It’s not easy being Lance Armstrong, nor should it be. But is there a point where we decide he's been punished enough?
As the disgraced cyclist re-enters the world of competitive cycling – he's hosting a podcast during this year's Tour de France – there's no better time to reconsider how long we keep him banished to the naughty corner. Is it time to ease off on our condemnation?
After a stint of ingesting and digesting anything I could find on the disgraced sportsman since his 2013 downfall, my answer to that question would be: yes, with caveats.
In 2013, the professional road cyclist, cancer survivor and seven-time winner of the Tour De France admitted to doping with the performance-enhancing drug EPO (which apparently doesn't even work, according to a recent study). For years leading up to the confession, Armstrong had not only denied all allegations, but strong-armed and/or sued those who strove to expose the lie.
Once the truth came to light, Armstrong was stripped of his titles (as well as much of his amassed fortune), banned from all competitive sport, annexed out of his renowned charity LIVESTRONG, and transformed from the poster boy of heroism and resilience to one of greed, corruption and even sociopathy.
The $100m fraud lawsuit
In 2010, the US Postal Service, the sponsor who financed Armstrong and his team throughout the doping years, filed a $100m fraud lawsuit that was joined by the federal government after his admission.
Armstrong has vehemently opposed the charges, claiming the amount of money made for the company far exceeded anything he or his teammates received. The company’s response is that their business has taken a considerable hit since the revelation.
While it doesn’t seem like the lawsuit is going away – it's set to go to trial in November – Armstrong has claimed that the USPS looked the other way when it came to the prevalence of doping within professional cycling, and never once pushed for drug-testing prior to or during sponsorship.
This ongoing lawsuit isn’t the first he has faced and potentially won’t be the last. But I’m more interested in how the man’s attempted to redefine himself – and if that’s even possible.
Lance’s first glimmer of hope came from a comedian on Conan
“The top 20 guys all tested positive for roids. So our roided-up guy beat your roided-up guy”
After that intense admission during that interview with Oprah Winfrey, Lance Armstrong’s entire world sped downhill and flipped into a ditch. When, three weeks later, his agent recommended watching a clip from the latest episode of Conan, Armstrong refused due to the assumption that “it was both barrels pointed right at my forehead”.
A year later and Armstrong finally braved the play button and saw a brutal bit of seated stand-up by comedian Bill Burr, which managed to come to the cyclist’s defence by putting his actions in (hilarious) context.
Last year, on The Forward Podcast (which we’ll get to soon), Armstrong publicly thanked Burr for the sentiment, despite the fact Burr also referred to him as a “sociopath on a bike” and clarified that his shtick as a comedian was to sometimes play the contrarian.
Lance is surprisingly candid on a episode of The Joe Rogan Experience
“Joe, if we were doing this 10 years ago, I would have lied right to your face.”
If you need a counterpoint to the grilling and rather black-and-white Oprah interview, then this two-hour podcast episode should add a few shades of grey to Armstrong’s saga.
Rogan doesn’t let off Armstrong scot-free, but he does force a rapport with the man – which eases Armstrong into a place where he’s able to put his deception in context.
During the interview, Armstrong accepts he’ll be conducting a conversation with those he’s disappointed for the rest of his life. He’s surprisingly frank about the person he became as the lie ballooned and who he’s become since he was caught out, and also manages to come across more self-aware than you’d expect from a fallen megastar.
What’s also clear is that Armstrong feels he’s shouldering the blame for unsportsmanlike behaviour in which an entire sporting code was complicit. Even he admits he deserves the scrutiny, but it does make one wonder if keeping the spotlight on one man takes it away from the pervasiveness of the corruption. To this day, peers who partook in the same deception are still allowed to compete.
Lance tries to move forward with The Forward Podcast
When you think about it, the idea of Lance Armstrong deciding to host a podcast makes a lot of sense. Perhaps inspired by the wiggle-room gained in that divisive interview with Rogan, this online medium allows direct communication with the public, unfettered by agents, sponsors or the doping-obsessed media coverage.
The Forward Podcast debuted in 2016, and it’s where Armstrong thanked Burr during an hour-long interview. I recommend giving the sometimes awkward, mostly fascinating episode a listen, as despite being a pretty ordinary podcast host, you get a sense Armstrong isn’t really looking to avoid his wrongdoings. It seems he'd rather be able to discuss them with someone who believes wrongdoings don’t necessarily equal complete monstrousness.
Sure, there’s a bit of self-service going on here, and of course, Armstrong’s podcast is an arena where he’s able to control the situation, at least to an extent. But with the increasingly sensationalist news media looking for any reason to attract viewers, listeners and readers, can you really blame him?
While it’s unclear how long he’ll stick with the podcast, it doesn’t seem like he’s scrimping for decent guests, as besides Burr he’s chatted to Bo Jackson, Chris Evert and, oddly, Neil DeGrasse Tyson.
Back on the bike, even if not literally
Lance Armstrong did a bad thing. Many bad things, both on and off the track. You could also say he did one of the worst things in the history of modern sport. But he didn’t do any of it alone. He also didn’t murder anyone. And as Burr said, he raised over $500 million for cancer research, even if that fact is now met with cynicism. In this situation, the path to the truth is as bumpy as the terrain his doped-up body mastered over those seemingly virtuous years.
And he’s paying for it. He’ll pay for it for the rest of his life – financially, socially, personally – and that’s the way it should be. His reputation deserves no reprieve, and even he knows he’ll forever be remembered as that “sociopath on a bike”. But that same man is still a person, still a world-class athlete who worked incredibly hard for decades, whether doped up on EPO or not, and it’s understandable he’s trying to move forward and find some semblance of a life.
Actually, what I stated at the outset of the piece needs refining. It’s not that you should cut him some slack. That’s up to you and your worldview. But as long as his chickens have come home to roost, I can’t fault the man for trying to cut himself some.
For Armstrong, what’s the alternative?
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