Now this brief interlude – musings on Lance before the soap Oprah starts
I’ve been a staunch and vigorous supporter of Lance Armstrong since It’s Not About The Bike came out – I remember hearing sports stars raving about this must-read book, so I read it, and I raved about it too, and I made as many people read it as I could. Even back then there were rumours on message boards that maybe things weren’t as clear cut as they might be on the surface. As a general rule of thumb, I was an Armstrong groupie – I didn’t follow cycling, but brother, believe me; if you were going to start casting dark aspersions on the validity of Lance’s triumphs, I was going to be on your case.
So he won, and he won, and he won, and I was happy every time I heard about it for this remarkable man and his Hollywood fightback from the edge of the abyss. Occasionally people would say things, and I’d sneer – “he’s the most tested athlete ever,” I’d say. “And he’s never failed a test. He’s been through chemical hell – why would he ever voluntarily do it to himself?” You don’t need me to run through all the clichés, they’ve been around for a long time and you’ve heard them all before.
Lawsuits and accusations kept coming, and he kept fighting them off, and every time he won, it vindicated the truth I thought I knew. When the USADA story broke, I shook my head sadly and said to myself – “when will they ever let it drop?” Even when it was announced that he wouldn’t be fighting the charges, I still felt I stood on solid ground – they’ve finally done it, I thought, they’ve worn him down and won a meaningless victory. I felt sad for him and angry at USADA – it was like they’d been hunting this beast they feared, and when they finally caught it, I was 100% convinced that the coup de grace would show them that they’d caught nothing, a Lance into the side of an empty balloon.
So when the “reasoned decision” was released into the public domain, I snorted with derision and awaited the riposte, for surely there must be something coming – I couldn’t imagine that a man with his drive, integrity and will to win would just walk away from the fight, even if he wouldn’t put up with any more courtroom battles. There had to be something, some killer statement, some undeniable evidence that would blast USADA out of the water and end the argument for good. I knew there had to be some killer blow waiting to fall on the quivering necks of all the suits to put them out of their misery!
So I sat back with a grim smile and I waited. And I waited and waited. And nothing came out, there WAS no comeback, nothing more than fragile statements. And every day that passed, I felt the earth beneath the foundations of my Lance faith begin to grow weaker, and start to slip. And then I took the time to read the Reasoned Decision, and my little castle of faith crumbled to dust on the floor.
And the barmy thing is, I still don’t think I really feel angry about the duplicity. It’s like the “say it ain’t so, Joe” story – an apocryphal tale, maybe, but I’ll tell you now, that’s exactly how I felt; not angry, I didn’t crave justice. I just felt saddened to the core that something I held so dearly was shown to be a falsehood. I didn’t want Lance to be a villain – I had too much invested in him being the hero.
As I write, the Oprah interview has been filmed, we are two days away from the showing of it, and rumours are already floating about on Twitter about a confession. For my money, what I can’t work out is motivation – ostensibly, Lance wants to speak publically in order to be able to race again, triathlons and other endurance events. Is it going to be a confession? I don’t see how it could be otherwise – surely any attempt to continue the delusion would finish him for good. So – what else is there for him? I can see it going one of two ways – either it’s going to be a soft-peddled “I had to because everyone was doing it” flavoured confession aimed at winning the favours of a passive, non-specialist audience and keep hopes of his rumoured desire for a political career alive. Or maybe he’s going to properly tell everything – no holds barred, and let’s clean this sport up.
I would be disappointed with the first. I think it would fulfil the expectations of a public and cycling world that is rightfully cynical, and the only people who might soften their hearts to him are people whose opinions aren’t worth a huge amount to the cycling world. But what could he achieve with the second? If he names and shames other dopers or complicit members of teams or governing bodies, or at least makes it clear that that is what he’s going to do, then he will at least have done what he can to right the wrongs of his past. Redemption is too much to ask for, I think – he’s guilty of too weighty a burden to make that step, and I think the talk of returning to competition is a pipe dream at best. What I hope is that he has a conscience, that he wants to try and lay his own demons to rest, and that in his change of heart he does everything he can to identify culprits and – more importantly – uses his knowledge to work towards stopping the use of PEDs in sport, a la the remarkable David Millar. Unlike Millar, for Lance redemption might not be achievable, but that doesn’t mean it can’t be worked towards.