The cyclist Lance Armstrong betrayed his sport, his fans and the general public thrice: When he cheated during the heyday of his career through systematic doping, when he aggressively denied ever cheating, even suing those who claimed he did—and when he gave a tell-all confession to talk show host Oprah Winfrey last week that did not in fact tell all and lacked genuine contrition. To commit these betrayals, however, he first had to become a modern-day hero, and his sport, his fans and the general public all played a role in that.
A cancer survivor who went on to win the most prestigious title in cycling, the Tour de France, an unprecedented seven times, Armstrong did not only dominate one of the toughest sports for a decade; he was hailed as one of the greatest athletes of all time. He served as a symbol of all that is good about sports: the necessity of discipline, the joy of competition, the virtuous thrill of deserved victory; his struggle against and recovery from a life-threatening illness, and his determined pursuit of athletic perfection, seemed to fulfill the Greek poet Pindar’s redefinition of immortality: for the human soul to exhaust the limits of the possible.
It was only natural that millions of people saw him as a true inspiration.
But “this myth, this perfect story,” he told Winfrey in the first of two taped interviews, was “one big lie.”
As it turns out, the rumors that had hounded him through the years and the charges that were filed occasionally were true. The first five questions in the first interview quickly established that he had used banned substances, including testosterone, cortisone, human growth hormone and EPO (the blood booster erythropoietin); that he practiced blood doping (the unethical storing of one’s blood for transfusion just before a race—the effect is to pump up the number of red blood cells and thus increase the athlete’s oxygen-carrying capacity); and that he doped in each of his seven Tour wins. “I view this situation as one big lie that I repeated a lot of times,” Armstrong said.
The head of the US Anti-Doping Agency, the organization that painstakingly gathered the evidence and the testimonies that finally pushed Armstrong to make his confession (and led to the stripping of all his seven titles), welcomed the cyclist’s acknowledgment that “his cycling career was built on a powerful combination of doping and deceit,” but at the same time called on him to testify under oath. The head of the World Anti-Doping Agency was less congenial. “He was wrong, he cheated and there was no excuse for what he did. If he was looking for redemption, he didn’t succeed in getting that.”
Redemption after a televised confession would have seemed like the natural sequel to the Armstrong narrative, but that heroic life story that fanned the popularity of a grateful sport and to which millions of fans responded enthusiastically now lies in tatters. Whether it was too early for Armstrong to sort out the tangled skeins, or whether he did not yet feel the remorse, the profound sense of contrition that confessions require, the attempt at redemption proved disastrous.
An analysis in The Guardian listed four “errors” Armstrong committed in the first interview, including: “didn’t cry properly” (while he made up for it somewhat in the second interview, the first was an exercise in unseemly self-control), “didn’t give a full confession” (he said he last “crossed the line” in 2005, when he won his seventh Tour de France title, but antidoping investigators insist he had done blood-doping when he returned to cycling in 2009) and (possibly the most unbecoming of all) “played the victim,” even telling Winfrey that he thought he “deserved” a comeback.
The reaction of Novak Djokovic, the world’s top-ranked tennis player, when he was asked at the ongoing Australian Open about Armstrong’s revelations, seems to us to capture the right tone of world-weary understanding and fresh disgust. “I think it’s a disgrace for the sport to have an athlete like this,” Djokovic said. “He cheated the sport. He cheated many people around the world with his career, with his life story.”