Opinion: The case of Lance Armstrong: An internal debate
On October 14, 2003, I woke up early in the morning and did not go to school.
While this unto itself was cause for great rejoicing (I was 10), the reason made it all the more special: I was going to New York City to meet my hero, Lance Armstrong, live and in person, where he would sign his outrageously expensive new autobiography (since the old one apparently became obsolete kind of fast) for me.
Apparently, a lot of other people had the same idea that day, because my dad and I (after purchasing three copies of Every Second Counts) waited on line for four hours that morning–and only because we got there early. Lance was one of those rare athletes who could make hundreds, probably thousands of people forsake their daily lives and stretch en masse for blocks on end, prompting even the most distracted and hurried New Yorker to momentarily slow down and ask, “Wait, is something going on?” before proceeding without waiting for an answer (OK, so not everyone was obsessed with Lance. But come on, it’s New York).
And when my moment came, it was, well, just that: a (very brief) moment. I think I blurted something along the lines of, “I’ve been waiting all my life to meet you, Lance,” or something similarly trite and stupid (need I repeat that I was 10?). He responded with the equally lame, “Well, now you have,” or something to that effect, though I could hardly blame him because there was no way I was the first overzealous 10-year-old who worshipped him that he had met that day, and this was probably not his idea of fun anyway.
All fair enough. And then, as we made to leave the table, he said (I don’t even remember if he looked up or not, it doesn’t really matter), “Keep the pen,” and promptly handed me a suddenly holy (and, I later discovered, still perfectly functional) black Sharpie as my dad and I were escorted away from the staging area, where, as an added bonus, we met legendary cycling photographer Graham Watson and chatted with him for a slightly less supervised moment or two.
But it was the marker that mattered most to me. For years, I stored it safely in a clearly-labeled plastic bag, lest it be confused with the other similar-looking yet vastly inferior markers that populated my household. I removed it only occasionally for important purposes (read: when I couldn’t find any other Sharpies), and always treated it with a sense of awe and reverence. It’s probably still in one of the many shoeboxes full of stuff that populate the disaster area I call a closet back home, just waiting to be rediscovered and admired once more.
By this point, if you’re still with me (and my sincere thanks if you are), you’re probably wondering: who cares? What is the point of all this? We get it, Elliot, you really loved Lance Armstrong.
But that, of course, is exactly the point: I really loved Lance Armstrong. I watched him ride the Tour de France every day for three weeks in July as he demolished the field with only the occasional struggle (see: 2003). I read both of his books more times than I could count. I convinced my parents to buy about 20 of those ubiquitous Livestrong bracelets that the whole world seemed to wear for a while.
I also tried to follow in his footsteps: I joined the cycling team upon arrival at college and raced competitively for the first time this past spring. While my dad deserves the vast majority of the credit for this (for providing everything from an example to encouragement to the bike I currently ride), I still credit Lance with a sizeable assist for igniting within me a desire to go up hills really fast.
(You’ll notice, by the way, that I refer to him as “Lance” and not “Armstrong.” Rest assured that this is not due to some imagined familiarity based on our brief encounter, but simply force of habit and yet another reflection of my fandom.)
And so when the first drug allegations surfaced, I scoffed. Show me the evidence, Lance said. I chimed in right along with him. The reasoning was sound: Why would a man who had heroically fought cancer so advanced that it should have killed him willingly endanger his health by taking a drug that could kill him in his sleep?
It just didn’t make any sense. And besides, all the tests came back clean.
So I scoffed when LA Confidentiel, a lurid account supposedly detailing Armstrong’s systematic drug use, was released (and later discredited when Lance sued for libel and won). I shrugged when he was associated with Dr. Michele Ferrari, a controversial doctor who was found guilty of malpractice in 2004 for prescribing illegal drugs to the riders he coached. And I chuckled when Lance furiously set out to make another one of Ferrari’s clients, Filippo Simeoni, look foolish at the 2004 Tour after the two took potshots at each other in the media.
But as time went on, the accusations became harder and harder to deflect. All around Lance, teammates and rivals were being lassoed left and right. Floyd Landis admitted to using testosterone. Tyler Hamilton admitted to doing blood transfusions on 60 Minutes after spending years attributing his positive tests to a “vanishing twin.” In 2006, Spanish police executed Operación Puerto, a vast undertaking that ultimately led to suspensions for Jan Ullrich, Ivan Basso, and Alejandro Valverde, all men who had challenged Lance only to be soundly defeated.
All these revelations raised one big question that few people, least of all me, wanted to know the answer to: How could Lance stay clean and win when the riders finishing second and third and so many of the riders helping him all ultimately were exposed as cheaters?
Among those who did want to know the answer were federal prosecutors, who investigated Lance for two years for a whole host of possible doping-related crimes, which according to the New York Times included “defrauding of the government, drug trafficking, money laundering and conspiracy involving Armstrong and other top cyclists,” that were supposedly committed while Lance was sponsored by the United States Postal Service, a government agency. Things were getting serious.
But after two years of searching, the prosecutors closed the case. Once again, Lance seemed to have been vindicated. That, it appeared, was (finally) that.
Just a few weeks ago, however, the United States Anti-Doping Agnecy (USADA) announced that it was leveling fresh charges against the rider it has long had an antagonistic relationship with. The allegations and accusations are among the most sweeping Lance has ever faced, as the USADA claims to have secured evidence that Lance used a whole host of doping techniques over a period ranging from 1996-2010, with over 10 former cyclists set to testify against him.
Lance, as always, has issued a blanket denial.
And me? I no longer know what to think.
What discourages me most about this recent turn of events is that, now more than ever, both sides of the argument have a whole lot of people saying fundamentally contradicting things that cannot both be true. On one of the sides in this case, a whole lot of people are telling a really big and complicated lie.
At this point, though, I’m not sure that we’ll ever find out which side that is. If his accusers are found to be lying, they’ll merely claim that he’s a bully who’s exceptionally good at hiding things. If Lance is found to be lying, it’s not exactly as if he’ll suddenly reverse course and call a press conference to say it was him all along. As far as learning the whole truth and nothing but the truth goes, the ultimate verdict of this new inquiry will tell us nothing.
When I started writing this article, about 10 days and 1300 words ago, I planned to finish by saying that this accusation was one too many for me to shrug off, and that I too was now convinced of Lance’s guilt. But the more I’ve thought and written and revised and re-written about the subject, the less sure I am. Many of the men testifying against him are former dopers themselves, which makes their credibility suspect at best. The USADA’s witness recruitment tactics are shaky. Most importantly, the fact remains that Lance has passed hundreds and hundreds of drug tests before where so many others have failed. Surely that counts for something?
I just don’t know. Like so many other fans, I want desperately for none of this to be true. The 10-year-old in me yearns for the days of simple idealization, when a book signing would mean a missed day of school for me and a carelessly-given Sharpie would mean the world to me. I miss those days. But no matter how this investigation is resolved, they’re never coming back.
Thus, I must respectfully yield the floor to the realist in me, who would like to reiterate one basic aphorism: innocent until proven guilty. Of course, only Lance himself will ever know for certain the true extent of his innocence or his guilt. But in the eyes of the law, the eyes of the agency, and therefore in the eyes of the realist in me as well, he remains not guilty.
So I’m not getting rid of the overpriced books or the Sharpie just yet. Maybe there’s only a chance in a million that he’s completely innocent, but at least there’s a chance. And for both the star-struck 10-year-old and the realist in me, that’s enough for now.