Lance Armstrong, Antihero

A damning new book about the disgraced champ serves as a reminder: The difference between "villain" and "morally complicated protagonist" is often just in the storytelling.

AP / LM Otero

Pop-culture pop quiz time:

A cancer survivor—a respected guy, known to be a dad who loves his kids—has a secret: He’s involved with drugs.

The man stashes contraband in designated hiding spots in his home and, on repeated occasions, narrowly avoids getting caught by the authorities. He plays the innocent well enough in his daily, public life, but over a number of years, he becomes known to those close to him as manipulative and cruel; he threatens and intimidates others, including his closest associates, into silence while he continues to run his elaborate enterprise clandestinely.

Did these this series of events happen to

  1. Walter White on Breaking Bad, or
  2. Disgraced cycling champion Lance Armstrong, allegedly, in real life?

Trick question—both are correct. Here’s another one:

A man known for his prodigious talent becomes a well-respected name in his profession. He wins awards. His bosses build their business around his natural gifts. He’s admired by men and women alike. In his private life, however, he’s a philanderer, even though publicly he’s known as a family man with a wife and kids. And he has a career-endangering secret he desperately tries to keep hidden.

Is this the story of

  1. Don Draper on Mad Men, or
  2. Lance Armstrong, allegedly, in real life?

Again, both answers are correct. How about this one:

A respectable American family man is lauded for his fortitude after he pulls through unspeakably dangerous, almost certain-death circumstances. He becomes a celebrity and national hero. He earns the respect and trust of many of America’s most influential people. He even contemplates running for public office at the national level. This man, however, has a secret: He’s duped the American people. What he’s been so thoroughly lionized for doing is, in fact, the opposite of what he’s actually done.

Was this

  1. Nicholas Brody on Homeland, or
  2. Lance Armstrong, allegedly, in real life?

You get the picture.

The “golden age of TV” has offered fans plenty of variations on the story of the seemingly upstanding guy with a disturbing secret life; the one who, it’s revealed as the series unfolds, doesn’t mind lying, and privately doesn’t believe conventional rules apply to him. (Walt, Don, Brody, The Sopranos’ Tony Soprano, House of Cards’s Frank Underwood, and Dexter’s Dexter Morgan.) The shorthand term we’ve often come to use for this frequently fascinating category of duplicitous, morally questionable-to-downright-evil protagonists is “antihero.”

The Lance Armstrong depicted in Reed Albergotti and Vanessa O’Connell’s damning new book, Wheelmen: Lance Armstrong, the Tour De France, and the Greatest Sports Conspiracy Ever, isn’t as bloodthirsty as some of the aforementioned bad-guy protagonists. But he’s nonetheless something like an antihero. Albergotti and O’Connell, two Wall Street Journal reporters who covered the long doping-scandal saga that eventually cost Armstrong his record-breaking seven Tour de France titles, conducted more than 100 interviews with federal investigators, anti-doping agency officials, and the cyclist’s former teammates in the process of writing Wheelmen. Their compiled testimonies, combined with detailed background research, form a portrait of an athlete dangerously obsessed with winning and with protecting his own idea of himself as a winner—both in sports and otherwise. So much so that he presented a benevolent, Superman-like public persona to the sports world, one that emphasized perseverance and integrity, while secretly running (and aggressively protecting) what the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency later called “the most sophisticated, professionalized and successful doping program that sport has ever seen.”

It’s a chilling tale, and many of the anecdotes Albergotti and O’Connell collected sound like they were actually crafted in a TV-drama writers’ room. The 2004 Tour de France, for instance, found Armstrong riding alongside Italian cyclist Filippo Simeoni. Simeoni had testified against Armstrong’s longtime doctor Michele Ferrari, alleging that Ferrari had told Simeoni “how and when to use doping products.” Armstrong then told the press Simeoni was a liar; Simeoni sued Armstrong for defamation. According to the authors,

when he saw Simeoni making for the breakaway, Armstrong was so enraged that he left the peloton and chased him down. As he put his hand on Simeoni’s back, the television announcers couldn’t quite figure out what Armstrong was doing. Speaking in Italian, Lance told Simeoni: “You made a mistake when you testified against Ferrari and you made a mistake when you sued me. I have a lot of time and money and I can destroy you."

