Over the weekend I got a call from a national news outlet seeking comment on the speculation that Lance Armstrong was going to confess to career-long doping. “Do you think he’ll really confess?” pressed a hurried voice. As a member of the triathlon media, I had anticipated questions about Armstrong’s short run in the sport, or how his desire to participate in triathlon again might be playing a role in his decision to finally come clean. But the line of questioning lent to purely speculative answers. Judging from news reports, it looked as though a confession was imminent. As far as his motives, it seemed like he was finally positioning himself to chart a new course toward redeeming himself.
And then yesterday came reports of an emotional apology to the Livestrong staff and a definitive confession to Oprah (inspiring Twitter hashtags like #doprah), which broadcasts around the globe on Thursday evening. To the glee of many longtime critics, Lance Armstrong was finally exposed as a fraud and a cheat.
In recent weeks I’ve read countless tweets and posts rejoicing in the downfall of a sports hero, many of those missives coming from the same people who took equal enjoyment in speculating on his return to triathlon in 2011. The same individuals who have fed off his celebrity are now sidling up to the table to feast on his reputation’s utter ruination. Does he deserve it? Probably. But it’s hard for me to feel anything but disappointment—in the apparent drug-addled culture of cycling, Armstrong’s alleged “kingpin” role in perpetuating it, and the fact that his misdeeds have resulted in a ban from triathlon, an athletic homecoming that seemed to hold early promise for him. I was excited to see what he could do in Kona. A lot of people were.
What Lance Armstrong did over the span of his career—doping, denying it for more than a decade and publicly lambasting individuals who spoke the truth—was unequivocally wrong and unethical. (I think many of us celebrated him for a long time while still silently suspecting use of PEDs. He’s a cheater among cheaters, we reasoned; he had to play the game, we rationalized.) But for me to characterize him—as so many have—as nothing more than a sociopathic puppeteer is not a fitting or fair sketch of a seemingly complex, and certainly flawed, personality. Doing so would assume knowledge of an innermost thought process we can only speculate on and diminish an extraordinary athletic ability that, while marginalized in light of recent evidence, cannot be altogether written off.
I read with great interest Tyler Hamilton’s book, The Secret Race, and like many, was surprised and disgusted by details of systematic cheating and deception in pro cycling’s highest ranks. It took reading that book to also ask myself what I would do in the same situation. Hamilton said he would have never imagined doping—his deeply ingrained moral code simply forbade it—yet he was ultimately drawn in because he wanted to race his bike with the best. I point this out not to excuse his choice—many riders have resisted the same offering—but to simply present the question of what you would do in the same situation. I believe I have the unwavering moral conviction to say I’d never dope, but then I’ve never tasted blood in my mouth from cycling so hard in a hell-bent pursuit of a childhood dream.
I read an article this morning on Velonews.com in which Beijing Olympics gold medal road cyclist Nicole Cooke said, “Tyler Hamilton will make more money from his book describing how he cheated than I will make in all my years of honest labor.”
That’s a sad, unfair reality. But maybe the person at the center of the doping juggernaut can now play a salient role in the reparative process. It is my sincere hope that Lance Armstrong’s epic downfall will serve a broader, productive purpose than providing the next clever hashtag or meme. It’s time to move on, to extract some kind of effective, lasting institutional change from the carnage of a sporting icon’s blazing crash-and-burn.