How I Enabled the Cult of Lance Armstrong

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The former editor of Outside magazine does some regretful soul-searching about his role in hyping the disgraced cyclist's hollow greatness.

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The only time I ever met Lance Armstrong was in 2005, a few months before his final Tour de France win, to interview him for an Outside magazine cover story. Welcomed into Armstrong's home with chilly hospitality, I was amazed to encounter an Ed Ruscha painting hanging prominently on his living-room wall. Against a backdrop of dark storm clouds, the canvas featured bold white letters spelling out the words SAFE AND EFFECTIVE MEDICATION. I laughed out loud when I saw it.

As I wrote at the time, the painting invited multiple interpretations. It might have been "a sincere acknowledgment of the medical intervention that saved his life, the surgery and the drugs and the rehab that brought him back for an exquisitely leaner, more potent second chance." It might have been a righteous, arrogant fuck-you to his accusers and enemies, the "trolls" he despised and belittled with open hatred.

"Or finally," I added, "could it be a dark joke? If Lance has secretly managed to dope all these years—a myth as unkillable as the one about the ruthless efficiency of the CIA—the Ruscha painting is just about the most cynical gesture imaginable, a true leap into the moral abyss."

I've been thinking about that Ruscha painting a lot recently. Horrifically but undeniably, a dark, cynical leap into the deepest moral abyss seems to be exactly what Lance Armstrong's career really was. Together with almost everyone who had been a fan and admirer of Armstrong's achievements, both athletic and philanthropic, I've been wrestling with painful, complicated feelings of anger, sorrow, and disillusionment as the totality of his disgrace sinks in. But as a magazine journalist once deeply invested in covering the Armstrong era in cycling, I also feel a shock of self-recrimination as I struggle to reconcile my part in lionizing a man who, in hindsight, was almost certainly a cheat and a liar of breathtaking audacity and shamelessness. How could I have characterized the rumors and accusations that Lance relied on banned performance-enhancing drugs and techniques as part of a "myth"?

Now that Armstrong has been stripped of his Tour titles, banned from the sanctioned triathlon events where he had hoped to extend his athletic career, and divorced even from his own Livestrong Foundation, the narrative of his downfall has begun to shift to wider questions of accountability, including the assigning of blame for those who ignored or downplayed the abundant warning signs of Armstrong's guilt, and giving credit to the investigators and muckrakers who have seen their worst suspicions and allegations against Armstrong spectacularly vindicated. David Carr in the New York Times and Matthew Ingram at GigaOm have argued that, in many ways, the legacy media dropped the ball while "blogs and Twitter picked up the slack," as Ingram puts it.

There's a large degree of merit to these assertions, although the contributions of mainstream outlets like 60 Minutes, the Wall Street Journal, and the Times itself were probably more crucial, once Lance's former lieutenants started to take the fall and substantial evidence began to overtake indictments based on problematic hearsay and circumstantial accounts of Armstrong's presumed guilt. Meanwhile, Steve Madden, the former editor of Bicycling magazine, has written an affecting confession of how variously impossible, difficult, and inconvenient it was to go after Armstrong at the height of his reputation and clout. I recognize much of my own present discomfiture in his words.

I was the editor of Outside from 1999 to 2006, a period that almost exactly overlapped Lance Armstrong's seven consecutive Tour de France victories. Outside had enthusiastically covered Armstrong's compelling story from the start, and during my tenure we put him on the cover of the magazine no fewer than three times. To be sure, our coverage also featured investigative stories about cycling's doping scandal and the accusations against Armstrong, including this one and this one. Since I left, Outside's editors and correspondent have continued to make fearless and enterprising contributions to uncovering the truth. One of the magazine's finest reporters, longtime contributing editor Daniel Coyle, is the co-author of Tyler Hamilton's The Secret Race: Inside the Hidden World of the Tour de France: Doping, Cover-ups, and Winning at All Costs, the former rider's devastating account of cheating alongside Lance Armstrong. And re-reading Coyle's 2005 book, Lance Armstrong's War, I'm filled with admiration at the razor's-edge depiction of Armstrong's implacable animus and will juxtaposed with the shadows of doubt and scandal already beginning to eclipse his shining legacy.

