It took me a long time to learn how to ride a bicycle. So long in fact that it was only out of embarrassment, not necessity, that my training wheels were removed. Because of this mechanical amputation, I wasn’t easily lulled into what I believed to be the false sense of stability that other children embraced in two wheels. I would get going on my bicycle, and then like the boy trying to drink a glass of milk in My Life As A Dog, I would become acutely aware of what most would take for granted. I would grow nervous at how unnatural it seemed. I would wobble. I would crash. I would lose my balance.

Balance is a fascinating word. It can refer to both the abstract and the concrete, but no matter what’s being balanced – a bankbook, your diet, or your body – we understand that an effort is underway
to ensure equilibrium. Just as I struggled as a youngster to keep my bicycle from teetering too far right or too far left, I’ve throughout my life to find an improved balance between cynicism and naivety.

I’m more prone to falling on the cynical side, but there are elements in my life to which I choose to remain naive. For many years, I believed in Lance Armstrong. In fact, my defense of the cyclist was so ardent as to diverge from several personal principles to which I ascribe. In this sense, Armstrong made me a hypocrite who speaks and writes of open-minded analysis, and yet remained closed to the idea that a personal hero in his sport and outside of it might be something more (and also less, definitely less) than the construct of him that I had created.

My delusion extended so far as to accept my own uninformed theory as to how a young, slightly above-average cyclist in the early nineties would transform into the sport’s elite after eradicating the cancer that was found in his testicles, lungs, abdomen and brain. I imagined him to be too muscular during his early career, a by-product of his earlier days spent as a triathlete. I told myself and anyone who questioned his makeover that the sixteen month layoff from training reduced the muscle mass, and therefore body weight, that had actually hindered his abilities to climb and compete in the most illustrious of stage races.

It’s funny to use the verb compete in association with Lance Armstrong because his peak performance left little in the way of opposition. He competed with his rivals in the same way a petulant child competes with his or her toys. He played with them until they were used up. He was a master. My favorite display of his dominance occurred during the 2004 Tour de France, when whispers suggested that organizers thought they had created a course that could defeat the American.

The odd route of the race featured three vicious mountain stages on consecutive days, including a rare individual time trial up Alpe d’Huez, a stage typically reserved for the best climbers. The thinking was that Armstrong would only survive such a grueling expense of energy with the help of his strong U.S. Postal Service team. If that advantage was removed with a time trial on a mountain stage, not only would Armstrong’s resolve weaken, but there was a good chance that an elite climber like Ivan Basso would gain valuable seconds with three days in the mountains.

Armstrong proceeded to win all three mountain stages, most memorably passing Basso during the individual time trial on the Alpe d’Huez ascent, despite the Italian racer starting two minutes before Armstrong on the 15.5 kilometer all-uphill climb.

He went on to win the overall classification by more than six minutes, overcoming all competitors once again, often riding past them as though they were still. It was his sixth of seven Tour De France championships.

The only racer to come close to offering anything resembling a challenge to Armstrong during his days of dominance was Jan Ullrich, whose career was also tainted by doping allegations while he was riding and the subsequent confirmation of these suspicions after he had retired. I could believe that Ullrich was involved in blood doping because he had finished only a minute behind Armstrong during the 2003 Tour De France. However, I maintained that Armstrong’s use of the same available techniques to find optimum performance was unrealistic.

I continued to use my earlier justification of decreased muscle mass because I wanted to believe in Lance Armstrong. I wanted to remain naive to the possibilities that someone could beat cancer, beat his athletic opposition, and beat those who would attempt to discredit him for it. Whenever this resolve wavered, Armstrong seemed to pop up to vehemently defend himself against any and all accusations from a seemingly ever increasing cadre of detractors. He was militant in his defense, and this only served to strengthen belief in his innocence, or at least wilful ignorance to his guilt.

