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Is it time to forgive Lance Armstrong?

Richard Moore
21 Sep 2018

Lance Armstrong remains a pariah in the sport of cycling yet many other ex-dopers are still accepted. Is his punishment out of proportion?

In 1999, when Lance Armstrong crushed the opposition to win his first Tour de France, David Gaudu was two years old. There could be no more stark symbol of how much time has elapsed since Armstrong began his domination of the Tour than the sight of Gaudu, the bespectacled young French prospect making his debut for Groupama-FDJ at the Tour’s Grand Départ in the Vendée this year.

To Gaudu, Armstrong must seem almost as distant a figure as Eddy Merckx was to Armstrong. Yet the American, to an even greater extent than Merckx, continues to loom over the sport, his shadow still falling over the Tour de France in particular.

It was, after all, the race that the American won – and then lost – seven times. 

Armstrong remains the reference point for all the sport’s ills. If the US Anti-Doping Agency believed that by stripping him of his seven titles, and banning him for life from sport, it was drawing a line under the affair, or expunging him, it was mistaken.

Indeed, these two decisions only helped start a new, ongoing narrative, and a problem or a riddle that remains unsolved: what to do about Armstrong, both his results (some annulled, others not), and his status today?

The fall of a giant

The USADA decision against Armstrong came in the autumn of 2012. That was seven years after his last Tour victory, and two years after his second retirement.

Indeed it was Armstrong’s disastrous comeback for 2009 and 2010 that set in motion the train of events that would bring him down.

When it published its reasoned decision, USADA called the case of Armstrong and his US Postal team ‘the most sophisticated doping programme in the history of sport’. 

Almost six years on, with so many more revelations having emerged about the extent of doping in the 1990s and 2000s, not to mention Russia’s state-sponsored cheating, that now seems a naive claim.

Overblown or not, the verdict seemed designed to single out Armstrong as a special case and make him a pariah.

Others were named in the USADA report, mainly as witnesses against Armstrong and US Postal, but although their doping was similar, their treatment was very different. They were whistleblowers, and therefore heroes.

Armstrong was a special case for several reasons. He didn’t cooperate with the investigation, for a start, and unlike the others he was accused not just of doping, but also of bullying, coercion and unpleasant behaviour.

Another factor, perhaps, was that he was a seven-time Tour winner: a kingpin, the biggest cog in a corrupt machine.

Armstrong was never going to go quietly. There was the small – actually, enormous – matter of a federal case to be dealt with, which could have cost him up to $100 million.

Because the team’s sponsor, US Postal, was government-owned, Armstrong was effectively being sued for damages, although he argued the publicity accrued when US Postal were title sponsors between 1999 and 2004 was in the bank.

The doping was immaterial, Armstrong and his lawyers seemed to be arguing. The US Postal Service had wanted publicity, and they had got it.

The case against Armstrong was due to be heard over the summer. But in early May the matter was concluded when Armstrong settled for $5 million.

The news was reported as a ‘win’ for Armstrong, and it left many people angry. They had expected, perhaps even hoped for, him to be financially ruined. In the event he was left a little poorer, but hardly destitute. 

Blind justice?

Those with direct experience of some of Armstrong’s behaviour are unlikely to ever forgive him, and why should they?

He treated some people very badly, among them Greg LeMond and his wife Kathy, the Italian rider Filippo Simeoni, and Betsy Andreu, the wife of Armstrong’s former teammate, Frankie.

Betsy Andreu, in particular, has continued to be outspoken and vocal in her criticisms of Armstrong, and she is perfectly entitled to be.

But there are good reasons why, in a civilised society, justice is handed down by dispassionate authorities rather than by the victims of a crime. 

With the Armstrong case, it’s worth asking: was his punishment proportionate? Was it based on logic, reason and precedent, or did it owe rather too much to emotion, with the deception, the bullying and perhaps even the entire premise of Armstrong’s ‘story’ – in which a guy survives cancer to come back and win the world’s toughest event – all factored in? 

Does it matter? It’s only sport, after all. As Jonathan Vaughters, one of the witnesses who testified against Armstrong, has said, professional sport is a privilege, not a right.

Armstrong is hardly being denied his liberty; he just isn’t allowed to take part in or be involved in an official capacity in bike races.

Having just turned 47, Armstrong is hardly going to be competing at the highest level again, but without the ban he would doubtless be taking part in triathlons, running events, perhaps even bike races, against competitors his own age.

Preventing him from doing so seems fair on those he’d be competing against. But stopping him from attending races in an official capacity can seem a little absurd when you look around the paddock at the Tour de France and spot so many accused or confessed dopers working on teams, for the media or even for the organisation itself.

Since the beginning of 2017, Armstrong has been prevented from attending races in an official capacity on three occasions.

The first was the Colorado Classic in 2017, where he was invited by the organisers to come and present his podcast from the race.

The second was at this year’s Tour of Flanders, where he was invited to take part in a public event, and most recently he was allowed to attend the start of the Giro d’Italia in Israel, but only with the understanding that he would not be given media accreditation. 

Armstrong went to Colorado anyway and did his podcast, but pulled out of his intended visit to Flanders after the new UCI president, David Lappartient, got involved personally and made it clear that he didn’t think Armstrong should be anywhere near the event.

At the Giro, the closest Armstrong got to the race was a run along the beach in Tel Aviv on the day Stage 2 finished on the seafront.

Armstrong seems unperturbed. For a couple of years now he has been steadily easing himself back into public life, mainly through his podcast, The Forward Podcast, in which he interviews an eclectic selection of guests from the worlds of sport, business and entertainment.

Last year he began a daily podcast during the Tour de France, which he has continued on a semi-regular basis, going daily again at this year’s Tour.

