Monday, 21 January 2013

Lance Armstrong again

A part of me wouldn’t mind seeing him crack and fall apart, but it’s not the best part of me. The high of being entertained doesn’t last long anyway, and after it wears off you only need more. I get the impression a handful of journalists are now writing about Armstrong with extra venom because for many years they were made by editors to conceal the truth behind his myth. They are extracting vengeance for the fact they once had to go along with the lie being inflated in the commercial interests of Armstrong, the International Cycling Union, and the sales of their own newspapers. It’s telling that in such a game, the media always have to win out. They stonewall the detractors when helping to blow up the bubble, and then forget all humanity when given the opportunity to pop it. In every stage, actual people are the losers.

Two journalists in particular stand out for the tenacity they showed in bringing about the Armstrong story, for following their consciences rather than their career interests. They are David Walsh and Paul Kimmage, they’ve shown journalism in its best and most principled light, my worry is that now they could be called to assist the media in the less noble act of twisting the knife.

David Walsh could certainly help in this. Armstrong is known to have made particularly poisonous remarks about Walsh’s son, John, who was killed when knocked off his bike at the age of 12. Armstrong is said to have told his team mates that Walsh had some sort of a vendetta against cycling on account of his son’s death. According to Armstrong, this was the reason Walsh stuck at the doping allegations. In part he was right, Walsh always said the memory of his son helped him go after the truth, the meaning of that changes now it’s accepted Armstrong and not Walsh was the liar in it all. Cycling journalist, Daniel Coyle, reported back to Walsh that Armstrong had once fumed it was sick Walsh could ever have had a “favourite son”, all part of the delusion and zero-empathy that comes with the territory for anyone who has allowed drugs to take over their life. To his credit, David Walsh has said that yes he’d accept the apology Armstrong half-offered when speaking to Oprah Winfrey last week.

Paul Kimmage has been no less admirable in his pursuit of Armstrong, but whereas there was a certain sadness to Walsh’s battle, Kimmage came across like more of a scrapper. A professional cyclist from the eighties, his was another career held back by the will to race clean, and in Kimmage there always seemed like there was more bitterness. Writing yesterday in The Guardian, Kimmage reproduced an anecdote from the early nineties, when Lance Armstrong’s mother visited the American Tour de France winner, Greg LeMond, in Minneapolis, asking advice on behalf of her newly world champion son. Kimmage reports her final question as, “how do I make him less of an asshole? He doesn’t care about anyone.”

There is a lot that Lance Armstrong has not yet dealt with, there are a lot more truths that he kept quiet from Winfrey, but does he (or we) really need to know that his own mother was calling him an asshole?  The journalists who have covered Armstrong closest, and who have suffered most from his bullying, could now themselves be transformed from objective reporters into characters in the story, their own understandable grievances exploited to keep the drama flowing. That won’t help the sport of cycling they so obviously love, it won’t help them as people, and last of all – not that many of us still care – it won’t help Lance Armstrong.

Paul Kimmage has said the first 39 seconds of Armstrong’s interview were honest, when he repeated “yes” to all questions about whether he had taken performance enhancing drugs. For the rest of the interview, Kimmage said he was laughing at Armstrong; I can understand why, it was textbook Armstrong, and Armstrong is hilarious. He answered with the same sportsman’s clichés, the facile truisms that suffice at the end of a stage of the Tour but just don’t cut it in an act of public trial, where more was anticipated than just a competitive athlete’s poor grasp of emotion and social psychology. Armstrong professed to have looked up the word ‘cheat’ in the dictionary, realising it didn’t apply to him, because he wasn’t gaining an advantage but only levelling the playing field by doping. Armstrong’s guy-next-door was on show with “I don't know if you pulled those two words out of the air, “jerk” and “humanitarian”, I’d say I was both.” Armstrong the public figure is hilarious, but part of this whole process should be his slipping away into anonymity, so that he can be hilarious with those few who remain affiliated with him, or better still, so that they can help him see what an ass he has been and help him learn how to be less of one. There is a lot of animosity going around that does nothing for the many people Armstrong wronged, most of whom seem humane enough to want vindication and heartfelt apologies, rather than for Armstrong to be torn limb from limb by a rabid, celebrity-crazed mob.

This isn’t to say Lance Armstrong has done all that should have been expected of him. His was a mainstream confession extracted by/given to a mainstream inquisitor. Dozens of figures from the cycling world are incensed by the amount Winfrey allowed him to get away with. He hasn’t shown any great remorse for the way he pathologically tried to smear Greg LeMond, Emma O’Reilly, and Betsy Andreu, raging that they were alcoholics, prostitutes or just plain liars for questioning his story. Nor has he asked forgiveness for the way he threatened these figures with promises that he could ruin their careers and their lives. It seems Armstrong has recently contacted some of these people in person, they say he’s sounded genuinely repentant in a way that he perhaps never could in a public broadcast. One enormous sticking point is that Armstrong didn’t mention the incident at the hospital bed, when Andreu was present as Armstrong told his cancer doctors that he had been involved in doping. This was the episode around which he defamed and intimidated Andreu, and his silence can’t be justified by only Armstrong's will to protect those other friends and doctors who were present at the same bedside but chose to help in his lie. For me, the worst omission of the interview would be Christophe Bassons, the young, French cyclist bullied out of the peloton and his career by Armstrong (among others) because he would neither dope nor stay quiet about doping in the sport. The overriding injustice in it all, which deserves more mention than it will receive, is that the cheating athlete got his millions, the cheated sports corporations will recoup many of those millions although they got their exposure at the time, and those who spent wages or pocket money acquiring the same kit as their hero will be left with only a souvenir of their gullibility. It’s a tough but worthwhile lesson; don’t buy-in to someone else’s triumphs as a substitute for your own.

