January 23, 2013
Give disgraced bicyclist Lance Armstrong this much credit: Last week, when TV host Oprah Winfrey asked him, point-blank, "In all seven of your Tour de France victories, did you ever take banned substances or blood dope?" he answered, with a nod, "yes."
At last, the truth.
Mr. Armstrong's affirmation, after years of frequent, strident denials that he had taken drugs to improve his competition performance, validated what nearly everyone else — not least the sport's ruling body, the International Cycling Union — had been saying for a long time: He had won fraudulently, and not just once, but multiple times.
But in too many ways, Mr. Armstrong's TV confession fell short; even Ms. Winfrey said he "did not come clean in the manner I expected."
For years, he viciously bullied former teammates and colleagues who urged him to tell the truth about his drug use; in the interview, he didn't apologize to them. He denied pressuring other cyclists into taking drugs, despite sworn evidence to the contrary.
He told Ms. Winfrey he didn't think he could compete if he didn't use banned substances, because so many others were doing so. The blame-the-culture argument is a familiar one, and speaks little of one's personal integrity. Where was he years ago when his mother asked him, as she must have, "If everyone else jumped off a cliff, would you jump too?"
The admission was there. The repentance seemed absent.
The tragedy of this American hero's downfall is all the more acute because it caps what to many was an inspiring story of apparent heroism, guts and the fierce will to fight back. A world cycling champion since 1993, Mr. Armstrong was diagnosed with testicular cancer, which had spread to his lungs and his brain, in 1996. After chemotherapy, he returned to cycling; his command of the sport was cemented by successive Tour de France wins from 1999 to 2005.
To wide acclaim, in 1997 he created the Lance Armstrong Foundation, now called the Livestrong Foundation, to support those with cancer.
But last year, after almost a decade of rumors and denials, the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency accused Mr. Armstrong of using banned drugs; his response, besides the usual "never," was to sue the agency. Not long thereafter, the Cycling Union concurred, and he was stripped of his titles. The International Olympic Committee has taken back the bronze medal he won in Sydney in 2000.
Mr. Armstrong reportedly said that his interview with Ms. Winfrey was part of a multi-year healing process. It will take awhile for him to undo years of his lies about his fraudulent wins, but if he hopes to succeed, here are some steps he should take:
• He must testify, under oath and cross-examination, to the U. S. Anti-Doping Agency about the full extent of his doping activities, and name names. Who supplied the drugs?
•He must apologize, without evasion, to all those in the cycling and anti-doping communities whom he verbally attacked and threatened over the years merely for telling the truth. Asking forgiveness by name would be a plus, if his memory is up to the task.
• He must devote the rest of his career not to further competition at the professional level, but to enthusiastic promotion of drug-free amateur cycling. Many enthusiastic amateur cyclists were inspired to try the sport by Mr. Armstrong's courage in the face of catastrophe.
If he is lucky, very lucky, that will be his legacy. Bicycling is an entirely worthwhile activity, even for those who could never compete in an event with "Tour" in its name. Eco-friendly, fun and wholesome, it builds character as well as muscles.
In 2009, Irish sports journalist Paul Kimmage called Mr. Armstrong "the cancer in cycling." Those are harsh words, but if true perhaps they hold hope for the former star athlete. He has beaten cancer once. With determination, and the same grit he showed in the 1990s, he might beat it again.
Copyright © 2015, The Hartford Courant