Detesting Lance Armstrong: Why it’s not about the dope

Lance Armstrong
Lance Armstrong

There’s little value in re-hashing the doping history of Lance Armstrong; at least the history as reported in USADA’s Reasoned Decision, published last week. Depending on primarily witness testimony, it is a detailed and thoroughly documented indictment of the cyclist. For years before the report, suspicion of Armstrong’s doping was rampant. The sheer volume and nature of the evidence is overwhelming enough that, as of this writing, all Armstrong’s major sponsors have terminated their contracts, the UCI has officially stripped him of his Tour de France (TdF) victories and banned him from cycling for life, he’s had to resign as Chair of The Lance Armstrong Foundation, and both ASO and SCA Promotions are expecting over $10 million to come back their way. As far as I know Mike Anderson and Floyd Landis also have pending lawsuits involving Armstrong, and I’d expect more to come out of the woodwork as parties defrauded look to get back money out of which they were cheated.

I’ll say it outright. I don’t like, nor do I respect, anything about the guy. I used to be a big fan a few years ago and bought the hero hype, pretty much hook, line and sinker. In the past couple years though, it’s become clear to me that he’s not a hero, nor really nearly as decent as most people. He’s a good cyclist, but there are lots of those. My reasoning for feeling this way in the points below is largely drawn from the USADA decision, with other supporting links/references where appropriate.

A cheat; the least of his sins

That Lance doped didn’t come as a big surprise to me, particularly with Tyler Hamilton’s admissions and recently published book, The Secret Race. In an era where most of his competitors were also doping (and admitting or being caught over time), it stretched credulity to the limits to think that he was not only not doping, but slaughtering a field of riders who were. Again, though, it’s hardly worth rehashing those details, as you’d need to be living under a rock to not be aware of the gist of the case.

I don’t detest Lance for doping in an era when most riders were. I have immense respect for those who didn’t dope in cycling’s dark era, and paid dearly as a result, with few podium finishes and fewer still dollars from sponsorships that went to the dominant riders – the ones who cheated. The landscape doesn’t excuse the doping, but in light of those circumstances, I understand why it happened. I disrespect Lance a great deal for doping, but that’s not what made this guy despicable. If he had doped, been caught and paid the resultant penalties, he’d be a big story still, but there’s so much more to this that’s so much worse to me than a dominant athlete caught doping.

It’s not just the cheating by way of blood doping and manipulation that’s the problem. If you believe his former mechanic/personal assistant, Mike Anderson, Armstrong cheated him on a business deal, owes him a lot of money, and ruined the guy’s life. Armstrong’s lawyers responded to the accusations in the same publication. Anderson’s story might be dismissed as one-off sour grapes if it wasn’t for the fact that, in his story, his special access to Armstrong provides the type of information consistent with many other former close associates and their stories about the guy. More on this a little later.

In general, though, I ask myself whether a cheat is not only worthy of hero worship, but whether at a more basic level, I like or even respect the person. The answer is no.

A cancer profiteer?

Is Livestrong a ‘cancer shield’ for Armstrong?

Despite what he’s gained and lost in the last 15 years, no one can ever take away his recovery from advanced cancer. In Armstrong’s case, it started with testicular cancer, was beaten once and returned as brain and lung cancer. As a result of not only surviving, but returning to competitive cycling, the story goes that Lance began the Lance Armstrong Foundation to help people living with cancer. Re-branded LIVESTRONG, the foundation became a perfect vehicle for Armstrong and Nike to both benefit handsomely. A lot of funds were raised for the cause, Armstrong became a hero to millions of people for so much more than his cycling accomplishments and Nike’s association with the brand has given them a wonderful corporate philanthropy image.

