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Hard not to like Lance Armstrong, and I still want to believe, but his giving up made it harder

Posted on 26 August 2012 | 8:08am

Here is the piece I wrote for The Times on Lance Armstrong yesterday. It was thanks to them that I got to know the Texan cyclist, and this is my reflection on him now, following his decision not to contest further the doping allegations made against him.

‘Losing and dying. It’s the same thing’ — Lance Armstrong, 2004. It was my favourite quote, in my favourite interview, in a series on great sportsmen and women that I did for The Times shortly after leaving Downing Street. The paper must have liked it, too, as they put it all over the front of the sports section. Lance liked it as well and he agreed to a second interview, for Channel 5, a few months later.

What I discovered from the response to the article — as if I didn’t already know it — is what a divisive figure he is. To some, the greatest cyclist of all time. Fact. To others, a drug cheat and a charlatan. Fact.

During the Times interview, at the four-bedroomed apartment in northern Spain he was sharing with the singer Sheryl Crow, he saved some of his most venomous language for David Walsh, a journalist with The Sunday Times who had written a book and many articles which sided strongly with the drug cheat/charlatan side of the argument. When I subsequently met Mr Walsh, he said he couldn’t believe that I had “fallen for the myth and the lies and the bullshit” in penning such a favourable piece, and making such a favourable documentary. Today, Mr Walsh denies feeling a sense of vindication, but he and other Armstrong critics will be equating the decision “not to contest” the allegations of the US Anti-Doping Agency as tantamount to a guilty plea.

Did I like Armstrong when I met him? Yes, I did. Was I impressed by his strength of his character, his humour and intelligence? Yes, I was. Was I chuffed that he gave me one of his Tour-winning shoes to raise funds for Leukaemia and Lymphoma Research? Certainly. Was I inclined to believe the passionate denials that he made for the nth time when I asked him about the swirl of allegations that have surrounded him for years? Yes, I was. Was that possibly because a part of me wanted the denials to be true; because I wanted to believe the legend of a man who could come back from cancer to become the seven-times winner of the toughest sporting event in the calendar? I am sure that it was.

So when he spoke of what it was like being him, subject to blood and urine testing at any time, any place; the sense he had that the French just could not stand having an American — and a cocky one at that — dominating their most treasured sports event, I tended more to the “greatest athlete of all time” side of the debate. His oft-made statement that he was the most drug-tested sportsman on the planet, and had never been tested positive, had a certain persuasion to it.

He focused on the Tour, he trained harder, he worked harder, he could endure more pain — that was what made him the best, he insisted. It was as simple as that. “This hot button on drugs will always be there,” he said. “The next thing will be genetic doping. I’m not the first and I won’t be the last (to be accused of doping) but I know the truth and that’s what matters to me. People want to know that the guy who worked the hardest and fought the hardest and got the best coaches and the best team-mates won fair and square. That’s what I’ve been doing.”

That sentiment was part of the backdrop to the statement he made yesterday, which has written the latest dramatic chapter in this seemingly never-ending saga. What comes over is the sense that he is being persecuted and so he is throwing in the towel.
This time, however, it is not the French out to get him, but the Americans. And it is not a new piece of evidence that has emerged as the final straw, but the sense that he has just had enough of it all.

But he knows enough about the way people — and the media — think and act to know that his statement will fuel the sense that he has given up the fight because the circumstantial evidence has grown to the point where he fears he cannot win, or that too much that is currently private will have to be aired in public. Team-mates who have defended him in the past have turned. Whether that has turned him to the position he now adopts, I don’t know. But what I do know is that the statement he made, and his decision never to speak about the doping allegations again, do not fit with the mindset revealed in the quote with which I opened this piece.

At the time, his greatest challenger was Jan Ullrich. Armstrong admitted that the big German kept him awake at night. I asked him what was the bigger fear: that he might die, on being told he had testicular cancer, or that Ullrich might beat him?
And that was when he gave me what I call the Roy Keane death stare, and said those remarkable words: “losing and dying. It’s the same thing.” I asked if he really meant that. He said he did, and I think I believed him. I have quoted it many times since, not least in political campaigns, as the ultimate in a winning mindset.