It has a sizeable following – Armstrong says the daily audience is around 300,000 during the Tour – presumably from members of the public who are willing to forgive, if not forget, the damage its presenter inflicted on the reputation of the event.

Within the sport, however, there are few who are prepared to forgive, at least not publicly.

Cyclist approached a number of current riders, and the response of almost all of them was to keep a safe distance from Armstrong’s continued toxicity.

One exception was Ian Boswell, the American who made his debut at this year’s Tour for Katusha-Alpecin.

The good and the bad

Boswell has personal reasons for taking a more nuanced view of Armstrong.

‘My connection to Lance goes back to my childhood,’ he tells Cyclist. ‘He raced against my dad in the 1980s when they were both doing triathlon. My dad was at the end of his career and Lance was the up-and-comer. 

‘I actually met him for the first time in 1998, after he had recovered from cancer and when he was coming back – it was just before he went and rode the Vuelta [where Armstrong was fourth, the first sign that he might become a Grand Tour contender after his comeback]. It was at the Cascade Cycling Classic in July. 

‘My dad tracked him down after the criterium downtown. They were chatting and Lance gave me his little cycling cap. I held on to it as a prized possession. I wore it once, under my cycling helmet, in the national junior time-trial – I was 14th.

‘I carried on developing as a rider, rising through the ranks, watching the Tour de France every summer, and being really inspired by Lance, and eventually I made it onto his Livestrong team. It was a development team for young riders. 

‘We had a training camp in Austin, Texas, which coincided with my 21st birthday, so Lance threw a party for me. I had my first legal alcoholic drink at his house.’

In 2013 Boswell turned pro for Team Sky. At the time, the entire sport was reeling from the USADA report and the aftershocks, including Armstrong’s televised confession to Oprah Winfrey.

There was an intense focus on Sky, too, with members of staff leaving in the wake of the Armstrong bombshell, having admitted their own past doping. 

Boswell admits that he found himself torn between his personal experience of Armstrong and the pressure to condemn him and distance himself from him.

Bradley Wiggins, Boswell’s new teammate and the reigning Tour champion, was outspoken in his criticism.

Boswell says, ‘I’d be asked about Lance and I didn’t want to sound like I was supporting someone who’d cheated, but I also felt it would be unfair not to mention that he was also a childhood hero, who had given me my interest in cycling, and a foot up through his development team.

I recognised that I wouldn’t be doing what I was doing without Lance. 

‘It’s tricky, because Lance did so much to develop cycling in the US,’ Boswell adds. ‘He made it cool, he brought it into the mainstream. I could show up to school and say I was a cyclist, and be accepted.’

The conundrum for Boswell, and doubtless others who grew up watching the Armstrong Tours, can best be summed up by his viewing habits when he’s on his turbo trainer.

When the Vermont winter is too cold or snowy to ride outside, Boswell watches old races on YouTube. ‘I don’t watch the 2016 Giro, I watch the 2001 Tour,’ he says.  

Rewriting history

Does the knowledge that we have now – that Armstrong and most of his rivals were doping on an industrial scale – not devalue those Tours, or destroy any enjoyment in watching them? It wasn’t real.

‘It’s hard to explain, but these are the races I grew up watching and when I watch them again now it’s as if I’m 10 years old again,’ Boswell says.

‘It’s not just the racing, it’s the commentary, the voices of Liggett and Sherwen, and all the riders. It’s so iconic of my formative years, I suppose.

‘The Tour was the only race I watched every year – it was the only race you could watch in the US.’

Boswell’s comments neatly summarise the problem the Tour and the sport has in dealing with the Armstrong years: the races happened, and they live in the memories of everyone who watched them, even if the records pretend they didn’t.

As for the problem of Armstrong himself, Boswell is struck by the inconsistency in the treatment of recognised dopers.

‘The punishment doesn’t make sense when you see other riders still prominent,’ he says. ‘You see Richard Virenque on French TV and Michael Rasmussen on Danish TV.

‘In the teams there are a lot of guys with a similar history, people who were involved in doping but who are certainly not pushing that on young riders.’

Perhaps the real lesson from the Armstrong story is that, for better or worse, you cannot rewrite history.

Moreover, many would argue that you shouldn’t, and that erasing one rider from the record books, while ignoring the similar behaviour of so many of his peers, might be a well-intentioned but misguided way of dealing with a problem.

The man who wasn't there

Some people within the sport would argue that the airbrushing of Lance Armstrong from the history of the Tour de France appears to be complete.

When Bradley Wiggins rode to victory in the 2012 Tour, Armstrong was still a prominent figure, even if he wasn’t actually there in person.

In the Village Départ, which is set up in the start town each morning, there were large cut-outs of a selection of Tour legends, including the quintet of five-time winners. Armstrong was there alongside Jacques Anquetil, Eddy Merckx, Bernard Hinault and Miguel Indurain.

But when USADA’s reasoned decision emerged a few weeks later, everything changed.

The following July, as the 2013 edition got underway, while the cut-outs of the greats remained in the Village Départ, the one of Armstrong had magically disappeared without trace.

At the 2018 race there was no sign of Armstrong at all, and barely a mention of his name.

Yet, in 2019 the Tour will start in Brussels, in part to mark the 50th anniversary of the first Tour win of the greatest of them all, Eddy Merckx.

The ‘Cannibal’ continues to be celebrated and fêted, which amounts to what some would say is an inconsistency and others might call hypocrisy.

Merckx also had his run-ins with the authorities with two failed drugs tests. That hardly makes him unusual among the sport’s legends, but it does highlight that, whether or not Armstrong’s punishment is fair and proportionate, it is certainly unique.

Illustration: Paul Ryding

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