Friday, March 1, 2013

Lance and Oprah

by Bill Holmes

This blog was originally published 02/01/2013 in the Viewpoint.

Another step in the sad saga of Lance Armstrong, professional cycling and sports cheating has been taken.  There is now absolutely no room for doubt that Armstrong used performance enhancing drugs (PEDs) during most of his professional career.  That includes all seven Tour de France (TDF) races that he crossed the finish line first in.  Now the fallout and analysis begins. 

Armstrong's final downfall began when the United States Anti-Doping Agency (USADA) started  investigating his career and then published their findings last year.  I wrote a blog about that in November.  It goes into some detail including links to the USADA report.

On January 17th and 18th Armstrong was interviewed by Oprah Winfrey for a total of 2:30 hours.  Within the first 10 minutes of the interview he admitted to using PEDs and blood transfusions from the mid 1990's until his first retirement after the 2005 TDF. Five yes answers to Oprah's opening “yes or no” questions and the charade was over. This after a decade of not just denying ever doping but of aggressively going after anyone who accused him. As of this date I can not find the full interview on the web although there are excerpts on YouTube and OWN.

Armstrong and his legions used every method available to belittle, humiliate, discredit, threaten, punish and even sue his accusers.  He won or settled those suits.  Because of his wealth and influence within the cycling community he was able to punish and marginalize those within the sport. He refused to allow access or grant interviews to journalists and broadcasters who questioned or criticized him or his team.

So now we have to decide how we feel about Lance finally confessing.  What it means to us, cycling, Livestrong, celebrity endorsements, sports, role models and a host of other issues.  I won't even pretend to have all the answers to one, some or all those questions.  I will share my thoughts on the interview and maybe some opinions on where we go from here. 

Because Armstrong's story was so compelling and he rose to such dominance in his sport, it becomes even harder to forgive him for lying all these years.  He was a cancer survivor who rose from his deathbed to win seven Tour de France races, the greatest and most grueling bike race.  He started a foundation that has raised over $500 million to help cancer patients.  He almost single handedly revived bicycling in the US.  He had a beautiful wife and kids, then after the divorce dated a rock star and later fathered two more kids with his girlfriend despite being thought impotent after his cancer surgery and chemotherapy.

The facts and details have been all over the news so I'll concentrate on my reactions and opinions about the interview and where we go from here.

First a little background for the newcomers to this blog site or my writings;  I am an old guy who started cycling again about five years ago after a very long layoff.  I ride almost every day, I watch the Tour de France and other bike races on TV, I read bicycle magazines and I spend too much money at the bicycle shop in town.  I care about cycling as a sport, a recreation and a lifestyle.  I also am the child of a cancer survivor.  Lance and his story hit close to home.

I watched all of the interview twice and some parts more than that.  I have never watched Oprah, not when she was the queen of syndicated TV and certainly not on the Oprah Winfrey Network (OWN).  I would give her a B-/C+ grade on the interview.  Where is Mike Wallace when you need him?  There was no real new information, just confirmation.

Armstrong admitted to using most every PED he has been accused of.  Cortisone, testosterone, growth hormones, erythropoietin (EPO) and blood transfusions.  His thinking was that he could not have won on the professional cycling circuit without the drugs.  Put air in the tires, water in the squeeze bottles and a few PEDs in the body.  All part of the normal equipment and preparation for a race.  Unfortunately I think his assessment is correct.  He felt he was just leveling the playing field. There was no feeling of cheating.  His words, cheating is getting an unfair advantage.  If everybody is using the same stuff it's not unfair.  He feels he had no special access to anything others couldn't get.  Regardless of whether he felt he was cheating, he was breaking the rules and sometimes laws. That “everybody else is doing it” excuse didn't work for me when I tried it on my Mom and Dad. 

Once he won a TDF or two the expectations rose and became unrealistic.  It wasn't just the bike racing but the cancer survivor thing, the foundation, the sponsors, the perfect life.  He says the drive and win at all cost attitude that got him through the cancer became his behavior in all facets of his life.  Before the cancer that behavior only manifested itself in competition.  Doubtful.  I think Lance was always competitive and combative in all facets of his life.

He admits to a very flawed character and that he has a lifetime of apologies in front of him.  He admitted to being narcissistic and all that entails.  He admitted to being a bully and a jerk.  Very true.

While he admitted the majority of things, there are still areas that weren't cleared up.  He denied using PEDs during his 2009/2010 comeback.  He claims the use of the biological passport beginning in 2008 cleaned up the sport.  That's still a little suspect.  He finished third at the TDF after a four year layoff and there were still drug problems in 2009.  The 2009/2010 TDF winner, Alberto Contador, was stripped of the 2010 title for failing a drug test.  Seems drugs might have still been in wide use. We need a few years of drug free races to determine if the PED era is past.

Armstrong denies strong arming (pun intended) his teammates to dope.  He admits that there was implied peer pressure to perform and that the team leader (Lance) was doping.  I think the pressure was less subtle than just implied.  I suspect some “my way or the highway” conversations.

He failed to implicate Dr. Michele Ferrari and even called him a good man.  Ferrari was the top doping expert, mostly in cycling, beginning in the mid 1990's.  Indeed Ferrari was a very good man.  Seven TDF victories and no failed drug tests.  USADA has banned Ferrari and claims Armstrong paid him over $1 million during his cycling career.  That's a lot of band-aids.

He admitted to reaching out to some of the people he tried to bury but only in general said he owed them an apology.  No specific apology to the Andreu's.  I suspect some of this is counseling from the lawyers.

