s sample. The lab director said he met with Armstrong and Johan Bruyneel and was informed by the UCI the positive result was to be reported nowhere.
These weren’t garden-variety accusations.
Forgiving riders who doped has nothing to do with justifying their behavior and everything to do with finding out what they took, what they know, the methods they used. We must learn the best doping techniques out there if we are to defeat them in the future. And if unemployment is guaranteed, a rider, coach or whoever has zero incentive to reveal what they know. We shouldn’t tolerate repeated infractions (Riccardo Ricco, anyone?) but the silence of the offenders does us no good.
I used to think of doped riders as broken people, whether the deficit is narcissism, insecurity or sociopathy, they were people who need help. After watching one doping case after another unfold, I have come to believe that most of the athletes who turn to performance enhancing drugs do so out of a sense of coercion. Even though they may be incorrect, they believe the rest of the peloton is on the stuff, so they enter the practice.
My personal life has been punctuated with relationships too torn to rescue. Forgiveness has, at times, been an act of kindness too great for me to summon. But I struggle with that. I know that every religion on the planet and nearly every constitution regards forgiveness and redemption as a central tenet. Hell, half of the reality shows are built around people recovering their humanity after some fall from grace. We obviously love to forgive people.
It’s easy to condemn Hamilton. Too easy. Let’s listen to him. And let’s not abandon him; down that road lay the fallen. Their graves bear names like Pantani, Jimenez.
Image: John Pierce, Photosport International