“Here lies a toppled god.
His fall was not a small one.
We did but build his pedestal,
A narrow and a tall one.”
-- H.G. Wells, A Short History of the World
Editor's note: This quote also appears in Frank Herbert's Dune Messiah, attributed to a Bene Tleilaxu epigram.
I have been a Lance Armstrong defender, and I was wrong.
Lance Armstrong last night came clean to Oprah Winfrey, admitting to blood doping, the use of EPO (a banned hormone) as well as the steroid testosterone to increase his endurance in all his 7 Tour De France wins. I knew it was coming. It was like a sledgehammer anyway.
Armstrong's fall has been like a giant redwood slowly rotting in its roots, leaning over further and further until it finally collapses. Under the weight of continual allegations from teammates and tests on retained samples that didn't exist back when they were taken, Armstrong's cycling accomplishments have gradually collapsed into dust. Mighty were his tainted accomplishments, and spectacular has been his fall.
As a guy who has followed professional cycling for years, and a recreational cyclist myself, Lance Armstrong was a point of pride to me for many years. His excellence, his successful battle against testicular cancer and his founding of the Livestrong cancer charity were all things to be admired, on the surface at least, and like many and perhaps most Americans, I admired him. I don't have sports "Heroes," but if I did, Armstrong would have been among them.
For years, and even still, professional cycling has suffered from a constant plague of riders using banned techniques and substances to raise their red blood cell count to far above normal in an attempt to increase endurance. Until recently, these techniques have been difficult to detect, and testing done at times in which changes to the body were easier to disguise, which is how Armstrong escaped positive drug tests for so long.
Armstrong said he viewed his doping as "leveling the playing field" rather than cheating, an implication that all the top contenders in cycling were doing the same thing as he was, and the string of positive doping tests in Tour and other cycling event winners over the last decade suggest that he was very likely right about his competition's cheating. Readers of this space will recognize the Golden Rationalization when they see it, or it's evil cousin, the "they are just as bad". Armstrong could have ridden clean, but he chose to cheat and rationalized it away.
The sad truth is, the ant-doping agencies and cycling groups are all so riven with their own ethical and political problems that none of them has the moral authority to guide the sports they purport to govern. Perhaps one good thing that could come out of all this is pressure on the anti-doping agencies and sports groups to become more accountable for their actions. Probably too much to hope for, but one always looks for the silver lining.
The breadth and depth of Armstrong's indecent behavior is staggering, as was the forthright candor of his admission of them. How difficult must it be to sit in front of television cameras and admit to being a cheating, lying ogre of a human being, a cad in every possible way, in front of hundreds of millions? I can scarcely imagine, especially when he has to know that it will gain him nothing but more trouble in the form of lawsuits against him from heaven knows where, and from what I have seen and heard, every one of them justified.
What have we learned, other than an fact long suspected, from Armstrong's candor? We've learned that he has done probably every unethical thing in the book, with cheating being only one of them. Assisted by his ill-gotten fortune and fame, he shouted down every critic in public and in private, sued them for, in most cases, telling the truth, and shamed them in the media.
One thing I can say is that in America, we seem obsessed with forgiving those who confess their sins to us. We have seen it a thousand times, and it never ceases to amaze me. There's no doubt that confessing one's wrongs is the first step to recovering from them. I feel that his apology is mostly sincere, and he only ducked one question, a question about a conversation which he had agreed to keep private.
But no matter how sincere and heartfelt his regret, he will find no absolution from me -- his wrongs are too great and too many. I cannot imagine living a lie for so long and hurting so many people in defense of his own dissimulation. Armstrong told an amazing story of a rise to prominence by deliberate, systematic cheating, then using the fruits of his scheme to defend his wrongdoing. This is exactly the sort of behavior, in an organized crime context, that the racketeering laws were designed to address before they were twisted by U.S. attorneys into something unrecognizable.
Which brings us to the other big elephant in the room, and given Armstrong's unrelenting string of deception, it must be asked. Armstrong denied doping in his comeback beginning in 2009, and given that he did not win again in 2009 and 2010, that seems plausible on the surface. He further claims that he did not dope after 2005. So many are wondering, as I am -- is he trying to avoid admitting to activity that might be actionable under the U.S. criminal statues, which generally carry a 5-year statute of limitations?
If so, he has little choice but to lie. An admission would open up a host of legal options against him with consequences so profound and dire that I doubt there is one among us who would willingly expose ourselves to it. That's why I think there is a very good chance that he is not telling the truth about 2009 and 2010.
In summary, Lance Armstrong was and is a liar, a cheat, and a cad of the highest order. Those are the facts, and they are now undisputed.