Craig Owen Jones on the damage to the credibility of cycling arising from the Lance Armstrong doping scandalTweet
‘I left it all on the table with her and when it airs the people can decide,’ he said afterwards. And decide they did: within seconds of some of his more sanctimonious remarks, Twitter feeds and social media networks were bristling with comments. ‘Lance (not) Strong’ was the opinion of one. ‘Creepy @ best, slimy @ worst’ opined another. The Daily Telegraph’s Ian Chadband summed it all up in a tweet: ‘Armstrong called himself a doper, a prick, a bully. Yet [the interview] still felt [like] only a half confession, delivered chillingly emotion-free.’
Whether or not the Oprah Winfrey interview, broadcast on 17 and 18 January 2013, will be sufficient to rehabilitate Lance Armstrong in the eyes of the American public is open to question. Yet even in the world of professional cycling, where sincerity was at a premium for the best part of the decade that began in 1998 with the infamous Festina affair – in which the entire Festina team withdrew from the Tour de France amid accusations of systematic doping – it is difficult not to harbour some grudging admiration for Armstrong’s brass neck in agreeing to the Oprah interview in the first place. There were obvious strategic reasons behind his choice: Winfrey is hardly known for incisive questioning. Yet the arsenal of pointed enquiries Winfrey had to choose from – an arsenal with which Armstrong himself furnished her (over a decade of doping, involving all kinds of drugs and stimulants including steroids and so-called ‘blood doping’) – meant that her task was easy.
The issue here is not whether Armstrong is culpable for his crimes, or even whether or not he will be made to answer for them in a court of law, but rather, whether or not he will be made to pay for them. He and his (as yet unnamed) associates were responsible for one of the most systematic and sustained deceptions in sporting history. He is, or should be, a pariah, at least until he makes a full and frank apology, rather than the obfuscating and evasive statement of January, and atones for his misdeeds. This is not a case of a single and embarrassing transgression. Any number of celebrities, from Hugh Grant to Kristen Stewart, have shown that recovery after a faux pas can be effective and long-lasting. However, the one thing Armstrong is not guilty of is a faux pas. The momentary failure of judgment we associate with such acts does not apply here. Armstrong had countless opportunities to stop acting as he did, and he refused them all. His responses during the interview were calculated to portray him as a victim of a doping culture that was already present in cycling. That there was such a culture is undoubted, but as Armstrong himself has conceded, all cyclists who doped could have chosen not to. He claimed he doped because he concluded there was nothing wrong with doping. If true, the chutzpah is staggering.
What is to be done in the face of such duplicity, such a monstrous betrayal of trust and abuse of power? The organisers of the Tour de France reacted very simply to Armstrong’s failure to defend himself against the United States Anti-Doping Agency (USADA)’s dossier of evidence against him: they removed him from the list of winners, and have not named replacements. (Doing so would be problematic – from 1999 to 2005, when he won his seven Tours de France, many other top cyclists doped and not only Armstrong’s team-mates on the US Postal cycling team.) All of Armstrong’s palmares won from August 1998 onwards have also been excised from the records. The final ignominy came in January, when the International Olympic Association announced that Armstrong had been retrospectively disqualified from the 2000 Sydney Olympic Games, and that his bronze medal won that year had to be returned.
Court proceedings will follow. Armstrong’s fortune is estimated at tens of millions of dollars, but lawsuits are piling up. In late 2012 SCA Promotions announced that they were taking measures to recoup approximately $12 million after a 2006 court case involving Arsmtrong. In December the Sunday Times sued Armstrong after he sued the newspaper in 2004 for reprinting allegations against him. Most recently, the US justice department has thrown its weight behind a case claiming Armstrong defrauded the American taxpayer (the US Postal Service is publicly funded). We may expect many more such cases from newspapers, magazines, and individuals, on grounds of defamation, slander, and libel, in the coming months that could potentially account for a sizable chunk of that fortune.
