Friday, January 18, 2013

My Perspective on Lance Armstrong's Oprah Confession - It's Not About the Drugs . . . .

I have not seen the whole broadcast, but I have read enough (and know enough of the background) to have a well-informed opinion. Having been a serious cycling fan since Greg LeMond was winning his three Tours de France, I had little doubt about the use of performance enhancing drugs (PEDs) in cycling, especially after the Festina Affair in 1998.

Here is what I wrote in a status update earlier today on Facebook (edited and greatly expanded):

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The legendary Eddy Merckx  was a 5-time Tour de France winner, 5-time Giro d'Italia winner, 1-time winner of the Vuelta a Espana, and he won the Giro and the Tour back-to-back three times. Merckx is widely considered by most cycling fans the greatest rider of all time. When Merckx was dominating the sport (the myth is that when other riders saw Merckx line up at the start of a race, they all knew they were racing for 2nd place), no one questioned his brilliance, his training, his will to win.

The only differences between now-disgraced Lance Armstrong (7-time winner of the Tour de France, no matter what the records say) and Merckx is that there was no EPO to use in the early 1970s, but amphetamines and anabolic steroids (testosterone and its variations) were legal . . . and crucially, there was no drug testing.

If you look at the way Merckx dominated the sport and made other great riders like look like weekend enthusiasts, the likelihood that he did not use PEDs is pretty slim. In his best year (1971), Merckx won almost every other race he rode. Merckx won the equivalent of a race a week for six years [The Independent, Friday 6th July, 2007.]

This list shows his wins as a percentage of races started - look at how often he won in 1970-1973:
  • 1966: 21%
  • 1967: 23% 
  • 1968: 24% 
  • 1969: 33%
  • 1970: 37%
  • 1971: 45%
  • 1972: 39% 
  • 1973: 37%
  • 1974: 27%
  • 1975: 25%
No mater how great Merckx was - and he was the best rider ever - these numbers are at best suspicious. The difference between him and Lance is that Lance dominated the Tour in an era when PEDs were not only illegal, but were the source of many scandals. In 1998, the year he returned to the Tour after his battle with testicular cancer (and the year before Lance's first victory), the Festina Affair ripped the drug scene in cycling wide open. Here is a brief summary from Wikipedia:
The Festina Affair refers to the events that surrounded several doping scandals, doping investigations and confessions by riders to doping that occurred during and after the 1998 Tour de France. The affair began when a large haul of doping products was found in a car of the Festina cycling team just before the start of the race. An investigation was followed by the opening of a separate case into the TVM team and the subsequent searching of many teams during the race. The investigation revealed systematic doping, and suspicion was raised that there may have been a widespread network of doping involving many teams of the Tour de France. Publicity on the case was constant and negative. Hotels were searched by police, and a spate of confessions were made by retired and current riders. Many team personnel were arrested or detained, and protests were made by riders in the race. Several teams withdrew from the race.
When Lance says he chose to use PEDs because that is what it took to be competitive and win races, this is the environment to which he is referring. To me, Lance is the greatest rider in a generation of riders who  were using PEDs. If drugs are simply another technology (and they are, which is why I believe they should be legal), like having better bikes, better wheels, better aero helmets, and better training techniques, then Lance had better drugs and applied their use more effectively.

For me, it's not about the drugs . . . .

What bothers me is that he lied about it, and not just lied, but actively sought to destroy anyone who might reveal his truth to the world. Men who willingly place themselves as role models have an obligation to at the very least be honest and demonstrate some integrity. In 1997, the year he returned to competitive cycling, he founded the Lance Armstrong Foundation, which later became the Livestrong Foundation. Lance wanted to be a role model - he spoke about his miraculous recovery, the great story of a hero overcoming imminent death to win one of the toughest sporting events on the planet, and then do it 6 more times.