Never was this more evident than in Armstrong’s libel lawsuit against The Sunday Times for the reprinting of allegations from Pierre Ballester and David Walsh’s book L.A. Confidentiel, which included claims from Emma O’Reilly, the U.S. Postal Service’s team masseuse. The newspaper settled out of court. Armstrong, it seemed, wasn’t merely convincing to his followers. He convinced judges and lawyers as well.

When L’Equipe, a French sports daily, printed a cover story about six –year-old urine samples from Armstrong testing positive, the American cyclist issued the following statement, the day before it was published:

Unfortunately, the witch hunt continues and tomorrow’s article is nothing short of tabloid journalism. The paper even admits in its own article that the science in question here is faulty and that I have no way to defend myself. They state: ‘There will therefore be no counter-exam nor regulatory prosecutions, in a strict sense, since defendant’s rights cannot be respected.’ I will simply restate what I have said many times: I have never taken performance enhancing drugs.

Armstrong, like the most manipulative of boyfriends, placed allegations against him in an “us-against-the-world” context to his supporters. He was an admittedly brash, but also earnest American who found success in a sport dominated by the arrogant Europeans. This, we were told implicitly, drove them mad, especially the arrogant French, who had their sport taken from them by a conquering New World athlete.

Then, the accusations became overwhelming. American riders, scurrying to avoid their own impending disgraces, began turning on Armstrong. First Frankie Andreu, then Floyd Landis, then Tyler Hamilton, and eventually George Hincapie all claimed that Armstrong used erythropoietin to fuel his success or at least had it distributed to him. It appeared as though an indictment from U.S. federal prosecutors was inevitable. Then, just as the peloton of the American justice system was ready to swallow the breakaway rider whole, it gave up its counter attack, officially and controversially dropping the case against Armstrong less than a year ago.

Through it all, Armstrong remained resolute in his own unlikely innocence, repeatedly stating that he had nothing to do with any illegal performance enhancers. This past summer, new allegations emerged, this time from the United States Anti-Doping Agency. Armstrong again attempted his litigious counter measures, asking a Texas Court to “bar the USADA from pursuing its case or issuing any sanctions against him.” The suit went to trial, and the USADA won the case, despite the judge referring to the organization’s “single-minded determination to force Armstrong to arbitrate.” It appeared as though the determined Armstrong had finally met his equal.

In October, the USADA released a 200 page report with more than 1,000 pages of supporting documentation. The organization recommended to the Union Cycliste Internationale that Armstrong be banned for life and stripped of all of his Tour De France titles. The UCI concurred, and when Armstrong failed to appeal the decisions to Court of Arbitration for Sport, he was purported in the public eye to be the cheat that the USADA claimed.

Now, on the cusp of the broadcast of Lance Armstrong’s much-publicized admission to Oprah Winfrey, the community that championed Armstrong is vilifying him. It’s understandable. It’s a natural reaction to being deceived. It’s even a justifiable response to the way in which Armstrong so vehemently defended himself, to the point of ruin for his accusers.

However, there’s a lesson to be learned in my mistaken lack of balance that I attached to taking stock of Armstrong’s achievements. He isn’t the hero that I imagined him to be, perhaps not even the one that he imagined himself to be, but that doesn’t make him the villain that he’s being portrayed as now. With his lies and reckless defense of his cheating, he hurt people and enjoyed not only the benefits of achievements, but also a saintly reputation.

Certainly, we can now claim that those personal benefits were undeserved, but through his cheating, he inspired hundreds of thousands and earned millions more for cancer research and providing information for those affected by cancer. Since 1997, his foundation, now referred to as the Livestrong Foundation, has raised more than $325 million and an inestimable amount of awareness through the sale of 72 million yellow bracelets. Along with the bad, he did good.

It would be a shame for us, in our eagerness to understand things in a binary manner, to take this away with the records and achievements that have already been dismissed. The good that Armstrong did deserves to be remembered, as do his moments of excellence, tainted as they may be.