I can only judge the charity’s actual work by what I read, as I have no firsthand experience with it. Like most of us, for a long time I assumed it was doing a lot in the fight against cancer. In truth, Livestrong seems to be something different:

If Lance Armstrong went to jail and Livestrong went away, that would be a huge setback in our war against cancer, right? Not exactly, because the ­famous nonprofit donates almost ­nothing to scientific research.
Outside Magazine

You’d be forgiven if, like me, you thought donating to Livestrong was donating to cancer research. It’s a blurry line and one that the foundation seemingly likes that way. I won’t go into any more detail about this here, but I’d encourage you to give the linked article above a good read. It’s a bit long, but you may just come away from it wondering what the foundation has become and whether, in fact, as time has gone on, its primary function has been to act as personal spin factory for Armstrong and allow him to rack up personal sponsorships and speaking engagements (at $150k a pop) that have made him a very wealthy man. Has he profited handsomely by being the face of cancer survival? Should he be able to?

Further, the Outside article above was one of the first major looks into Livestrong, which wasn’t shut down before it ever got published. For the record, it doesn’t say anything specific is wrong with the Lance Armstrong Foundation, just that people may have the wrong idea about where their money goes and how Armstrong may or may not benefit from it. This piece on Fraudbytes goes into more detail about the article itself and the approaches that Lance and his legal team take to threaten journos and publications, ‘raising the cancer shield’ and playing the hero card, to deflect criticisms or suspicions about Armstrong.

I guess we all have to make our own decision on his charity’s purpose and how altruistic it actually is, but the whole thing simply feels wrong to me, as someone who’s been personally touched by the disease more than once.

A manipulative bully

Lance Armstrong – manipulative bully?

Where to start … Bullying, coercive and manipulative behaviour seems to be the very fabric of Armstrong’s being. As I wrote earlier, for me it wasn’t really that Lance doped, rather what he did to hide the doping and to protect his money-machine. In the USADA report, Lance was not only a user, but the primary driving force behind the doping program of the USPS and Discovery cycling teams. The USADA report calls the USPS/Discovery doping programs “the most sophisticated in the history of sport.” Given that the history of sport includes 70’s era eastern block Olympic weightlifting, football and baseball, to name just three, that’s some illustrious company.

Returning to Mike Anderson for a moment, his issues are not merely that he was cheated by Armstrong – and in truth he has no paper trail, nor even email evidence – rather that he witnessed and grew uncomfortable with Armstrong’s bullying tactics toward others (and himself in the end):

Do I think he cheated? Yep. But my real problem is something that diehard fans seem unable to grasp: the vengeful tactics he uses against people who tell the truth about him, on and off the bike.
Outside Magazine

Whether orchestrating an elaborate system to exploit poor testing practices as outlined in USADA’s decision, convincing new riders to use the doping program and threatening them if they didn’t, accosting and threatening those who testified in the federal case against him, in public places – and IN the peloton, or shaming and discrediting USADA witnesses and former associates long before the report, he has a long history of manipulative, bullying behaviour. His now legendary state of denial and claims of no failed tests, coupled with an almost gleeful taunting of everyone to prove otherwise, smacks of a sense of invincibility and ego that is finally coming back to bite him, completely and inexorably.

This is not a pattern of behaviour worthy of a hero, nor frankly a decent human being.

Dishonest from the beginning

It would be easy to say that Lance started out with the best of intentions; that this was a passionate cyclist who survived cancer, started a foundation to help those stricken with the disease and then just fell in with the wrong people in the pursuit of winning. The truth, though, would appear to be that Armstrong may have been doping from his earliest competitive days and simply continued to do so after beating the disease. Further, that as the cult of Lance as cancer hero grew, he had to go to ever greater and more dishonest methods to avoid getting caught. In fact, while not explored heavily, the source in the next paragraph and others make the connection that steroid use has been linked to cancer. Wouldn’t it be the ultimate irony if the drug use actually played a role in Armstrong originally contracting cancer and, further, that he might never have had the opportunity to build the LIVESTRONG image for himself had this not happened in the first place?

