How I Enabled the Cult of Lance Armstrong

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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