Aside: Even ignorantly understanding the use of banned substances to be akin to swallowing large doses of Gummy Bear juice doesn’t completely account for his incredible victory in the time trial climb up Alpe d’Huez

It takes balance to ride a bicycle. It takes balance to navigate your life. And certainly, it takes balance to judge the lives of others. Even as he has teetered here, and teetered here categorically, no matter what the motivation is for Lance Armstrong finally admitting the truths he’s kept hidden for so long – to selflessly help the Livestrong brand recuperate or to selfishly be allowed to compete in triathlons again – I’ll be the first in line to help him get back up and attempt to find his balance again.

Comments (30)

  1. I agree at large but I also think your concept of balance can be used to explain the somewhat over-the-top backlash against Armstrong, if not justify it. If he hadn’t pushed so hard to portray himself as a squeaky-clean hero then the other side likely wouldn’t now be pushing so hard to portray him as Satan incarnate. That’s balance, too, and I’m sure a lot of people see this vilification and public shaming as the only way to get his story back into a neutral position. I don’t agree, but I also can’t really blame anyone for feeling that way.

    Also worth noting is that the Livestrong Foundation doesn’t actually support cancer research. That’s probably the public misconception about Armstrong that bothers me the most. That’s not to say that awareness on its own is a bad cause, but I’m sure I wasn’t the only one who thought the dollars from all those bracelets and clothes were actually helping fight the disease.

    • They did support cancer research, but now they focus solely on providing information and tools. My understanding is that the shift is a relatively new thing.

      • I think it was around 2006 they stopped funding research. Between then and this week Lance continued to deny that his great miracle was a great fraud and the foundations money continued to pour in.

  2. Brilliant piece, Dustin. I think there’s a lot of people out there (myself included) that have found themselves in a conflict of feelings about Lance. After years of steadfastly defending him in discussions, I’ve been forced to basically lower my head and turn the other way, hoping no one says “Hey Dave, what’s your thoughts on Lance?” Now, though, I might just hand over a copy of your blog.

  3. Cristophe Bassons, Filippo Simeoni,Emma O’Reilly, Greg LeMond, Betsy Andreu, David Walsh

    Armstrong destroyed, ostracised, discredited and intimidated these people. His actions towards these people ended careers and made their lives a living hell, just look up Emma O’Reilly for a simple example.

    Armstrong’s charity work had done undeniable work for millions. However charity doesn’t just wipe away a persons sins. You can say that calling him a villain is a statement that lacks balance but when you look at the actions of the man, the damage he wrought out of solely his own interests I find it hard to think of him in any other way.

    • Emma O’Reilly isn’t merely a specific example. What he and his handlers are alleged to have done is despicable. It’s a part of the lies, the adamant lies, and the cheating. This isn’t meant to suggest that he’s a saint, and I feel fairly confident that I’ve expressed here that he’s every bit as much a hero as he is a villain, which is to say neither.

      • Fair response. I just hate any attempts to kinda justify what he did in cycling with his livestrong work and I know that’s not what you were doing.

        Good work with the blog anyway!

        • Agreed on that. Don’t like the “but he fought cancer” arguments.

          I also want to commend you on the worrk you’ve done here so far. It’s positively excellent.

  4. Nice piece.

    I love that The Onion had this pretty much nailed about TWO AND A HALF YEARS AGO…

    Lance Armstrong Wants To Tell Nation Something But Nation Has To Promise Not To Get Mad,17973/

  5. I agree with everything you said about the Livestrong foundation and all, it’s just interesting to me that as you say his only real competitor at the time was also found to be a user of PEDs. I just wonder how rampant their use was or is in the sport and if it was as rampant as I believe it to be then how much of an edge did it really give him? What I’m trying to say is that yes he cheated but if everyone else (or at least everyone else who could compete with him) was cheating too then how much was the drugs and how much was him just being a better biker? Was he just that much better at cheating than everyone else? Not saying that this justifies what he did, it’s just something to think about maybe from a post-humanist view.

