The Feds (and Everyone Else) Should Leave Lance Armstrong Alone

By Stuart Stevens

Yes, he lied, cheated, and doped. But vilifying him is at best useless and at worst hypocritical.

lance stuart stevens reuters 650.jpg
REUTERS/Francois Lenoir

The United States Department of Justice has now decided to join in the "whistleblower" lawsuit against Lance Armstrong by former teammate Floyd Landis.

This means that at a time when the president says we are facing Armageddon for lack of government resources, millions more dollars will be spent focused on what a bunch of 20-something kids did in Europe a decade ago. This is nuts.

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At the root of the lawsuit is the claim that the vaunted institute called the United States Postal Service was damaged by associating with one of the greatest athletes of his generation. Never mind that the Postal Service actually did something seemingly impossible by sponsoring Armstrong's team: They found a way to make money and save taxpayers a small fortune. We are actually to believe that harm has come to the reputation of an organization so flawed that "going postal" is slang for an underappreciated and overworked employee shooting fellow underappreciated and overworked employees.

This makes about as much sense as thinking that Floyd Landis, who was plucked from obscurity and made into a star by Lance Armstrong, is a victim. Floyd was a great bike racer, the kind of kid who would ride through hell just to see his tires smoke, but he's as much a liar, cheat, and doper as Lance Armstrong. If Armstrong's team was a vast criminal enterprise, Floyd Landis joined the gang, prospered, then went out and started his own gang only to get busted. And now he sues his former gang?

This makes that crazy case of the person who was attacked by McDonald's hot coffee seem like the sort of cause the International Court of Justice in the Hague should prosecute. I loathe doping and cheating in sports and have written about it and ranted about it for years. But there is something about this rush to demonize Lance Armstrong that is as misguided as the previous push to make him a saint.

***

Let's start with the obvious: European pro cycling has been a drug-infested sport for a very long time. And when Lance Armstrong says that he doesn't believe he could have won seven tours without performance-enhancing drugs, there's little reason to doubt him.

This isn't the place to go into the sordid history of drugs in pro cycling, but it's a history that dates back to the sport's earliest days. To really understand what it was like for the riders of Armstrong's generation, everyone should read The Secret Race by Tyler Hamilton and Dan Coyle.

The Secret Race is the story of how Tyler Hamilton, one of Armstrong's long-time teammates, an extraordinarily courageous and talented athlete from Marblehead, Massachusetts, was relentlessly drawn into the world of pro-cycling doping. Raised with a strong sense of honor, right and wrong, Hamilton grew to realize that without doping he could not compete at the highest levels of the sport he loved as much as life itself. It wasn't a matter of ethics so much as simple biology.

It is chilling to read Hamilton's description of the first time a team doctor tested his red blood cell level (hematocrit) in 1997:

"Not too bad," he said. "You are 43."

I remember being struck by Pedro's wording. It wasn't "You scored a 43" or "Your level is 43," it was "You are 43." Like I was a stock and 43 was my price. Only later would I find out how accurate this really was.

Red blood cells carry oxygen through the body. In an endurance sport, any athlete with more oxygen will endure longer and harder. The slightest difference in hematocrit level could mean the difference between glory and defeat. Training can increase levels to a certain point, but everyone has a natural ceiling. And that's where drugs and blood manipulation like transfusions come into play.

Hamilton, one of the toughest athletes of the modern era, describes riding hard as he could up some impossibly steep climb in one of his early races in Europe only to be casually passed by Danish rider Bjarne Riis who was calmly turning over a massive gear. Then it hit Hamilton that while he was trying desperately to hold on, Riis was training. This was the same Bjarne Riis who had been a journeyman rider until he suddenly transformed into a superstar in the l993 Tour.

He lied when others were lying. Maybe he did it with more vigor or effectiveness than others. But what does it really mean to be the bigger liar in a world of liars?

The reality was clear. Without doping, Hamilton writes, "We had no chance to win, no chance to attack or affect the race in a meaningful way; we were just grateful to survive. The reason was the other riders were unbelievably strong. They defied the rules of physics and bike racing."

It's easy to say that Hamilton and Armstrong and all of those riders should have put down their bicycles and refused to join the system. Many Americans and European cyclists did just that. With rare exception, today we have no idea who they are. They never won big races. They disappeared from the top levels of the sport.

And that's really the crux of this entire issue. To be fair to the athletes of this era, we have to acknowledge that the choice they were facing was not just to dope but whether or not to leave their sport, at least at the highest professional level.

Naturally we all say it would have been far better to ride clean and lose. But do that race after race, year after year, and pretty soon you won't be going to races. Because you won't have any sponsors. The economics of pro cycling is no one sponsors the team or riders who are consistently not in the running. Losers just lose, and when you lose a lot you quit losing because you're not going to the race.

Can any of us really imagine what it was like for these athletes? Can any of us really say what decisions we would have made? They are the chosen, the genetically blessed, a fiercely driven, tiny slice of the population. There are a thousand times more successful heart surgeons than pro bike racers.

To succeed at that level requires much more than physical gifts and drive and luck. It takes love—a deep and abiding love for a sport. Imagine falling in love with a sport when you were five or six years old. You have a gift! You stay with it. You fight your way to Europe. Then you discover the game is played with a different set of rules. You quit and go home, never to test yourself against the world's elite? How hard would it be to voluntarily withdraw from that sport because of ethics, knowing that your top competitors were doing what you were refusing to do?