In some of the best writing about Armstrong that I’ve read, Adrian Smith has plenty of opinions about the cyclist and cycling on his blog, Balls, Wheels, Doping. In particular, in a post from about a month ago, Smith goes into detail about Armstrong’s history, going back as early as 1990 and how he hooked up with Chris Carmichael and, more importantly, Dr. Michele Ferrari. I’ve decided to include a few quotes from the post below, but I’d strongly encourage you to read the whole thing (linked above). I am only highlighting passages related to his pre-TdF days, as I have already touched on his behaviour from 1998 onward above.

It started early …

Lance Armstrong was 18 when he first met Chris Carmichael, in 1990 … Carmichael was named and sued by two other cyclists also training with him at this time, Greg Strock and Erich Keiter, for doping them with cortisone, steroids, and other various products during the 1990 season. Carmichael settled this case out of court in 2001, but the evidence was damning – there was systemic doping and corruption in the US coaching system during Carmichael’s time there … Armstrong would go on to work with Carmichael for the rest of his sporting career.

As far back as 1992 …

Steve Swart, team-mate of Armstrong’s on Motorola, said that Armstrong was the central figure in encouraging riders to dope. His claims were published in two books, and Armstrong sued after their publication … But where the books were published, in France, Armstrong never had a case – it was not proven the books were lying.

Mixed results before cancer …

Armstrong’s career continued with sporadic wins, until he … began working with Italian doctor, Michele Ferrari in 1996. Michele Ferrari has been implicated in evidence from a number of athletes, and banned for life by the Italian Olympic Committee. No Italian athlete is permitted to work with him, and breaches are punishable with bans.

During cancer treatment …

As part of (cancer) treatment, Armstrong, scared and with nobody with knowledge to consult about his condition, was asked in hospital whether he’d ever used any performance-enhancing drugs(PEDs). His response, as detailed by npr, and in evidence given by Betsy Andreu, was to list off a reel of drugs which he’d taken.

Cancer-free, back to doping …

Armstrong found it difficult to find a team after recovering, and ended up on the US Postal team, which from 1999 onward would have its management under the direction of former ONCE rider, Johan Bruyneel. ONCE were a Spanish cycling team heavily implicated in EPO usage in investigations following the 1998 Tour de France … In 1997, Armstrong’s agent, Bill Stapleton, became an official of the US Olympic Committee. Sports Illustrated would report years down the track that Armstrong, in three tests the 90s, produced samples that indicated doping with testosterone … With Armstrong’s return to the bike in 1998 came the return to working with Michele Ferrari. Armstrong would later state to Floyd Landis, a team-mate on the USPS team, that Michele Ferrari was paranoid that he’d helped cause the cancer through his providing the drugs Armstrong was using in 1996.

Cycling takes note …

Ferrari immediately got Armstrong back into an intensive program of drug use. The net result was Armstrong, cancer-free and drug-boosted, beginning to suddenly make the cycling world sit up and take notice with increased endurance, producing performances in stage races. Make no bones about it: Cancer does not cause this. It doesn’t transform an athlete into a super-athlete. This has never happened before, or since. That’s because it doesn’t happen.

Putting it all together

As I wrote previously, if Lance Armstrong was just a good cyclist doping during a dark period in the sport, who was caught and paid an appropriate penalty, that would be one thing. It’s not. This is a guy who:

  • was implicated in doping from his earliest days in competitive sport
  • quite possibly may have, in part, caused his cancer by doping
  • profited handsomely by posing as a cancer fighting crusader
  • purposely sought and worked with proponents of doping throughout his career, particularly a doctor with a lifetime ban in his native Italy
  • wielded his power to coerce teammates into doping, largely to support his own goals of cycling domination, financial gain and celebrity
  • went to extraordinary lengths to cover up his cheating for 15+ years
  • has threatened and intimidated virtually anyone who crossed him throughout his career

I know not everyone agrees with my feelings, but I feel they’re justified and grounded in reality. If anyone asks me why I detest Lance Armstrong, I’ll point them here and then be glad to debate them on the merits or lack thereof of my position.