The Rise, Fall and (possible) redemption of Lance Armstrong

Lance Armstrong is perhaps the greatest rider the Tour de France has ever seen. He is one of the most recognised and sought after sportsmen in the world and his story is a source of motivation for millions. A recent investigation by the United States Anti-Doping agency however, has washed away the veneer of success revealing a man obsessed with victory, and willing to do anything to achieve it, including doping. The king of the mountain has been bought back to Earth.

Life is not as easy as it used to be for Lance Armstrong

Lance Armstrong made a career out of the extraordinary; Seven Tour de France yellow jerseys, victory over an aggressive cancer and a charity that has raised hundred of millions of dollars for cancer research are only some of his long list of achievements. Add to this a celebrity profile and a large family and it looks like a life lived to the very fullest.

From the outside Armstrong comes across as a man possessed, his lust to achieve his goals limited only by the scope of his imagination. No one who has watched him in his cycling peak can forget the shear determination to win as he pushed himself beyond the normal physical limits of man onto results that appeared impossible. This ferocity of will was evident away from the bike as well. His personality overshadowed not just the Tour de France but also every other rider who competed against him or in fact rode beside him on and off the track. Those who know him testify to his complete self assurance, his overwhelming personality and to a confidence that can crush the will of those around him, driving his views across like a sledgehammer blow. Quite rightly on the basis of all his achievements he has earned a legion of fans and many millions of dollars throughout his distinguished career.

But like many who have straddled the peak of sporting achievement, particularly in cycling, his success has not been without controversy. Throughout his seven Tour wins rumours spread through the nights of artificial aids, of needles and of threats. Over time these rumours were rejected as the lies of jealous competitors, scandals spread to besmirch an honest champion. But they refused to disappear. As they lingered many other riders, some of them champions themselves, were caught using performance enhancing drugs. More and more were found out and it soon became apparent that these were not just a select few but a phenomenon that was rampant within the upper echelon of cycling; that it was quite possibly the majority of riders rather than a select few. But still, at the top of the pile was Armstrong, sitting pure and clean, boasting freely of having never failed a drugs test and admitting his disdain for his fellow riders who needed artificial help to keep up with him. Rather than the scandal of drug taking damaging his sport and reducing his status, it elevated him. It somehow made him the man who not only conquered cancer and the Tour but also conquered those who would try and steal his mantle through means other than hard work and bloody mindedness.

Armstrong after his seventh and final Tour win. Adored by fans and the media alike

But that rumour, those vicious lies, they refused to go away and, if anything, they gathered momentum. Other riders recalled seeing Armstrong with a needle in his arm, enthusiastically administering performance enhancing drugs into his system with an almost casual glee. Books appeared denouncing him as not only a drugs cheat but perhaps the greatest drugs cheat of the entire tour, if not in the history of the entire tour. Again these allegations were backed up by hearsay or the word of someone already convicted, unreliable sources, probably with a grudge to bear against the champion. It was easy for the general public who wanted to believe the hype to dismiss them.

Armstrong retired a champion, made a come back in which he performed admirably and remained the idol of the cycling world. Some however, never forgot the rumours. They never moved on. They never let go of Armstrong. And the results of their long investigation was damning.

Armstrong’s tormentor-in-chief, USADA’s CEO Travis T Tygart

On Wednesday the 10th of October the United States Anti-Doping Agency (USADA) released a 1,000 page report, complete with 11 sworn affidavits from former teammates amongst 26 people who provided detailed material on Armstrong’s doping activities during his career. Included were also expert opinions, email correspondence and financial records, amongst other things, which combined painted what a mosaic of epic doping throughout professional cycling with Lance Armstrong front and centre. It describes Armstrong’s U.S. Postal Service team, as running “the most sophisticated, professionalised and successful doping program that sport has ever seen.” Although not containing any images, confessions or video footage of Armstrong taking or admitting to take drugs, the circumstantial and confessional evidence provided is undeniable.

