Still moving reflexively in the rubble
It was a typical Lance Event, although it was about as far from the bike as it gets. It was about spectacle, managed production and trying to craft another chapter in a punctured epic that has lost its helium and sunk to earth.
It was about what it is always about with Lance Armstrong: hubris and control, the same tightly intertwined strands of his DNA that convinced him he would never be exposed, that the dozens and dozens of people privy to his pyramid scheme would remain muzzled forever.
It was desperate. And huge chunks of it ranged from disingenuous to unbelievable. There was far too much defiance, contradiction of evidence and abdication of responsibility to respond to in one column, although I will start by saying that I don't believe for a minute that he was clean in his comeback. And we've seen only half the footage from the Oprah Winfrey interview.
Armstrong exerted the last bit of leverage he had left in public life by going big-picture pop-culture first. He decided to take aim at hearts and minds rather than making the kind of detailed confession to legal and anti-doping authorities that would have advanced the plot and made a small start on freeing him up to lead the rest of his life. It was a delusional move, not to mention an utterly backward one. Armstrong is a toppled despot, a statue pulled off his pedestal, but his legs are still moving reflexively in the rubble. By force of lifetime habit, he's still trying to shape his own narrative.
There will be a colossal amount of time expended in the next 48 hours taking his emotional temperature, parsing his facial expressions and applying sincerity sensors to his tone of voice. And it will be time entirely wasted. The one absolute truth that has emerged about Armstrong over the past 15 years, much of which I spent observing him at close range, is that he is one of the world's most gifted actors. There was no manifesto like an Armstrong manifesto, no gimlet-eyed stare-down any more Oscar-worthy.
Beware of the sudden conversion. Beware of loose ends that are too neatly cauterized. Beware of a man who is powering past the mile markers of the past two decades, up the latest mountain of his life, at such dizzying speed -- pages fall off the calendar! -- that it's clearly impossible he could be doing it naturally. The legions of people he bullied, knifed and misled are not so easily dropped.
Beware of myth-making. That's what wrong-footed so many about Armstrong in the first place.
Forget about trying to judge his contrition level. Here's the thing: It doesn't matter. Oprah's interview, with all due respect to her and her efforts to do a credible job, is window dressing. Armstrong can make a valuable contribution to the body of knowledge about doping whether he is sincerely sorry or not. But little of what he said Thursday night leads me to believe he's ready to do that.
He could start by detailing the methods he used to beat those hundreds of tests he held up like a hall pass all these years. He is a walking, talking Rosetta Stone who could almost single-handedly light the match that finally leads to much-needed reform of the international federation that runs cycling and dismantles the questionable cabal that oversees it in this country.
He can agree to pay back a substantial portion of the money the U.S. government has spent investigating him and help make good on an obvious breach of contract with the naive but still rightfully owed U.S. Postal Service. Fairness ceased being a part of this years ago, but I have zero problem with the fact that his former teammate Floyd Landis, whose belated honesty kicked down the first of many doors, would stand to get a cut of it in his capacity as a plaintiff in a federal civil whistle-blower lawsuit.
But Armstrong can help bring about those outcomes only if he shuts down his most basic instincts. I have serious doubts that the once-consummate enforcer of omerta can bring himself to rat out virtually every single person who aided and abetted his cheating. And if he somehow machetes a path back to competition through that jungle, I wonder who's going to be left to help him rebuild? Will there be a single person standing who has the energy?
I'm not suggesting all of the emotion can or should be siphoned out of this week's extravaganza. So many people still bear the mark of Armstrong's bulldozer treads. So many people are entitled to decide between permanent scorn and forgiveness. That is their right.
I've had a taste or two of Armstrong's intimidation myself -- not nearly on the level of the wrecking ball he swung at the steadfast Betsy and Frankie Andreu, or his bright, articulate former soigneur Emma O'Reilly, or his ex-personal assistant Mike Anderson, or Greg and Kathy LeMond, or the relentless journalist David Walsh, or others too numerous to name, all labeled as unhinged, vindictive and jealous. But enough so that I can empathize.
At the Tour of California bike race in February 2009, early in Armstrong's ill-conceived comeback, I was on the business end of one of his vintage, hourlong telephone browbeatings. I had written a column explaining how he had misled the world about his much-vaunted "extra" drug-testing program with anti-doping researcher Dr. Don Catlin, saying it was under way when, in fact, it was a nonstarter.