That's the impossible choice that cyclists of Armstrong's era faced. By the early 1990s when red-blood-cell-boosting drugs like EPO became easily available, almost every cyclist who competed at the highest levels made the choice to do some kind of performance-enhancing drugs.

***

Maybe the only way to put all this behind us is by focusing on Armstrong. But as this once Great American Hero starts his long walk into infamy, it's worth pausing and asking whether Lance Armstrong is so different than the scores of elite riders of his era who also did drugs.

Well, there's the obvious: He won seven Tours. Is there anyone who really believes the United States government would spend millions pursing a guy who lost seven tours? Or a guy who won only a couple of tours? Who cannot agree that Armstrong suffered from the magnitude of his success?

Then there are Armstrong's vicious attacks against his accusers. This is the side of Armstrong that is easiest to loathe, though it's perfectly consistent with his approach to cycling. There is a reason that the writer who understands Armstrong the best, Daniel Coyle, titled his book on the 2004 Tour Armstrong's War. For Armstrong, every day in his cycling career was like the Dresden firebombing.

These legal assaults and personal attacks were completely abhorrent and immoral. But it's worth pointing out that after 1999, Lance Armstrong quickly became a very profitable business, call it Armstrong, Inc. Like it or not, in the business world, highly aggressive legal maneuverings are standard practice.

Look at American tech icons like Steve Jobs and Bill Gates. They didn't hesitate to sue any perceived threats. They thrived on crushing the competition, large or small. Amazon's Jeff Bezos isn't content to threaten every bookstore in America; he wants to rewrite the rules of an entire publishing industry. Why? Because it's good for his business. As a bike rider and sportsman, what Armstrong did was reprehensible. As a vastly profitable multi-national corporation, it was pretty much standard practice.

Looming over all of this is the stunning hypocrisy. The hypocrisy of a man who marketed himself as a do-gooder when in fact he was a liar and a cheat. There is something particularly repulsive about this deceit.

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Yet none of that undoes the good of Armstrong's efforts to mobilize support to fight cancer. Was it good for his public image? Sure, but charity work is often laced with self-interest and image building. Would it have been less hypocritical if Armstrong had simply kept a low profile? Of course. But would the greater good had been well served if Armstrong had not taken such a prominent leadership role in anti-cancer efforts? That he was lying about his doping while he did it is shameful, but it doesn't undo all the good that was done.

To state the obvious, there is a lot about Armstrong that is just not very likeable. But so what? Eddie Merckx, the greatest cyclist of all time, wasn't called The Cannibal because he was a nice guy. He loved to humiliate his opponents; in the 1975 Tour a spectator rushed out and viciously punched him in the stomach. The second great rider of the era, Bernard Hinault, was called The Badger, and who can forget him reducing Greg Lemond to tears by double crossing him on his promise to allow Lemond to win the 1985 Tour. A prince of a guy.

People can hate on Armstrong all they want, but they shouldn't think of any of these other riders on his team as Armstrong victims. Tyler Hamilton and Floyd Landis were busted for PEDs after they left Armstrong's team. Frankie Andreu, whose wife, Betsy, is one of Armstrong's most vocal critics, had raced in six tours as journeyman before riding as Armstrong's captain got him to the top. And yes, Andreu has admitted using EPO for the 1999 tour.

The pressure on all of these riders, Armstrong included, wasn't to dope, it was to perform. If you could play your role superbly on the team—haul Armstrong up a mountain, set tempo all day, whatever it was—and do it without doping, nobody would have cared at all. But that's the whole point. Given the state of the sport, most riders couldn't do that, not day after day on a long tour. They couldn't do it because other riders weren't riding clean.

Lance Armstrong made the dreams of his teammates come true. It was his dedication, talent and sheer will that put them on winning Tour de France teams. Every rider who rode with Armstrong was worth more in the marketplace for having been on a winning Tour team. Why did Tyler get his own team? Why did Floyd Landis get his own team? Why did they get a chance to win the Tour on their own? Because they rode with Lance Armstrong. Why did Hamilton and Landis continue to use PEDs after they left Armstrong's team? Because they felt they had to if they had a chance to compete.

When Armstrong was at his peak, the cancer-afflicted famously mobbed him, trying to touch him, as if he had the power to heal. He didn't then and he doesn't now. He started as a mixed-up, angry, driven adolescent with a huge talent, and he's grown into a mixed-up, angry, middle-aged man who won a bunch of bike races. That's about it.

He lied when others were lying. He cheated when others were cheating. He turned on his friends when others were doing the same. Maybe he did more of it or did it with more vigor or effectiveness than others. But what does it really mean to be the bigger liar in a world of liars or the better doper in a world of professional dopers?

This entire sordid saga is complicated on every level, and pretending it's simple serves no purpose. We made a young Texan into an impossible hero because we love heroes and he seemed just perfect. All too perfect, of course.

So now we need a villain, and a not-so-young Texan seems just perfect. Again, all too perfect.

Which brings us back to the Department of Justice suing Armstrong. When Chicago's children are slaughtering one another in gang-driven violence, and a licensed compounding pharmacy is turning out a contaminated vaccine that kills instead of cures, is this really the best use of our precious government resources? I'd rather the DOJ be focused on busting gangs and the FDA to do a better job on protecting the public than trying to clean up a tainted European sport or help Floyd Landis settle an old score.

So yes, Lance Armstrong lied, cheated, and doped. But like the old saying goes, do we really have to make a federal case out of it?

This article available online at:

http://www.theatlantic.com/entertainment/archive/2013/03/the-feds-and-everyone-else-should-leave-lance-armstrong-alone/273632/