    • Oh, he deserves all the credit in the world for his cycling achievements. It’s just a different argument altogether to consider whether or not the stripping of titles was necessary. However, how many second place finishers in the seven Tour titles that he won can you name? There’s some imagination I think that EPO and PEDs in general are Gummy Bear juice. That’s not the case. It’s not a magic elixir. Armstrong still did the work, and still won the races in a smart fashion. It’s been claimed that USPS used an incredibly sophisticated system, and that may very well be the case, but USPS guys weren’t 1-10 in GC every Tour. He remains exceptional if he cheated or not.

      • USPS guys weren’t supposed to be 1-10 in every race. Most of them blew themselves up getting Armstrong over the hills, wearing down his rivals, and chasing down potential attacks. All the while Lance could sit in relative comfort and then attack once his rivals were ground to dust by his faithful lieutenants.

        It’s a perfectly legitimate cycling strategy that is employed by everyone through the course of time, but if the entire team is doping, it makes it that much more effective. A fully doped team would have a significant advantage over a half doped team over the course of three weeks and six mountain stages – and it would never show up in the overall classification because that’s not the point. Cycling teams don’t try to sweep the podium – they put all their energies towards a team leader. That’s why you saw Christian Vandevelde and Tom Danielson, accomplished grand tour riders in their own right, burn themselves for Ryder Hesjedal up the Stelvio in last year’s Giro, allowing Ryder to conserve his energy.

        And that’s why the argument “all the top guys did it and Lance still won” is such a misnomer. Yes, all the top riders from that era doped, but they’re not the only people in the race. If you only have a ten man race consisting of the top guys alone, then it’s a level playing field, but unless every last domestique on Team Telekom, on Cofidis, on CSC were doping to the proficiency of USPS, then it’s not even. Even less so given how Lance was usually able to take 10-15 seconds out of his top rivals because of the Team Time Trial and force them to attack instead of vice versa.

        I don’t want to come across as too antagonistic, and apologies if that’s the case. But as fine a read as this is, it sounds like it’s coming from an (ex-) Lance Armstrong fan, and not a fan of cycling.

      • Also, it is known that someone on EPO and someone not on EPO has a distinct advantage, some say up to 5% extra power output which can be the difference between finishing 1st and 40th in the Tour de France all other things being equal.

        Lance put in the work, but so too did the others. So too did Cristophe Bassons who was robbed of the chance of seeing where he could have went because he didn’t indulge.

    • Unfortunately the idea that because everyone took drugs the field was level doesn’t play out. The drugs affected everyone differently… It benefited some more than others. Tyler Hamilton explains this in his book. But the fact remains, others out there didn’t want to cheat and it cost them their jobs and who knows how much potential prize money had the field been truly level with everyone being clean.

  6. I also struggled with this hot mess. Even while reading about the disgusting way Armstrong threatened and intimidated anyone who tried to expose his dishonesty, I kept reminding myself of all of the good things he’s done for cancer research.

    Now I just think Lance had the good business sense to invest in reputation management.

    Most companies don’t participate in corporate social responsibility because they like spending those resources; they do it because they know CSR builds important relationships and fosters public goodwill. They know that companies or brands with good CSR are more likely to have others speak up for them in times of crisis.

    I propose that Lance’s efforts with Livestrong were (at least partially) a means to mitigate the damage when shit eventually hit the fan. He knew that in case he ever got found out, his supporters would stick by him, because the reality of the situation is completely at odds with the heroic image he worked so hard to convey.

    IN SUMMARY: Armstrong, an astute businessman/marketer who has what sounds like borderline sociopathic tendencies, used Livestrong as a cushion on which to land when he inevitably fell from grace.

    This is all speculation, but it’s super fun. Loving the new blog, k bye!

  7. so how is this blog different from every other sports blog again? the posts are longer? or just incredibly more boring?

  8. In cycling, the team is constructed around a leader – just like the Sky team this and the Tour de France year won by Bradley Wiggins, Chris Froome was forced to wait for Wiggins even though he looked stronger and might have beaten his leader. He was second overall. You can’t look at the USPS team not coming 1 – 10 and draw conclusions, the team was designed around Armstrong and waht was by all accounts the most systematic drug taking machine in the history of Sports.