But I can't avoid acknowledging my culpability and naiveté in sustaining the Armstrong myth. I recall how colleagues who knew much more about cycling than I did were convinced that Armstrong was guilty of doping. We debated and worried about it obsessively. Pro cycling became a huge sports phenomenon in the U.S. during the Lance era, but everyone bothering to pay attention knew it was corrupted by the widespread abuse of steroids, human-growth hormones, EPO, and blood-doping. Some of the cyclists Lance was defeating were dropping dead at bizarrely young ages. Yet if cheating wasn't wholly safe, it was indisputably effective, as Outside demonstrated when GOP political operative and amateur endurance athlete Stuart Stevens volunteered to sample the performance-enhancing pharmacopeia under a doctor's supervision and write about it. His results improved dramatically.

I tried to remain agnostic about the allegations that Lance was dirty, but now it seems I relied far too much on rationalizations about the sheer implausibility of his guilt. Scientific papers had been published attesting to Armstrong's off-the-charts (and entirely inherent, it was said) physiological prowess. Lance was the opposite of self-destructive. Even if the Tour champion could beat all the tests, I argued on many occasions, the scale of such a doping conspiracy would depend on too many people keeping it a secret forever, and it would obviously, inevitably come out. I had great difficulty believing Armstrong could be so ethically depraved and reckless, so delusionally invested in denying that a Faustian day of reckoning was coming. It was a failure of imagination on my part, and most excruciating of all, a bet on a losing proposition: that Lance Armstrong would never viciously inflict such pain and betrayal on kids, women, and guys with cancer, and their families, and every person he inspired, and every company that gave him money and trust.

I feel a shock of self-recrimination as I try to reconcile my part in lionizing a man who, in hindsight, was almost certainly a cheat and a liar.

To paraphrase the subtitle of John Kenneth Galbraith's classic book on the gullibility that precedes market collapse, A Short History of Financial Euphoria, "genius is before the fall." For a long time, Lance Armstrong was a blue-chip investment, and Outside had a strong business interest in extolling him when he was winning and getting away with it. In its own ambivalent way, the magazine became a minor entertainment division of Lance Inc., alongside major conglomerate players like Nike, Trek, Oakley, and the Hollywood heavy-hitters who vied to schmooze with him and produce his biopic, not to mention the perennially hapless United States Postal Service. His cancer story was irresistibly inspiring. Brilliant photographers like Anton Corbijn and Robert Maxwell were eager to shoot him for the magazine. We won awards for issues that packaged Lance as a heroic icon.

Even now, I still have a few remaining qualms about the case against Lance. And I've reserved a portion of my disgust for some of his accusers, self-confessed cheats, opportunistic in the long-delayed timing of their mea culpas. The whole business is a nasty mess. But I'm no longer pushing back against the weight of the proof that he doped. I don't want to try to forget what we all chose to do and say back then, or rationalize away how terrible it feels to remember the way I was lulled into acquiescing in Lance boosterism, or sidestep how ridiculous that credulity looks today. I don't understand how reporters like Sally Jenkins or Buzz Bissinger can continue to stand by Lance, either on grounds of friendship or by perversely insisting that cheating doesn't matter, without making themselves grotesque.

Armstrong's continuing silence in the face of overwhelming evidence and near-universal opprobrium is disturbing and haunting. How can he hold out for the rest of his life, even if he doesn't spend much of it in court being sued and likely stripped of major portions of his fraudulently obtained millions? He's ruined.

But I also save a small, bitter dose of shame for myself.

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Hal Espen was the editor of Outside magazine from 1999 to 2006, and is a former senior editor at The New Yorker. He lives in Santa Fe, New Mexico and writes at stoneturntable.net.

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