More than the omissions, however, was the fact Armstrong continued lying during the interview, and this is where the cycling community have rightfully been far from appeased in their anger. Armstrong said that his comeback in 2009 was clean, while blood tests showed a high red blood cell count but a standard number of young cells in the blood, suggesting a transfusion of mature blood cells to help boost performance. He said he donated $100,000 to the UCI because the UCI asked him to as a wealthy man, whereas his former teammates Floyd Landis and Tyler Hamilton have both stated under oath he had failed a drugs test at the 2001 Tour of Switzerland and the payment was to bury the results. Armstrong reasoned that his cancer had turned him into a doper, desperate to win at all costs; one more delusion trying to reconcile repeated wrongdoing with an ever-adjustable version of truth. When for all intents and purposes someone has become a drug addict, it’s worth noting that truth in their head can become a malleable thing, an arrangement of facts that justifies conduct, not necessarily an arrangement of facts that resembles reality as found in the majority consensus. Even Winfrey was able to remind Armstrong that – as per his confession – he had started doping before cancer.

In such a fashion as this, Armstrong talked his way through the majority of his two hours on Oprah, a man obviously briefed and scared against the prospect of more lawsuits and prosecution. His need to justify himself and his inability to show contrition reveals a sad, loveless man, one who in his own head probably tortures himself more thoroughly than the entire population of Twitter could ever achieve. The apparent lust for the breakdown that never came seems to be fuelled – certainly outside of cycling – by something much more sinister than a desire for truth.  For me the memory of Marco Pantani hangs over much of the Armstrong case; another of cycling’s fallen stars, Pantani died from a drug overdose in a hotel room in 2004, and don’t doubt that were Armstrong to go the same way we’d have another raft of opinion and comment urging self-reflection on how monstrous our bloodlust had been.

For me the underlying message is that Armstrong’s heroics were always artificial, beginning to end it was only ever a fairytale. The idea that Armstrong’s appearance on Oprah should’ve ended with similarly cathartic perfection would’ve only been one more homage to life by media, life by television. Armstrong confirmed he was undergoing therapy, that he needed to rebuild his life out of dark times. His eyes watered slightly (the headlines eagerly said 'cried') when he talked of having to tell his son not to defend him any longer, that the kids at school who said his dad was a cheat were actually right. Armstrong enjoyed his decade in the limelight, he happily made himself public property because that public adored him. What he now seems intent on doing is keeping his breakdown – or whatever breakdown will or won’t come – to himself. Some of the dissatisfaction with this half-confession seems as much anything to be a dissatisfaction with this privacy. People who believed so ardently want to see Armstrong suffer in return for making them look and feel like fools. Some who stuck their necks out to call the truth a long time ago want a better acknowledgment of just how right they were all along. I understand both positions, but I hope he doesn’t give them that pleasure, I hope they cease desiring it. An artificially won stardom that drives a man to ruin, repentance, and then forgiveness in the courtroom of Oprah Winfrey could only ever have been a victory for the cult of celebrity, and a loss for humans everywhere.

It might seem like an ending, but I’d guess the Lance Armstrong crucifixion is just starting. Editors are aware of how much more there is to be drawn out. Armstrong’s collusion with a corrupt UCI is another layer in the story, Paul Kimmage may be called upon for an Armstrong tried to ruin my life episode, Armstrong lied to Oprah (gasp!) will be another one to look out for. Let’s hope the prosecution won’t sink as low as Armstrong did in the effort to make it personal.


  1. Great piece Jules, I've been meaning to read it for a while. I had wondered what your thoughts were on him.

    It's never edifying to say 'I told you so', but I have to say Walsh and Kimmage - as the two main journalists who fought the Armstrong myth - have not been overly sanctimonious in 'twisting the knife'. Armstrong successfully sued the Sunday Times for defamation resulting from a Walsh article, you can understand if there is a certain amount of vitriol behind the headlines.

    I've enjoyed reading Walsh's tale behind his pursuit of Armstrong and, from what I have read and heard from him, I don't think Walsh is taking any pleasure from his demise.

    Armstrong showed himself to be disgustingly human in the Oprah interview - the faux tears, the insincerity, the mechanical responses. His comments since then ('What I did was nothing worse than jumping on a train') merely serve to perpetuate his evil and mendacious being.

    I've just about become sick of hearing about him and his exploits. I hope he gets prosecuted in a court of law and has to return every penny he dishonestly earned. Most of all I hope his name will be forgotten and the annals of cycling will wipe his name from its pages. But, as you allude to, the story will rumble on because the extent of corruption in the UCI has not yet been revealed. And while it remains buried, this feeling of gross injustice that we all feel will linger on.

  2. Glad you liked it Sam,

    Totally understand the bit of vitriol from Kimmage/Walsh, and I don't think either of them - Walsh in particular - have been at all sanctimonious. I don't know if you're a Twitter follower (or user!) but Kimmage is not always so gracious in "victory" (if that's the right term for anybody in this horrible story). I don't hold that against him at all, and admire his journalistic work, but it isn't very edifying.

    Part of the ill-feeling against Armstrong now is a result of the messianic status society afforded him. As much as he revelled in it, I don't think he can be blamed for people choosing to idolise him, and I don't think it's humane of people to desire a comeuppance as complete as the worship he was once afforded. Both seem to me the ridiculous product of a celebrity culture that demeans us all.


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