Lance Armstrong won’t go away.
Perhaps his purpose as greatest living — and still rationalizing — sports fraud is to steel us against pedestal worship of athletic heroes.
If we were too romantic to have learned the lesson from Babe Ruth and Tiger Woods and the decades-long list of flawed stars between them, certainly we should get it now, after Armstrong not only cheated his way to seven Tour de France titles, but did it using his victory over cancer as metaphoric con.
It’s one thing to lie to people, repeatedly and passionately. Breaking hearts takes deception to another dimension.
Fans bought into the scam the same way investors bought into Bernie Madoff’s too-good-to-be-true success, despite signs that are billboards in retrospect. Lance lovers were complicit enablers because he gave them something in return. His ascents of L’Alpe d’Huez made hope as tangible as a yellow wristband.
A slew of new books and films, including the documentary The Armstrong Lie, and another interview with Armstrong confirm the continuing fascination with his story. Underlying the detailed methodology of how he was able to sustain a superior doping regimen is the exploration of why he was able to carry it off.
Building the Armstrong myth required collaboration from teammates, coaches, doctors, the international cycling federation, his publicity machines at Nike and the Livestrong Foundation.
The initially laudatory media grew increasingly suspicious of Armstrong’s results and smug ripostes but couldn’t clench a smoking gun. A few dogged journalists published damning reports and books despite Armstrong’s strategy of suing accusers into financial oblivion or, in the case of Greg LeMond, a masseuse, a mechanic and former friends, blackballing them from the business of cycling.
The key to the Armstrong fairytale was suspension of disbelief from fans, including the cancer community. Their faith bolstered his own self-delusion, which endures more than a year after the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency issued a report packed with evidence and eyewitness testimony about Armstrong’s systematic use of performance-enhancing drugs.
Armstrong told ESPN The Magazine interviewer Joe Lindsey of Bicycling magazine that he still resents being the prime target in a dirty sport. He blames his defiant personality for “selective prosecution” while again leaning on the “everybody was doing it” excuse.
“This is a story because I was a bigger [expletive],” Armstrong said. “Because I was more litigious. Because I was more combative…. What they [USADA] say is ‘to protect the rights of clean athletes.’ You know as well as I that there were no clean athletes…
“If we’re gonna be honest then just say, ‘He’s an [expletive]. We had to go after him. He tested positive for being the biggest [expletive] in the world.’ Fair. I can live with that. To say he cheated his competitors? Ask them! Ask my competitors.”
Even when Armstrong tries to be honest, he portrays himself as victim.
Alex Gibney, writer and director of The Armstrong Lie, originally planned to make an inspirational chronicle of Armstrong’s 2009 comeback entitled The Road Back. But after the confessions of Floyd Landis and Tyler Hamilton and the USADA findings broke, Gibney had to reconfigure his film, realizing he had footage of Armstrong in the act of the lie that people willingly accepted as truth.
“What made me want to make this film was to understand how so many — including myself — could be part of such a public cover-up,” Gibney said. “And I wanted to understand how Armstrong could so effectively promote and protect such an elaborate lie.”
Gibney, recently at a Miami screening, said he went from “admiring fan to angry dupe.”
The camera does not lie; humans “only see what we want to believe,” he said.
“Look at Lance’s face, the way he attacks some and seduces others,” Gibney said, showing instances when Armstrong used his power as hero, celebrity and moneymaker to perpetuate a secret that lasted for 15 years.
Gibney compared the Armstrong documentary to ones he made about the Catholic church and Enron.
“Like the church, Lance saw himself imbued with a moral force on behalf of cancer patients that separated him from the damage he was doing to other people’s lives,” Gibney said. “With Enron, we saw how our society loves a winner, although deep down we knew it wasn’t possible for that stock to keep going up.”
The Armstrong lie only grew in 2009, when Armstrong finished third in the Tour and insisted he did it clean despite irregular blood tests.
“I think he intended to ride clean but faced with being popped off the podium or reaching into his bag of tricks, he relied on his doping insurance,” he said.
Armstrong is on the other side of lawsuits today and facing the loss of his $125 million fortune as he attempts to settle a $100 million False Claims Act case by the government.
He wants to partner with USADA on an anti-doping campaign and with cycling on a truth and reconciliation committee. He wants to rejoin the struggle against cancer.
“Let’s create a teaching moment to say this was what it was, an unfortunate moment in a sport and in all of sports, an individual athlete we all knew of made a huge mistake,” he told ESPN. “Regardless of all that’s happened and the lies that were told, I’m still a cancer survivor.
“It’s still the thing that always meant the most to me and that I did fight for in going too far. I’d love to have some level of trust and credibility, even on a small level.”
Listen closely and you hear that Armstrong still has a difficult time saying the words “I’m sorry.” It’s even more difficult for people who blindly believed him back then to believe him now.