An Open Letter to Lance Armstrong
Let me begin by saying that I bear you no malice. I am not someone who’d like to see you dragged through the streets of Paris so that crowds can do to you what crowds are wont to do. I am not someone who has forgotten that you have done real good in the world and am well aware that in guys like Mike Ward and Jeff Castelaz, there continue to be genuine acolytes to the north star you provided those navigating the perils of cancer. I’m okay with that.
I am not someone who has forgotten the hope you represented to cycling here in the U.S. back in 1996, that you began to fill the void left by the retirement of Greg LeMond. I’ll never forget hearing Jim Ochowicz say at the final press conference for the Tour DuPont that it was time to start grooming you to win the Tour de France. I wrote this as you began your comeback, and when you did win the Tour in ’99 I thought myself prescient, rather than duped.
And while I doubt you even remember me, yours remain the most entertaining interview I ever conducted. It was a truly fun afternoon.
In previously writing about cycling and you, I struck a pragmatic tone, differing with the likes of David Walsh and Paul Kimmage. Walsh classified dopers as either draggers or the dragged; I reasoned that fundamentally, every cyclist of your generation was either dragged into doping, or quit. I’ve learned the truth is otherwise, that Walsh was right, that the lengths you went to exert influence over not just your team, but the whole of the peloton included wire taps and private investigators—tactics too coarse for sport. It’s easier to understand now why you accused Greg LeMond of using EPO—you simply thought that everyone did.
What you don’t seem to understand is that your interview with Oprah was never going to serve the purpose you desired. It was both too soon and too late. It was too late in that the horse hasn’t been in the barn for ages. The collective weight of the documents released in USADA’s Reasoned Decision dethroned your myth as the prevailing world view. It’s often said that history is told by the victors. Your story proves exactly that. Your version of events stood for a decade, but game, set and match have gone to Travis Tygart. By giving an interview to Oprah that fell short of what we learned from the Reasoned Decision, you failed to meet the minimum level of confession required to help your image. We didn’t need a body language expert to tell us your pursed lips meant you were holding back. And the interview also came too soon in that the public remains outraged over the revelation that the Cancer Jesus was something more akin to Machiavelli. They simply aren’t ready to forgive a lie that great.
As my colleague Charles Pelkey noted (and yeah, I know you think of him as “clueless”), your use of the passive voice—“got bullied”—suggests you really haven’t taken responsibility for your actions.
You dodged both the “deathbed confession” at the heart of your fight with the Andreus and the 2001 positive at the Tour of Switzerland. We no longer believe what you’re telling us. Why you won’t simply confirm that Betsy and Frankie have been telling the truth mystifies me. It’s not like you can hope to win the coming suit by SCA Promotions, so why hide? Why you won’t admit the Tour of Switzerland positive took place is less surprising. At this point, you have no reason to protect Hein Verbruggen and Pat McQuaid, as they are no longer protecting you. But it’s obvious that Nike, alleged to have helped pay off Verbruggen to make the positive go Jimmy Hoffa, would suffer a PR black eye far worse than sweat-shopping every child in Southeast Asia, and if you out them, your dream of rehabilitating your image so that you can once again “Just Do It” for them will go bye-bye.
That you would sit down with a Truth and Reconciliation Commission may have been the biggest lie you told Oprah. Dude, come on, if you won’t level with her—and she’s as sympathetic a listener as anyone ever gets—there’s little chance you’ll tell the whole truth to people who really know the sport, people who will ask hard questions.
I like to imagine that there’s an alternate universe, one where you delete the Strava account and go underground, where you drop by cancer wards unannounced, where you sit with people at death’s door and do what you do best: Give people hope. While I think Sally Jenkins’ quip that you beat cancer fair and square is asinine, I know that you can’t fake hope. There’s another narrative in you, room to say, “Yeah, I did some really stupid things to my body and my sport, but I still managed to beat this disease, and you can too.” And when you aren’t visiting cancer patients, you would be quietly showing up on doorsteps. First the Andreus. There’d be an apology and then you’d whip out your calculator to help figure the value of all that lost income.
And then you’d write a check.
Next, you’d fly to the U.K. and do the same for Emma O’Reilly. Then on to New Zealand where you’d present six figures to Mike Anderson. You’d take Floyd Landis out for beers, but not until you gave him a check, one with two commas. The toughest one would be the LeMonds. Done right, you’d find a bike company with the horsepower and credibility to revive LeMond’s bike line, probably Specialized or Giant, because I doubt John Burke, the head of Trek, and Greg LeMond will ever shake hands again … thanks to you, of course. In my mind’s eye you’d apologize to the LeMonds and tell them of the new deal, one that required no lawyers, and then the biggest check of the bunch, one that measured in tens—of millions. Yeah, that one would hurt. It’s the one that would make you think, over and over, about what you have done.
Without any press in tow, without any of your minions to insulate you, and no lawyers to get in the way, you’d come face to face with your actions and deal with the fallout. But word would spread and nothing could rehabilitate your image like having Betsy Andreu say, “Lance Armstrong sat down with Frankie and me, apologized, and then asked, ‘What can I do to make you whole?’”
Writing checks can’t fix the harm you did, but it would be a way to reconcile their earnings to yours, a way to right-size what your and their careers should have been. Despite all the good you’ve done for millions of cancer patients, the way you damaged the lives of those who got in your way stands as a symbol for the damage you caused cycling as a whole. With Oprah you rued the $75 million hit you took in a single day. Well guess what? Cycling as a sport has taken a much bigger hit. You are our Hurricane Katrina. Selling cycling to potential sponsors is tougher than selling real estate in the Ninth Ward. We’ll be cleaning up this mess for years to come.
I used to smile and wave when people at the side of the road called out, “Hey Lance Armstrong!” My God man, you single-handedly transformed cycling from the non-sport of geeky outcasts into a triumph of healthy living. Your downfall took us with you; now cycling is the sport of cheaters. Today, I hear people yell, “Doper!”
Look, I’m the first to argue against the lifetime ban for cyclists. We profess to be a society where anyone can apologize and be forgiven, but Lance, we don’t yet believe you’re contrite. When I look at how much harm, shame and ridicule you’ve brought to cycling, I realize if anyone has earned a lifetime ban, it’s you.
Red Kite Prayer