Lance Armstrong c1991. On his way to becoming a seven times Tour de France champion

When Lance Armstrong began cycling taking drugs to win races was no doubt as far from his mind as possible. He was tremendously talented and fanatically driven to succeed. It is likely that when he stepped up to the intense world of professional cycling, he only pushed himself harder, striving to be the very best. It would not have taken long however, for him to realise that, in this highly competitive sport, to be the very best you needed to do more than just train and believe. Armstrong was probably nervous, sick, even anxious, when he doped for the first time. He was probably completely against it as a way to get ahead but there is no doubt that those around him made sure he realised that to be the best in cycling he had to be on the same playing field as the other top cyclists, and that meant taking drugs. Once in the ‘system’ the doping would have become easier and easier, Armstrong would have been aware of who else was doping and it would have become just another part of what was required to succeed, as normal as tuning the bike, hitting the gym or maintaining a strict diet. Any shame associated with it would have also disappeared. Inside the fish bowl of professional cycling it seems an accepted truth that if you wanted to challenge for honours you were doping. It was simply another method of training and, despite the shocked reactions from some of his fellow cyclists regarding the findings of the USADA, it would be highly unlikely that almost every other cyclist taking part in the Tour was not aware of who else was doping. Anyone who has taken part in a sport, particularly at the highest level knows how the code of silence works. The unspoken rule that you do not discuss with those on the outside what happens within the competitive circles. What happens on the field stays on the field if you like. Cycling is perhaps even more extreme than most sports when it comes to this and to break this golden rule would mean being ostracized; if your teammates can trust you then you are not welcome.

A familiar sight. Lance Armstrong stands atop the podium after claiming another Tour win

There is also no doubt that Armstrong believed himself to be the best Tour cyclist on the planet, clean or doping. He could have taken part in the Tour as a clean rider, maybe finished in a respectable position and known himself to be the best were it not for the doping of the other riders. But this would go completely against the nature of someone so driven, so fanatically intent on winning and creating a legacy as Armstrong. He would have known himself to be the best and he knew that the only way to prove this and win races would be to use the same competitive advantage as they were. Drugs. With the character and personality he has it is also highly likely that he doped as effectively and efficiently as he cycled, determined to be the best at this as well. His competitors accepted him as the best, primarily because they were all doping as well, for them, like Armstrong, it was simply another part of being a top cyclist, challenging for the Tour de France. They also all knew that the public would not understand. They would not understand how competitive it was, how any athlete used any advantage they could, how the playing field evened out because almost everyone was doping. This was the falsehood that was created inside the Tour, this was the giant lie that not just support Tour but upon which its foundations were built. We know what is going on but you can’t.

Unfortunately the public have a way of interfering with people’s most intimate affairs. Top cyclists were being caught, testing positive and being publicly disgraced. Armstrong, the clean Texan champion, was always the first to condemn them, continually professing his disgust of drug takers and those who put his sport into disrepute. He was the knight in shining armour, the man with the giant heart and who faced down death. He was bigger than the sport, untouchable. But the rumours would not go away, and worryingly for Armstrong, many people whose profession was finding drug cheats were listening.

Friend turned confessor. George Hincapie’s testimony against Armstrong is perhaps the most devastating of all. 

It must have been galling for those cyclists caught doping to hear Armstrong pontificating, knowing that he was perhaps the greatest culprit of them all. It must have been tough seeing him earning millions of dollars and be revered around the world seemingly oblivious to the possibility of ever being caught. It is therefore quite understandable that several of those former teammates who testified against Armstrong were caught doping themselves. They were no longer part of the circle of trust that encompassed the professional cycling circuit, they had been cast aside. What is most damning however is the testimony of those cyclists with everything to lose, those who hadn’t been caught, whose careers and reputations remained intact before they decided to reveal all to investigators about Armstrong’s indiscretions. Whether they did this because of guilt and disgust at their own actions, or if they had become disillusioned with the myth of Armstrong, sick of hearing him dismiss others for something he was at the centre of; or maybe the investigators from USADA had something on them, pressed them to reveal all about Armstrong of face tougher sanctions, give the small fish a light sentence to get the bait to catch the big fish. Whatever the reason the words that these men out down on paper, with their signatures attached, detailing the systematic doping practices of Lance Armstrong over a number of years, these men who had been teammates, confidants, perhaps even friends, there testimony’s are the nails the sealed Lance Armstrong’s reputation.

