My wife thinks Lance Armstrong is a bully. My brother in Boston thinks he’s a thug. I think he’s a guy who missed his big chance to come clean, and now finds himself at the center of a compelling narrative he had no hand in shaping.
Lance hates it when he doesn’t control the peloton, and right now he’s not leading anything. He’s lost his titles, he’s lost his lucrative endorsement contracts with Nike and Oakley, and he’s losing more and more hardcore supporters with each passing day. There was a time not so many months ago when he could have come out and confessed: Yes, he was dirty. So was everybody else. He was the best in the world at a sport where only the dirty could compete. So he got down and dirty. Tour de France: French for doing whatever it took to compete and win.
Lance would have had to admit years of lying, but he might have explained that Livestrong Foundation, his fight against cancer, had become so big, so important, he couldn’t find a way to stop lying. That’s not an excuse, but it is an explanation. He might even have negotiated an agreement with federal authorities investigating him at the time and the U.S. and international cycling associations that control the record books and access to the sport.
Lance would have won forgiveness from many of his fans, people like me, who are tired of seeing a single marquee athlete in a given sport singled out for selective prosecution and public opprobrium while the sports structures that breed doping go untouched. There’s a reason why so many NFL lineman are dropping dead before they get anywhere near their first Social Security check. Does anyone really believe all those Big Guys made it to 300 pounds and more by eating? It takes a team to build a steroid-driven offensive line that can explode in unison on a snap. The point is all sports, not just cycling, need to come to terms with the role drugs have played in pro and amateur sports. Institutional culpability needs to be acknowledged.
As Lance now falls harder than he ever fell from a bike, here’s a prediction: Don’t count him out. Don’t bet against a guy who beat cancer and came back a winner. It took a lot more than blood doping and EPO to win seven Tour de France titles. Lance may have made riding dirty a prerequisite for a place on his team, but there were plenty of other world-class cyclists with the same access to the same doctors and the same drugs. That’s why it was a just decision to not hand his vacated titles to those who finished second. The cycling bodies would just be anointing someone else who juiced. Still, records are never completely erased. Lance still won seven times, and given time and humility, he can recover from this fall from grace.
To make one more comeback, Lance will have to do something he’s never done: humble himself. He’ll have to tell the truth and, convincingly, ask the public for forgiveness. In my experience as a journalist, Americans love a good sinner who’s seen the light. There’s nothing like a good public confession to get people in a forgiving mood. An older, wiser Bob Bullock once joked to a handful of reporters that he no longer had to worry about anything that was dredged up from his distant political past. All he had to do is say the pills and booze he had since quit had left him without much memory. President Bill Clinton, on the other hand, learned the hard way that the public wouldn’t easily forget his stone wall statement, “I did not have sexual relations with that woman.”
Yet even Clinton found his way back into public life, and last month he stole the show at the Democratic National Convention. He offers something of a model for Armstrong to follow in his own comeback, if he is willing to embrace the truth and the need to confess. Lance could start by writing another book, this time a tell-all, not one that settles scores with perceived and real foes from his racing days, but an honest account of how a young, angry kid without a father rose from obscurity in Plano, Texas to world-class status in a sport long dominated by Europeans. When did he first dope? How did it help him come back from the cancer? How did he game the drug tests? How can the sport clean itself up? That book, even in the age of tablets and e-books, would be worth a multi-million dollar advance if a publisher were convinced that Lance would admit all. The money could go to the Livestrong Foundation, and that would put Lance back on a coast-to-coast ride and book tour. It could turn out to be the most important endurance event of his career.
The alternative is to spend the rest of his life denying the obvious and nursing his grudges. Cancer audiences will applaud still, and they should as he continues his crusade. But it will be the cancer that Lance didn’t beat, the cancer of deceit, that eats away at everything else he has accomplished in life. Better to take the cure and get on with life.
Write the book, Lance. Tell us the real story. Don’t miss another good opening to make your move.
Suggested read on Slate: Does Lance get to keep those yellow jerseys? Click here.