    I understand your point but there is another school of thought that the technology was so sophisticated that it really did turn an average to abover average athlete into a great one.

  9. Lastly, the deaths of certain cyclists in drug realted incidents, the extent of the cover up as well as the huge financial gain around his image (inter alia) mean that I really think it is quite hard to not come down quite hard on this one.

    I find the typical US defence around drug taking in sports relatively hard to stomach as a former semi-pro track athlete throughout this period.

  10. In the grand tradition of ‘what ifs’, projections and games of the imagination here’s a great piece on the cyclists who were the real winners of each of Armstrong’s seven tours.
    Given the seeming ubiquity of doping you have to go a long way down the list to get to someone who might plausibly be clean. Ladies and gentlemen let’s hear it for Daniele Nardello!

  11. Also, this quote below from a piece in Monday’s Guardian from retiring cyclist Nicole Cooke:

    “This is not doing 71 mph on the motorway when the legal limit is 70. This is stealing somebody else’s livelihood. It is theft just as much as putting your hand in a purse or wallet and taking money is theft. Theft has gone on since the dawn of time but because somebody, somewhere else, does it, does not mean it is right for you to do it. There can be no excuse.”

    See the extensive piece here:

    It’s an interesting piece for a lot of reasons. Not only doping but gender equality in sport and the challenges of an athlete who excels in a marginal sport (as in women’s cycling is marginal compared to men’s – not that cycling overall is marginal). It’s worth a read – or maybe one of Parkes’ unread browser tabs.

  12. Good piece Dustin, however I think the issue that it does not address sufficiently is that of Armstrongs actions to others. I don’t have a real problem with an individual who dopes when everyone else is doping, it happens.

    My problem is how he treated and vilified others, and his characterization of those who (with actual proof) spoke out against him. His treatment and characterizations of Greg LeMond, Floyd Landis, Tyler Hamilton and others. He has smeared both Lemond and Landis for being mentally ill, Hamilton for being an opportunist. Threatened ALL of these people financially and occasionally in a more ominous manner. There was also the issue of him pressuring Zabriskie into doping with threats while knowing his father had died due to drug abuse. It’s despicable.

    His establishing a charity and being picked up by the public as an inspiring story does not absolve him of this behaviour, and unfortunately his PERSONAL doping (which to me is a non-issue) is that fact that people who would excuse him focus on. The real reasons he should be vilified are either under-reported or unknown by most of the folks arguing about him and his legacy which is unfortunate.

  13. Maybe someone can help me here, but without repeating LiveStrong PR releases, can someone tell me exactly what it is that LiveStrong does?

    Case in point, this article:

  14. So let me get this straight. Its OK for a musician to smoke drugs (some, not all) and create a beautiful song that wil create millions of $$$$ for themselves & band but when an athlete does takes something that will help them with the end result; its wrong.

    Humans are such a moronic breed, especially the ones that portray themselves as self-serving judges and juries to the world.

    I say congrats Lance, you lived a LIFE, unlike these naysayers. Cycling is the hardest sport in the world & u were one of the great.

  15. I’ve never had a problem with Lance Armstrong and I don’t now. And the cancer research isn’t the reason either. I’ve never cheated or taken anything to help my performance in anything athletic I’ve ever done, but I’ve never done anything quite as athletic as the Tour de France. I’m not justifying it saying that because the Tour de France is so hard the PEDs are ok. The issue I have – and I think its been mentioned in the comments – is that everyone else (at least most near the top) were taking them or some form of them as well. And someone else mentioned that there are more than just the top 10 in each tour, but who is to say that the guy who finished in 56th or 101st place weren’t taking them either? I doubt the USADA did a 1000 page report on the guy who finished in dead last at the Tour de France whether he was taking them or not.

    He competed and apparently did so with some assistance, but I don’t really care because a lot of other riders did and he was still on top. And as far as attacking people who attacked them first, I think it is somewhat excusable because – now correct me if I’m wrong – a lot of them were doing so with no actual physical proof, and its only now that the USADA has the information to get him. Others that did so in the past were in a smear campaign (obviously not anymore but at the time it seems like it) and I think it was ok for Lance to defend himself enough to try and get others to back off.