Armstrong celebrating victory. The champagne will not be flowing so freely following the USADA’s report 

In hindsight it is all quite obvious, after all how can a man, in one of the toughest and most competitive sports in the world, win the Tour de France not just seven times in a row, but seven times in a row as virtually the only clean rider? It is frankly impossible. There is no doubt that he doped, and no doubt that he doped on a scale that was in line with his desire to be the best. Whether he was any worse than any of the other cyclists competing at the top is debateable but as the biggest fish in the pond and as the one who had perhaps spoken out most against doping he was always going to be the fall guy for the entire sport. Sadly however, despite the mountain of evidence against him, and with opinion generally consensual that he has doped, the man himself has continued to maintain his innocence. Perhaps he is still unable to admit that the game is up, that his chickens have finally come home to roost. Perhaps he believes that as there is no ‘smoking gun’, that he may still be able to convince people that the USADA investigation is nothing more than a witch hunt and the testimonies against him nothing more than smoke and mirrors, words of jealous rivals and discredited opponents, perhaps it is just that he is a serial liar, his ego unable to accept the truth or maybe he feels he did nothing wrong, that all the others were doping and on the balance of things he was the best rider of them all, the doping in itself was immaterial. His lawyers were even contemplating having their man take a lie detector test to prove his innocence, maybe offering Armstrong the opportunity to test his ability to lie against a machine, after all he had been lying to people for decades, and maybe he now believed it himself?

Will Armstrong’s charity, Livestrong, survive the fall of its leader?

Whatever the reason it is overwhelmingly clear to most that Lance Armstrong doped. What is perhaps the saddest thing is that despite being caught out he has refused to finally come clean. When presented with the evidence against him, he could have come out mimicking regret and told the world that he was forced into doping, that he had worked hard his whole life, that the sport corrupted him not the other way around. He could have told them he came back clean, determined to show what he could do without drugs, he could have expressed his regret but maintained that he was the greatest cyclist the Tour has ever seen but that the Tour did not allow him to ride clean and win, he could have maintained that he was no doping godfather but simply doing what everyone else was doing, while recognising his charity work as not just his efforts to help with cancer research but also as something he created to help cleanse the guilt that he felt every time he looked in the mirror. People may have been angry but they would have forgiven him, they would have accepted him and the people would have embraced him. But Armstrong did not do this.

He issued statements through his lawyers denying everything, he ignored it and tried to get on with life as usual, even as the tsunami smashed through his wall of lies he remained stoic, unrepentant. Even as public opinion turned against him like a raging wildfire he refused to change his tune, seemingly content to ride out the storm and see what remains once the storm passes. Unfortunately this attitude has only served to diminish him further in the eyes of most and make those most loyal supporters, those who still believe, look as ridiculous as those who maintain that Elvis still walks this Earth. Sadly it is the true believers who are hurt the most when their messiah is proven to be false.

Despite the dramatic fall from grace, redemption is still possible for Armstrong if he confesses his sins.

Doping or not Lance Armstrong is perhaps the greatest cyclist the Tour has ever seen. His seven consecutive wins is a phenomenal achievement and is something that will be remembered even after they are officially stripped from him. Unfortunately, like many with exceptional qualities he suffers from personality traits which led to an ignominious downfall. His ego and chronic lying gave him the belief that he was untouchable, that he could never be caught. His pontificating caused resentment and ultimately led those whom had been granted entrance to his circle of trust to betray him. He believed himself bigger than his sport and instead of accepting the plaudits of success and fading into the background, leaving his records to speak for themselves; he remained in the spotlight, only heightening the cause of those who would see him fall. There is still time for redemption however, as I write this word has emerged of Nike, Armstrong’s primary corporate sponsor, tearing up their contract with him, citing insurmountable evidence of doping as the reason, Armstrong has also stepped down as Chairman of his Livestrong charity. It would not be surprising if Armstrong decides in the next few days to finally come clean and admit to his doping past. The move would allow him to put the narrative back into his own hands instead of the USADA’s and return him to the path of redemption. To stubbornly cling onto his claim of innocence with petty statements through lawyers trying to discredit witnesses and the USADA investigation will only see the admiration and esteem that he is still held in the public slip further. After all, who doesn’t love a fallen hero looking for redemption?