The reaction on social networks following the latest development underlined his divisiveness. To critics and detractors, this is “the proof”, a tactical retreat which reveals a hidden guilt. To supporters, this is the culmination of a witchhunt against not just a great cyclist, but a tireless campaigner who has helped to raise half a billion dollars for the fight against cancer.

I still want to believe, as his achievements on and off the bike are so remarkable. But yesterday made it harder. The US doping authorities say they alone have the power to strip him of his titles even though, so far, in France, where I am writing this, the Tour authorities have said little. If he leaves it at this, then though he has fought for years to defend his integrity and spent so much time, energy and money fending off accusations, he will no longer be able to say he fought to the end. As though his life depended on it.

  • Ehtch

    It is all confusing when the media gets well involved, what is true and what is false. It is the same as political misinformation, that gets sent out into the aether of our minds.
    Maybe he played it as he saw, and to be honest, when you are going up and down extremely high hills, there are bells and whistle tricks you can do to help your body. A line should have been drawn underneath this years ago, because what about other winners from that time?
    And I suppose I do not have to say that French/US relations in all walks of life is, umm, has a certain characteristic, difficult I suppose you could say. Chalk and cheese they are, so I suppose the french press didn’t mind fanning any flames from this.

  • RobInBrighton

    I too want to believe, but think this is the end. The evidence now won’t be aired and tested – so without a level of proof, we are just left with a deep challenge to our faith.
    At least it feels like the sport has changed. It’s not as if Armstrong’s titles could be retrospectively handed to Zulle, Ullrich or Zabel.

  • Paul

    Its a fight he couldn’t win so he’s changed the fight. The fact he is just ignoring the USADA just means he knew he’d never win, regardless of evidence (or not).

    It’s no different than allowing a breakaway to go from the peleton. You don’t have to win every stage.

  • http://twitter.com/chrisjwowen Chris Owen

    “To some, the greatest cyclist of all time. Fact.”

    Anyone who knows what they are talking about knows that anyone claiming that is crazy. Armstrong won the tour 7 times and quite a few other things but Eddy Merckx won 5 and pretty much everything else.

    “To critics and detractors, this is “the proof”, a tactical retreat which reveals a hidden guilt. To supporters, this is the culmination of a witch hunt”

    False dichotomy. There are plenty of people like me that can see the legal process has done its job and seems perfectly fair. It’s up to Lance to appeal to CAS (UCI’s own arbitrator) if he wants.

  • Melvin

    Lance was the best! Dope or no dope, who cares… it was the time… Thank for those great tours :)

  • Ehtch

    By the way Alastair, please post this, so another of my lifetimed friends can see this, who runs a ski centre for the council nearby, Eirian, who I have got back in contact in the last couple of days, who is up for anything, like me, cycling, going to any part of the world, he even did the Mongol rally for charity, since his dad died of cancer. I will send him a message and tell him this will turn up this evening, so to show I wasn’t bullshitting that I do bother Alastair with things…
    A vid of cycling, appropriate, going down to Devil’s Bridge in mid-Wales, with ones arse on fire, passing the thirty miles per hour, “please drive carefully” signs at about 50mph on a pushbike, posted by an anon cyclist,
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KQs6eOnUECE
    Alright Eirian? Keep the punters happy down in Ski Pembrey.

  • http://twitter.com/BasitAsif Basit Asif

    I think that it takes enormous character to do all that he is done. He was one of the world’s greatest athletes but in a sport marred by this sort of thing. Practically all of his closest rivals in his winning era were implicated in doping scandals (see attachment) so to be able to dominate them, it’s hard to believe that he himself could not have been doping. Riders in the tour recently haven’t been able to sustain the same relative power output over the biggest mountains which suggests things are cleaner now.

    I feel that we just have to accept that it was the era of drugs. Most of the peloton were up to it. Some got away with it and some didn’t. Being on the special sauce, it doesn’t turn you into an all-powerful superhero. You have to have been at the top of your game anyway. It just seems vindictive, silly, and just bad for cycling in general to be chasing after him years afterwards. There’s no sense of justice going on here.

  • Libdem

    Don’t you think sometimes in life you have to make a ‘tactical’ withdrawal? You can’t win them all even if you do have a winning mentality. Perhaps his calculation is that for him it’s better to say nothing further. The USADA can strip him of his titles but they seem to have no proof other than words from erstwhile team mates. He has never failed a test, never.