When I was summoned to the phone by his agent Bill Stapleton, I was concerned enough about the threats Armstrong might make that I asked a friend to sit with me as a witness.
One of Armstrong's opening lines, delivered with inflection that gave off the chilling smoke of dry ice, was "Are you on the Slipstream payroll?" He was referring to a series of stories I'd written the previous year about an American team that was putting an anti-doping credo front and center. Its cast of characters included some of his former teammates and least favorite people.
It was a window into his thought process. This is a man who covered all his bases, backing up physiological doping with administrative performance enhancement by co-opting or paying off the powers that be in his sport. Everyone was on the take, he reasoned, so I must be too.
A couple of years later, when federal grand jury witness Tyler Hamilton repeated to me the language Armstrong used to harass him at an Aspen, Colo., restaurant, I heard the echo of the same phrasing -- "How much did '60 Minutes' pay you?" -- and shuddered, knowing every word Hamilton was saying was true.
Armstrong threatened to call my bosses. (He never did, to my knowledge.) He kept railing. With some difficulty, I kept my cool. He couldn't identify a single factual flaw in my story but insisted that his commitment to race clean was "as legitimate as our cancer work."
If he does eventually come clean enough for the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency to consider reducing his lifetime ban so he can compete in Ironman triathlons before he turns 50, there will be no shortage of emotion about that either.
By sheer coincidence, Andrew Messick, the CEO of the World Triathlon Corporation, was in Melbourne (where I am covering the Australian Open) for meetings this week, and I had a chance to speak with him.
"If he's eligible to race, he can race, but Lance has been controversial in our community from the beginning," Messick said. He said that under no circumstances would the WTC abandon its status as a World Anti-Doping Agency signatory to accommodate Armstrong or anyone else.
Sidelined and hemorrhaging money, Armstrong has finally found himself in the psychological position of weakness where he put so many others.
I don't know when I'll feel he's paid enough of a price for his cruel reign, but my instinct is not nearly yet, not for a long, long time.
One of the cornerstones of Armstrong's creation story was the image of him post-cancer treatment, healed and sent back into the world by his oncologist, Dr. Craig Nichols, with instructions to honor something called "the obligation of the cured."
Whenever I had a chance to ask him about doping allegations -- and I never did an interview of any length without asking, although obviously it didn't get me very far -- I'd bring that up.
I recall one episode in particular near the end of the 2001 Tour de France. In those days, Armstrong sometimes deigned to do briefings with a small group of English-language reporters. We were sitting at a table under an umbrella in a pleasant courtyard outside a posh little chateau-style joint where the U.S. Postal Service team was staying, as it usually did, at a distance from most of the other teams. As worldly as I thought I was then, I could not have imagined the gruesome business of transfusing that was going on inside some of those lovely hotels.
I told Armstrong, in more of a statement designed to provoke than a question, that he had much more at stake than most athletes because of the level of trust, admiration and emotion cancer patients and survivors had invested in him. If he was cheating, I said, it had the potential not just to disappoint but to gut that constituency.
Armstrong locked onto my gaze. "Those people don't have to worry," he said. "They won't be devastated."
I know cancer survivors are not a monolith. I'm sure they have reacted and will react as individuals. I would not presume to speak for them. But I have no hesitation speaking for myself on this issue.
I find Lance Armstrong reprehensible for having passed off fiction as documentary. Two dear friends of mine had their bodies sliced up, pumped with chemicals and radiated, but they still wasted away before my eyes and died, the disease feasting on their bones like soft fruit, flooding their lungs, robbing them of their voices and keen intellects and finally stopping their generous hearts. I am and will always be more moved by the bravery they demonstrated while losing than I would ever be by the amoral celebrity who "beat" cancer.
Armstrong purported to be honest about the fear, pain and side effects of the drugs used to treat his disease, and that laid out a course map for millions. But I also believe he had an obligation to be honest about what he proceeded to do with his newly intact body and his presumably grateful mind, and he completely blew it.
One of the few comments that struck me as completely genuine Thursday night was Armstrong's observation that in recent months he found himself completely lacking control over his life for the first time since he was diagnosed. He had to do something, and chose this dubious route. After all the drama dies down, I wonder if one single mind will have been changed or if he'll live the second half of his life -- whether in motion or in relative hiding -- as the same polarizing figure he's always been.
The same impenetrable hard-headedness that helped make him an exceptional athlete with an unworldly capacity to defy and deny also blinded him to any possibility that he would ever be in this position. He has had little practice at defeat. Thursday, that showed.