Not all of it, however. Here, we must paint this picture on a wider canvas. We live in an age where the concept of justice is being eroded from the top down. Money is a salve, those who have enough of it can escape the worst punishments for their crimes. When we see those who embezzle, defraud, perjure or otherwise transgress in order to accrue power and wealth leaving the court with short or suspended sentences, or financial penalties so insignificant that they allow them to continue living their previous lifestyles unimpeded, it is understood that beyond a certain point, a person can commit a crime and get away with it. If that is so, where is the moral imperative in adhering to the law? The Welsh Olympic gold medallist Nicole Cooke put it succinctly in her January 2013 speech announcing her retirement from cycling: ‘I can’t help feeling that cheats win on the way up and the way down.’
For Armstrong, rehabilitation would not mean writing a tell-all memoir and raking in the royalties. No, for rehabilitation, read consolidation. There is no way back for Armstrong in the sporting world, but his ambitions surely lie elsewhere. Armstrong is rich, and with his reputation irrevocably tarnished, money is the only thing remaining to him that confers power. The financial consequences of the US justice department’s lawsuit could be disastrous. So they should be. To impose financial penalties that reduce slightly, but do not eradicate, a personal fortune accrued through cheating would be to acquiesce in the way the modern world works, and if sport is a perfect environment – perfect because governed by immovable rules and regulations – then it must also be true that sport has the ability to hold itself up as an example of the finest qualities of the human spirit. That is, in fact, its main function. It is a sphere where justice prevails and the most impressive are rewarded. Allowing Armstrong to keep his spoils smacks of unreason. It would strike at the heart of what is just.
Armstrong’s misdeeds are described in exhausting detail in the USADA’s dossier, and need not be delineated here. Far more nebulous transgressions present themselves, however. The amoral manner in which Armstrong has acted – within and without cycling – has damaged sport in general. It is no good asserting that the professional cyclists’ code of omerta that kept all but idle talk about doping out of the newspapers was well-established before Armstrong’s successes, or that Armstrong was merely ‘levelling the playing field’. His treatment of individuals who threatened him and the culture of which he was a part was deplorable – men and women such as Christophe Bassons, a fellow cyclist who earned Armstrong’s ire for speaking out against doping in 1999 and was subsequently bullied out of the sport, or Filippo Simeoni, a former doper who testified against Armstrong’s doctor, and who was denied his only chance to win a Tour de France stage in 2004 through Armstrong’s intervention. The one thing which no amount of apologising will ever change, however, is that someone else was denied knowing how it felt to be a Tour de France stage winner, to wear the maillot jeune, to stand on the podium at the Olympics. These are experiences that no retrospective amendments to the records or award ceremonies held years after the fact can alter, and the world of sport is poorer for it. The Tours de France held between 1999 and 2005 no longer exist. Fond memories associated with them have all the resonance of a romance soured by a discovery of betrayal.
This, then, represents the moral sanction, the reason why Armstrong’s media campaign cannot be allowed to prevail. Salvaging something in this realm will be well nigh impossible. He is not a sporting St Paul, any more than the Alpe d’Huez is the road to Damascus. He is, at best, a narcissist – a cyclist whose earliest performances showed him to have talent slightly above the average, but whose determination to succeed, at all costs, led him to lie, cheat and discard his respect for his sport and those around him. At best he will become the O.J. Simpson of the cycling world, the self-deprecating cameo star in screwball comedy films, the punchline to a bad joke. The internet memes are already circulating.
Justice must be done, and in a way that is commensurate with the staggering scale of his transgressions. Money made from his cycling success must be recouped; those whose livelihoods, reputations, and health have been adversely affected by his behaviour must be recompensed. Above all, Lance Armstrong must never again be allowed to exert any influence in the world of sport or culture. His legacy there, as elsewhere, can only be a blank space in the pages of the history books where a winner’s name should be.