The part that was the most touching to me was when Lance talked about confessing to his older kids, a 13 year old son and eleven year old twin girls. He chocked up.  I can't imagine telling your kids that you have been living a lie for their entire life.  The effect on his Mom seemed to cause him concern too.  He also stated that his most humbling point was when Livestrong indicated he was no longer wanted. That has to be hard even for a narcissistic person to face your kids, Mom and foundation.  The kids and Mom are still with him.  I don't blame Livestrong for dumping him.  They could not survive with Lance still in the picture.  Ironically, the cancer surviving founder became a cancer to the organization's continued survival.  There are dozens of potential lawsuits on Lance's horizons.  This will drag on for years and new allegations and facts will emerge.  None of that is good for an organization that depends on contributions and sponsors.

The old Lance came out a few times during the interview.  Traces of  the jerk were still there.  He feels that the lifetime  sports ban is too harsh especially considering that those who testified against him got minimal punishment.  He claims he was not given the opportunity to testify and maybe strike a plea bargain.  I'm not buying this.  Up until a couple of months ago the Armstrong team was in denial and still jousting windmills.  Then there is the Twitter picture he posted in November flaunting his Tour victory jerseys after his titles had been vacated.

I think the Oprah interview is a decent start but Lance needs to go several more steps to begin to fix this mess.  I think there is a possibility that a new, kindlier, gentler Lance may emerge but not quite yet.  He still comes across as an arrogant jerk.  That's probably to be expected.  It would be near impossible to change overnight from a complete prick to a humble, meek person.  He was and is a competitor.  Unfortunately he forgot where the sports competition ended and real life began.

In the long run, I don't really care what happens to Lance Armstrong.  I suspect that even with all the lawsuits that he'll be able to live a decent life.  He is or was allegedly worth over $100 million.  He probably has figured how to salt away and hide some of that.

What I do hope is that the people who told the truth the last 10 or 15 years are vindicated and celebrated.  I hope that Lance and many others tell the whole truth and help clean up cycling and any other sport tainted by doping.  We're not there yet.  Baseball seems to be doing a fairly good job but I'm not sure about several other sports.  Cycling still has a couple of cyclists every race who fail drug tests.  Football, college and pro, hardly ever have someone suspended for PEDs yet the players keep getting bigger and stronger.  The Olympic sports continue to have drug test failures.

I truly hope that the former bad boys of cycling are able to come forward to some kind of truth and reconciliation commission.  A commission that can offer appropriate punishment and some assurance that  meaningful changes will come about in the sport.  I'm not talking just about more or better drug testing and enforcement.  I'm talking about a top to bottom overhaul of cycling from the regulating bodies to the drug enforcers to the race organizers to the sponsors to the manufacturers and suppliers to the team management to the riders and the team staff.  Doping was rampant in cycling for over a decade and anyone inside the sport who didn't know it was either complicit or stupid.  Either way they deserve to be sanctioned or eliminated. 

The governing bodies, the UCI and various national commissions, are corrupt and self serving.  They are much more concerned with maintaining their power and lining the commission coffers and members pockets than advancing the sport.  They are overly concerned with minutia such as ridiculously detailed specs for bicycles and even socks.  Bull shit in place of real governing.  This governing body corruption and malaise is not limited to cycling.  The whole Olympic governing structure is a mess as are many professional sports and leagues.  That's fodder for a future blog. 

In recent days the UCI recommended a truth and reconciliation approach to this mess.  Suspicion among those who follow cycling is that the UCI is proposing this now because an “independent” commission that they appointed to investigate the whole doping mess was about to implicate them.  The UCI has refused to cooperate with there own independent commission and has now decided to support a proposed future commission in conjunction with the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA), if the details can be worked out.  Expect years of delays.

In even more recent news Travis Tygart, the CEO of USADA, in a 60 Minutes segment aired January 27th, responded to the Armstrong-Winfrey program.  Tygart refutes several of Armstrong's statements.  He contends that Armstrong had inside information about drug testing so it wasn't a level playing field among dopers.  Lance was a ring leader and did push others to use PEDs.  That Armstrong's representatives tried to bribe USADA.  That Armstrong was still doping during his comeback but didn't admit it because of the statutes of limitations.

In my opinion Tygart is an arrogant jerk too.  Maybe not that much different than the person he is pursuing.  He comes across as a typical cop/prosecutor.  Everything he says is the truth and most of what others say is a lie unless they agree or support him.  No room for doubt.  Tygart and USADA have given Armstrong a February 6, 2013 deadline to come to them and testify under oath.  If he doesn't, the lifetime sports ban is permanent and irreversible.  I also assume that if Lance's testimony doesn't confirm Tygart's version of the truth the ban will remain in perpetuity.  This is a totally artificial deadline.  There is no logical reason or circumstance to justify it.  Another power play by a prosecutor trying to force a confession.  USADA looks a lot like a combination investigator, prosecutor, judge and jury.  What could possibly go wrong?

There aren't many good guys in this scenario.  Everybody had and has an agenda.  As I've said before, any truth and reconciliation board needs to be completely independent and have the authority to make changes to the status quo no matter who's toes get stepped on.  It also needs a credible and strong leader, probably somebody from outside cycling and sports.  I wonder if Bishop Desmond Tutu is available?  He knows how to do the job.

Bottom line, Lance Armstrong did significant, maybe irreparable damage to professional cycling, Livestrong and countless individuals.  I don't know what the future holds and if pro cycling can be fixed.  I hope so.  Stay tuned, I'm sure I'll have more to say either here at the View Point or my personal blog BillyJim47.

In the meantime, I'll continue to ride my bike and encourage others to do the same.  I hope you'll join me. 


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