However, the real issue to me is the way Lance bullied and intimidated other riders who spoke out about drugs, and especially those who spoke against him. In 1999, the first of Lance's 7 victories, Christophe Bassons (the only Festina rider from 1998 who rode clean) wrote some articles about the Tour and about doping, suggesting that the speeds were suspicious and that he believed little had changed. He paid a heavy price for those words, with Lance dealing the hardest blow:
The peloton began to turn against him, refusing to speak to him, and otherwise shunning him.[3]  
Stage 10 occurred on July 14 and was from Sestrieres to Alpe d'Huez. Bassons would later tell the story of this stage to media, including an October 2012 interview with the BBC. He said that nobody had been talking to him. The entire peloton planned to ride slow for the first 100 km without telling him. Bassons only heard about this because a mechanic from his team told him. Bassons decided he was "fed up" and decided to ride ahead of the others ("attacked from the start"). As they came to a flat spot, "all of the teams rode together to close me down". As the teams rode by him, they looked at him.[3]
" . . . and then Lance Armstrong reached me. He grabbed me by the shoulder, because he knew that everyone would be watching, and he knew that at that moment, he could show everyone that he was the boss. He stopped me, and he said what I was saying wasn't true, what I was saying was bad for cycling, that I mustn't say it, that I had no right to be a professional cyclist, that I should quit cycling, that I should quit the tour, and finished by saying [*beep*] you. . . . I was depressed for 6 months. I was crying all of the time. I was in a really bad way." - Bassons, on BBC Radio 5, 2012 10 15[3]
In 2011/2012, after investigations into past doping in cycling, especially the 2012 USADA report on Armstrong's US Postal Service team, the media began to re-tell Bassons story. In one interview for the BBC, Armstrong teammate Tyler Hamilton publicly apologized for being part of the peloton that shunned him, saying that he was "100% wrong" not to talk to him. Bassons said "that's life, it's nothing. I don't begrudge Hamilton. I understand."[3] 
Where I find little tolerance for Lance is not in his drug use (all but one of the 2nd and 3rd place finishers behind Lance in those Tour wins have been implicated in doping, as well). My intolerance lies in how he destroyed lives to maintain his lie, something he did not address last night. 

Greg LeMond and Frankie Andreu lost their livelihood at various points because of Lance (granted, LeMond had/has his own issues that made success off the bike more difficult). After LeMond expressed concern about Armstrong's relationship with Dr. Michele Ferrari, a known supplier of doping products and protocols to cyclists, Trek Bicycles threatened to drop the LeMond line of bikes unless LeMond apologized to Lance for saying he rode dirty - LeMond claims he suffered two years of depression for giving in to this demand.
The two parties first found themselves at odds in July 2001, after LeMond expressed public concern over the relationship between Italian doping doctor Michele Ferrari and Trek's star athlete, Lance Armstrong. "When I heard he was working with Michele Ferrari, I was devastated," LeMond was quoted as saying of Armstrong. "If Lance is clean, it is the greatest comeback in the history of sports. If he isn't, it would be the greatest fraud."[108][109] 
Trek's president John Burke pressured LeMond to apologize, claiming, "Greg's public comments hurt the LeMond brand and the Trek brand."[110][111] Burke allegedly justified his demand for an apology by advising that, "As a contractual partner, he [LeMond] could criticize doping only generally – not point his finger at specific athletes, particularly one that happens to be the company's main cash cow."[112]
Betsy and Frankie Andreu were close friends of Armstrong - and Frankie a teammate - who were present with Lance in the hospital when he was diagnosed with testicular cancer. During this revelation, the Andreus contend the overheard Lance admit to using EPO, steroids, and other banned substances.

From the New York Times:
The Andreus claim that they overheard two doctors in an Indianapolis hospital room in 1996 ask Armstrong if he had ever used performance-enhancing drugs. They said Armstrong, who was battling cancer then, rattled off: testosterone, EPO, growth hormone, cortisone, and steroids. 
But for years, Armstrong vehemently criticized them for their claims, saying they made up the story because they were jealous and vindictive, and that Betsy Andreu hated him. 
Yet when Armstrong told Winfrey in an interview that aired Thursday that he had doped throughout most of his cycling career, he failed to say that the Andreus’ hospital room story was true. 
“I’m not going to take that on,” he said when Winfrey asked about it. “I’m laying down on that one.”
He has not apologized or made any amends to them for his public assertions of their dishonesty and his use of the legal system to silence them. After the first segment of Lance's apology concluded, Betsy Andreu appeared on CNN with Anderson Cooper - she seemed clearly pained that Lance evaded the question and did not issue an apology:

She was not waiting for his doping confession. She was waiting for Armstrong to announce that she and her husband, Frankie, were not liars when they said Armstrong in 1996 had admitted to doping. 
But the acknowledgment that Betsy Andreu had long anticipated never came. 
“He owed it to me,” Betsy Andreu, on the verge of tears, said Thursday night on CNN’s Anderson Cooper 360. “You owed it to me, Lance, and you dropped the ball. After what you’ve done to me and what you’ve done to my family, and you couldn’t own up to it? Now we’re supposed to believe you? You had one chance at the truth, and this was it.”

If ever there were a place where "Man Up" is the appropriate response, this would be it. Armstrong owes a lot of apologies to a lot of people, which he did say was part of his effort to come clean. But for those people most wronged by Lance, it is probably far too little and far too late.

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As Shawn Phillips has mentioned in his comments on Lance, we can never know what pressures he faced and what motivations lie beneath the surface in his life (including his calculated, detached, and minimal admission of doping on Oprah's couch, not with a sports reporter or cycling magazine). It's hard to judge someone when we acknowledge our own flaws and weaknesses - and while I find it difficult to accept that he should not be held, somehow, accountable for those lives he damaged, I also know that I live in a glass house. So this is where I place my stones on the ground and walk away.

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Beyond the doping and the lost titles, and the money that will likely have to be returned, there is a man who has to live with himself for the next 40 or 50 years. There are deeper lessons in all of this, painful though they may be.

In the end, the races, the screaming fans, and the money mean nothing in life. What is important, however, are the relationships, the friendships, without which we are isolated and life loses its value and purpose. A man who throws friends and colleagues under the bus to protect his own lie, a lie he seems to have believed was his privilege, is a man who will die alone and lonely.

It seems Lance has not experienced this realization, yet, whereby he is willing to publicly apologize, and so sincerely, for destroying the lives of friends and teammates.


Fat Bastardo said...

This sort of stuff makes me doubt everything. Bobby the Brain Heenan once said, "Win if you can, lose if you must bu always cheat."

On Moonshiners on of them said, "It's only illegal if you get caught."

With guys like Bonds, Rothlisberger, McGwire and Tiger Woods staining all sports there are no heroes only bums.

I am beyond disgusted with this sort of crap. Cheating in everywhere because it is expected and pretty much allowed. All Armstrong will get is a slap on the wrist in spite of the fact that he swindled the US postal service out of $30 million.

This is about a lot of things but one thing nobody is talking about is rich privilege. He's toss some money around and buy his way out of this. That's what the rich do.

Armstrong cares very little for the sport. To him it is not a sport. Maybe as fans we should stop watching pro sports except for hockey.

Graham Phoenix | Male eXperience said...

WOW, that is, by far, the best, most honest, most realistic assessment of the lance Armstrong affair. My interest in cycling started with the famous Geg Lemond 8sec Tour Win. I believe that Lance is an amazing cyclist, despite the drugs, but as a man.... I will be interested to see whether he can ever look at himself as a man and live with himself. Will his arrogance ever let him see himself at all?

Fat Bastardo said...

He had the genetics and drive to be good at the sport but he lacked the integrity to be a sportsman.

Unknown said...

In a culture of cheating, then it becomes proper to do EVERYTHING you can to prevail.

If you take an economics class, they will discuss the "business" of growing marijuana and the retail end of the business. Having losses and getting caught is a risk you have to factor in to your price for the product.

At the top of this blogpost is a picture of Lance Armstrong that is COPYRIGHTED BY OPRAH. Is that "cheating?" Of course it is, but blogging is a culture of cheating to provide reader-likable content.

Lance's lying seems like the least of it to me, and his doping seems understandable if mechanisms to prevent "cheating" aren't really in place. He "cheated" with a wink and a nod from the event sponsors and facilitators.

Who was hurt, exactly? Those with "the fire in the belly" will do anything to win -- witness our recent presidential race. Anything.