  • Olli Issakainen

    60%?
    According to Victor Conte 60% of the athletes at London 2012 Olympic Games used drugs.
    Some people in Finland agree with this figure.
    It is a well-known fact that many people are willing to almost anything to win an Olympic gold medal.
    Financial rewards are also high nowadays.
    As for the Tour, it is one of the most interesting sporting events on the planet.
    But it is also one of the most demanding.
    But where is the concrete evidence?
    If Lance Armstrong has never tested positive, why strip him of the wins?
    Educated guess may be that he – like many others – used doping, but this is not enough.
    Put the evidence on the table, please!
    WADA uses £64m on testing. Usually only 2% show positive test results.
    As for the media strategy, only way to win in today´s media climate is to stay silent.
    Everything you say will be used against you.
    Bill Shankly once said that football was not a matter of life and death – it was much more important than that!
    But some you win – some you draw…
    I would not be supporting Burnley FC if winning was everything.
    Sport is about commitment, not about winning.
    It is this “winning mindset” which leads to trouble.
    In sport, in business and in politics.

  • Michele

    I don’t believe he has knowingly taken what he’s accused of and find it strange that the so-called ‘evidence’ from team mate witness/es hasn’t been detailed.
    Who’s a team mate? Another competitor or support-worker/s who kept quiet till now – if the latter why so and why not be IDed, there must be some culpability one way or t’other.
    Have they been put under duress?

    New ‘proof’ can only be been from old samples, 7 or more years old, incredible.
    If we don’t know what combinations of nutrition and chemicals make a performance-enhancing mixture do we know what could happen to samples in labs in temperatures very different to what would be happening inside a body during a race?

    I wondered if he’s got some bizarre advantage such as Mr Bolt’s height (whose leg length means he’s not actually the fastest runner, surely he takes less strides?).
    Anyway that google led to a forum where a poster left this :-D
    “Lance is 10ft tall and shot lighting out of his ar*e!”

    In fact LA isn’t very tall, meaning less weight to haul up those mountains (whereas UB’s height adds to his task).
    Hey ho, dunno, give up :-( but I do wonder what the French response will be to Americans ‘stripping’ LA of what their own tests have never revealed.
    I hope they tell them to get back in their box.

  • Jon Edwards

    I have some sympathy with Armstrong’s decision. Unlike a court of law, the arbitration system clearly favors the doping authorities who can, and do, it seems, change the rules as they go along. Tygart would secure a victory, Armstrong knows that, but we would still be unsure if it was because Armstrong was a doper or it was the result of a flawed, very flawed, hearing – and we would probably have to wait 4 or 5 years to know. I don’t see Armstrong had any later alternative.

  • Robert Drummond

    I find this piece a very honest reaction to the situation. Those years in cycling were tainted by a variety of drugs which enhanced (and maybe didn’t) performance.

    Personally, I got into cycling around the time of Armstrong TDF1. I love cycling now and I’m sure it was the narrative of Armstrong which lead to this love. The drugs allegations are a sad part of the narrative.

    An interesting moral question is perhaps:
    If Armstrong inspired people to overcome cancer, (through winning TDF’s) does this make taking of PED’s more acceptable (if indeed this is what he did to win the TDF’s)?

  • http://www.patrickjames.co.uk/ Patrick James

    It is a very interesting article but I come at sport from a very different angle. I don’t like the quote “losing and dying are the same thing”. I think the exessive competitiveness has been very damaging to sport. I wish that most sports could return to being about enjoyment and fun. It is my belief that the super sports figures often make sport unaccessible to people with their over emphasis on winning all the time. Sport has very little to do with winning.

  • Anonymous

    Michele, re: Pussey Riots, as we spoke before, have a look at this,
    http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-europe-19385936
    From the beeb, so it could be total crap, but still.

  • Richard

    Drug fuelled? No proof says AC. (Tests may not have been available to discover the cheats who were multiple steps ahead in their application of science). Debatable perhaps, but with the money Armstrong has, the finest lawyers would surely soon prove all the witnesses to his alledged misdeeds liars, including by the use of lie detector evidence.
    WMDs? Certainly: irrefutable proof said AC.
    You believe whatever you want to believe, that suits you, and, like all religious zealots, deny all evidence to the contrary.