    This is an early morning rant that I hope makes sense. Oh ya, great piece Dustin. You’ve impressed me with many baseball and football blogs and now this.

  16. I can’t see how Lance did good by a charity he created as a smoke screen for his drug use? It was a case of ‘You won’t bring me down because you won’t want to hurt the charity’. He raised little for cancer research and a lot for ‘awareness’ and some to fund his lavish lifestyle of private jets etc.

    Lance sold the idea that his comeback from his deathbed to winning the Tour was a miracle. It wasn’t, but he sure profited for it.

    Lance is a scumbag who deserves what he’s getting. Removing his titles was only right. The next step is those who he defrauded — be it earnings or law suits he won — going after that money.

  17. While I have no time for what Lance has done to my sports image, I do have to say that it pains me to see how the aspect of drugs in cycling is portrayed in the media by comparison to other sports. Cycling is put on one pedestal, yet other sports with clearly problems of their own, are not made a big deal of because their minimal testing procedures brings few positive results.

    I look at the Jays signing Melky Cabrera this off-season. He’s just tested positive yet few questions has been asked of the Jays or of Cabrera. Will questions be asked if he puts up similar numbers to the past few years? Heck, recently the baseball hall of fame has garnared debates on whether Clemens or Bonds belong in the Hall. Thankfully they didn’t get in, but the fact remains: Baseball’s biggest cheats are on the ballot for the hall of fame; cycling’s biggest cheat has had his titles stripped, a lifetime ban invoked, and reputation destroyed.

    Just this week Dick Pound said that cycling could be left out of the Olympics. I found that disgusting given some of the sports it would leave behind in the game that have serious issues of their own. Tennis for example does little out of competition testing, no blood testing, and despite Rafael Nadal’s name appearing in the Operation Puerto investigation — one that brought down many cyclists — little was said or done about it.

  18. Frankly I can’t believe anyone can defend Armstrong right now enough to speak about a wish to “help him get back up”. It’s not so much the drugs, it’s about his cavalier disregard, misuse and abuse of the people around him to continue what he was doing.

    Before finally admitting he cheated – when there was no other option left, and once he was safe from prosecution for what he was admitting – he threw everybody under the bus, he sued left and right, he attacked and viciously smeared. Time will tell but the The Sunday Times must wonder if there is a case of perjury to be answered.

    He was vicious, manipulative and cruel. He was bad, and he was nasty. But Dustin talks of balance? Of forgiveness? No, not by a long way. People have gone to prison for much less. And in case you’re wondering. I don’t care an iota about drugs and blood doping and cheating or the entire sport of cycling. They’re peanuts here compared to the much greater sins committed in the acts of covering up. Those sins outweigh any genuine athletic achievement which may exist underneath his performance.

    In the UK at the moment, the police are discovering the full truth about a famous TV presenter who spent a career using his influence, position and power as one of the UK’s leading fundraisers for children’s charities as a smokescreen to hide the systematic sexual abuse of countless numbers of children. That, thank God, is not a depth to which anyone suspects Armstrong of falling. Yet in his ruthless manipulation of those around him for his own aggrandisement, we see a person almost as flawed, and almost as deserving of censure.

    • In other words, Dustin says in a reply above that Armstrong is neither a saint nor a villain.

      No … I’m pretty sure he’s a villain actually … as in actual villains who commits villainous deeds that, were they to be tried in a court of law with full knowledge of the facts as now laid out (prior to the statute of limitations coming into force), would justify a lengthy prison sentence.

      Certainly he may be lucky he never took the stand in an English court and settled with the Sunday Times instead of perjuring himself, but there is still a good case to answer for fraud there … and no statute of limitations to save him.

      I just think – if as a society we can’t look at someone like Lance Armstrong and say ‘this is a bad man’, no ifs, no buts, no grey areas – just how screwed ARE we as a society?

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