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.

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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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