  • Anonymous

    Bank holiday, so what is going on here?
    Are we in our cars going to Brighton, or elsewhere?
    East yorkshire coast maybe, even Blackpool other side?
    Or down to Devon coast, up or down.
    Wherever you go, deciding to chomp on your chips,
    think, before you go, take your brolley and maccie.
    It is pissing down, no doubt, bank holiday august song, for all.
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wOiQKWnxjr8
    more,
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kGUHYRp8GmY
    Yeh, get the talc out,
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=V2_CSz3D-VM
    move it, for fuffuff sakes… : )
    might as well post Emma Rede, better known as Jackie lee, Rupert the Bear and all that,
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wP9ZbqDpQIQ

    That is enough for august bank holiday, I think, park up your scooters!

  • Michele

    There’s an irony about you dragging this topic in to yet another thread.

    Pussy Riot were
    protesting by stamping all over already down-trodden other people’s feelings
    while happening to be beautiful and claiming to be artists. Does claiming make it true, given that the valuation’s subjective anyway?

    Did
    you feel the same belief in people’s rights when EDL members posted here several times and when those
    spouting about ‘WMD’ drop in periodically? Don’t mind admitting I didn’t even though some of them might really believe as they do (although most of it simply sounds personal at AC).

    Got a couple of clips for you:

    http://zeenews.india.com/news/world/pussy-riot-protest-topless-protester-cuts-down-cr_794265.html

    http://en.ria.ru/society/20120724/174748125.html

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Russian_presidential_election,_2012

    Do they have a hope in hell of de-stabilising Putin by these
    methods?

    Do you even know whether any of his actually-political opponents appreciate
    their way of protesting?

    Church seniors endorsed Putin for re-election but that’s
    still no reason to spoil other people’s sanctuary, wouldn’t exposing the church leaders’ motives be more relevant?
    I’m not impressed by people simply because
    they claim to be artists even if they’ve collected lots of support from
    actual artists, not when there’s coercion involved.

    Does melodramatic behaviour always acquire truth and validity in your
    book? Are strong feelings always
    deserving of support? Would you say the
    same about the BNPers that attacked Asian ladies some years ago? Was Charlie Gilmour right to lie that he didn’t
    know the significance of the monument he swung from?

    Their name’s funny hey?
    It really represents feminism doesn’t it, orhould they have labelled themselves with the c-word (or is that reserved for things you hate?).

    Lots of questions eh?
    Zzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzz

    You just have to accept that we think differently about it and I don’t give much of one who else might disagree with me.

  • H D Thoreau

    I can understand the disappointment you feel that he should not continue the fight, particularly given the win or die trying nature of the man. If you read the statement that he released you see a little of another (and possibly less endearing) side to him: the brash Lance Armstrong, which believes his legacy is secure and doesn’t care what anyone else thinks. As far as still wanting to believe is concerned, I think it is important to remember that fundamental pillar of democracy… the presumption of innocence. Until evidence is presented that will pass proper judicial scrutiny and he has been convicted based on this having had a fair trial, Lance Armstrong is not guilty. If we waiver from this we give weight and credence to the kind of kangaroo justice that Travis Tygart is trying to dispense and those are dangerous and murky waters in which to swim.

  • Anonymous

    All very cogent questions and remarks Michele, but I sense a bit of hysteria has been going on with this. And with Gilmour’s son, I put it down as high jinx, and for him to be locked up about it was a bit strong. If you asked any level headed present or ex serviceman on their thoughts, they would just laugh it off.
    But you have got to say Michele, established religion has a habit of being hypocritical in their dealings with whoever has the national power, just look at the Pope during fascist Italy, for instance. And then there was witch hunting in East Anglia done in the name of religion in this country, a few centuries ago.
    What you could say Michele, Pussy Riots did make the established church in Russia think a bit, which I think is not a bad thing, all considered, as it would be for any established one in any country.

  • Melmo

    A ‘four bedroomed’ apartment! Wow!