It’s not hard to imagine Kevin Spacey’s disturbingly cordial Frank Underwood—who also seizes control of his own media narrative and threatens to ruin others’ reputations in his pursuit of personal glory—delivering a threat like that. And in March 2009,

Armstrong returned from a training ride in the south of France to discover an official from the AFLD, the French anti-doping agency, waiting for him, ready to take a urine sample. … Armstrong, who was with [U.S. Postal Service team boss Johan] Bruyneel, got off his bike and darted inside his house while Bruyneel blocked the drug tester from entering. After twenty minutes—theoretically enough time to manipulate his bodily fluids to avoid testing positive—Armstrong came out and submitted to the test.

Anti-doping regulations state that an athlete must stay within the sample collector’s sight at all times once he or she has shown up to conduct a test—and thus, Armstrong was in violation of protocol. Once news outlets picked up the story, he explained that he hadn’t expected to be subject to testing by the French authorities, and that he’d run inside to make a phone call and check the tester’s credibility. “But that didn’t explain,” Albergotti and O’Connell add, “why Armstrong went inside and took a shower.”

Showergate, as Armstrong later dubbed it, sounds like something from Breaking Bad’s early-season duping-the-feds-with-smarty-pants-tricks playbook.

In the year since the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency released a stinging 202-page report containing allegations that Armstrong had been doping and lying about it for more than a decade, Armstrong’s popularity has taken a serious hit. Some critics didn’t care that he confessed to and apologized for his actions; as one USA Today columnist put it, “Whatever he said, no one should mistake it for anything other than self-serving truth, admitted only after lies no longer worked,” and as the authors of Wheelmen note, other athletes like champion triathlete Chrissie Wellington angrily distanced themselves from his endorsements. Armstrong was named 2012’s “Sports Villain of the Year” in a British poll, winning by a hefty margin.

But Armstrong’s true story—or, at least, Wheelmen’s account of it—contains enough juicy intrigue that it’s worth pondering: In some alternate universe where Lance Armstrong was a fictional character created in a writers’ room (rather than a real person who’s disappointed millions of people), would he be looked upon with contempt or with fascination? With a few clever storytelling touches—a few glimpses of Lance’s unstable childhood in Texas here, some added emphasis on just wanting to win it for the cancer survivors there, some strategically placed flickers of truly agonized soul-searching—it’s not hard to imagine that his story might even elicit some degree of conflicted compassion. Audiences have, after all, been known to empathize with fictional al Qaeda-aligned terrorists avenging the murder of the boy they loved like a son. They root for fictional murderous outlaw meth manufacturers to escape the feds yet again so that they can continue to provide for their families. It’s not so far-fetched to think some audiences would sympathize with another kind of cheater if his underlying intentions were proven early on to be honorable—more honorable, that is, than simply wanting to win at any cost.

The problem with real life, however, is that it can’t be engineered to include the kinds of glimpses into underlying intentions that TV can. Current events don’t come with point-of-view shots, or flashbacks, or revealing soliloquies. Real-life characters develop through their actions and their spoken words, not their thoughts; they develop in real time, in neutral shots, in third-person objective. And that often means that the observing public doesn’t see a conflicted protagonist grappling with the moral quandaries of living a secret double life, but a liar—who says he’s one thing and is later exposed as another.

Bill Bock, one half of the U.S Anti-Doping Agency’s legal team that took it upon themselves to discover the truth about Armstrong, recognized this flaw in the now-routine practice of condemning the former champ. Bock’s a regular churchgoer, the authors note, and he

was fond of saying that he sins every day, and though he’d like to think he would never try performance-enhancing drugs, he couldn’t possibly know what it’s like for professional athletes faced with the decision of whether to dope or risk career-altering consequences.

What Bock notes, in other words, is that most of us have no idea what kind of circumstance would lead a person to believe it’s OK to cheat and lie (and intimidate others into lying or staying silent on your behalf), as Armstrong allegedly did. And unless we’d seen it all unfold from his perspective, it would be unfair to say we categorically wouldn’t do the same. Unfortunately for Armstrong, we didn’t watch it unfold that way—and Albergotti and O’Connell certainly didn’t either. Armstrong’s story is a sad, powerful testament to the fact that the difference between a villain and an antihero is sometimes just that an antihero has a compelling point of view that his audience is allowed to see.