  • Michele

    His life’s timeline is so coincidental with his career’s changes.
    He was doing well at national levels for years, went on to international competitions, his badly-advanced cancer had been discovered just about in between and he’d already started his treatment.
    http://www.infoplease.com/spot/lancearmstrongtimeline.html

    Did he start to win bigger competitions because of the drugs that (more importantly) saved his life or was it simply because he’d just entered the bigger field and he’d have won in earlier years anyway? Did he simply acquire supreme confidence and a different mindset after being retrieved from Stage 3 cancer?
    I don’t see LA’s resignation from the scrap as any more than an exhausted ‘Think what you like’ (rather like several people’s reaction nowadays to taunts about WMDs).

  • Michele

    Gilmour wasn’t jailed because of the Cenotaph. He took a wander up Regent St where windows were being smashed and when a shiny car with outriders moved up the road he picked up a council bid and threw at it. He’s admitted he was drunk or high, I don’t know whether he was asked to acknowledge pig-ignorant, selfish and gormless.

    Life isn’t so boring for me that I need to pretend some dopy trendy-ism.
    Punk started in London in the early 70s, who did we get in to Govt in ’79?
    Did you open the links and see in whose memory the chainsawed crucifix had been placed?
    No need to speculate about how widely you’ve read on the topic all-round.

  • Cycle Samuel

    We ran the question of guilty or witch hunt with our facebook fans and had a resounding 85% witch hunt…sample size 160+ road bikers

  • Michele

    Got a link for the ‘quote’ (only necessary if you’d forgotten about the chemical gas that killed thousand upon thousand, in which case how could you ?).

  • Michele

    Ooops I don’t have a cold, but my ‘bid’ should be pronounced ‘bin’ :-)

  • noheart

    Marion Jones – never failed a dope test.
    Marita Koch – never failed a dope test.
    Bjarne Riis – never failed a dope test.
    Marco Pantani – never failed a dope test.
    Lance Armstrong – never failed a dope test*

    * not strictly true as he failed one in 1999 but let off with a backdated Doctors note, and then had a later sample rested for EPO but got round that with a whole load of litigation.

  • Anonymous

    Good anti-shake software in that camera, ey Alastair? Must be a gopro camera, they seem to be the shit for adventure sports, it is becoming known, if you fancy buying one, and no, I don’t work for them, but I could find you one, Arthur Daley-style, and no son, not off a back of a truck, honest, just might have a bit of flood damage, tescos tin can style, that is all….
    Cohen was a character, wasn’t he? The fella that started Tescos, you know?

  • Anonymous

    Wales is the new Austrian Tyrol, for cycling, it could become, but if we get colder winters coming, I am prepared for all that Norwegian langhaufing, or how they spell it, cross country skiiing.
    Train stations available, as here, at the end, but I don’t advise you to overtake the traffic like this in town if you are running late, tends to excite our local fascist bumblebees in their Jezza Clarkson-like jamjars,
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GpkjhY11ah8
    Some of them do tend to get excited, when there is a possibilty to up their booking record, but mostly is dependent on their chief’s Cees briefings at that morn, but most tend to laugh it off, usually, for tourist reasons, and the local community.

  • Nick Evans

    “His oft-made statement that he was the most drug-tested sportsman on the planet, and had never been tested positive, had a certain persuasion to it”.
    Perhaps, but that doesn’t make either statement true. His failed tests in 1999 and 2001 are well documented. And if you check on the USADA’s website, LA wasn’t even the most tested *Armstrong* on the planet. (The answer is Kristin Armstrong, see http://www.usada.org/athlete-test-history ) Of course, a cynic would say that somebody who is participating in organised doping will be tested a lot, as the team doctors need to be sure they’re doing it properly; they just won’t be sharing their results with the UCI or USADA.
    Was he a drug cheat? Well, by withdrawing from (conceding?) the proceedings, Armstrong has delayed the production of the relevant evidence, at least until his team-mates’ cases are considered. But it would be rather peculiar if, in an era when the vast majority of his major competitors have admitted doping, and as part of team the vast majority of whom have admitted to participating in organised doping*, the only clean athlete was the one who constantly beat them.

  • Nick Evans

    The problem with this approach is that Armstrong is the one who decided not to have the trial, by withdrawing from the proceedings once the US courts held that USADA was acting within its powers. In those circumstances, it’s difficult to agree that he should be entitled to rely on a presumption of innocence when he is the one preventing USADA’s evidence from being tested.

  • 48~18

    Lance Armstrong should be in jail