Steve Nelson: Leave Lance Armstrong Alone

Someone has to say it, so here goes: Leave Lance Armstrong alone.

The incessant attacks on Armstrong following the release of the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency report are dramatically out of proportion.

For many years I raced bicycles, although not nearly at a professional level. During my days in Detroit, I rode for the Wolverine Sports Club. I mention this because a key figure in the doping scandal, Frankie Andreu, was a talented amateur at the time and occasionally trained with the club. Andreu’s dad was one of our coaches.

Andreu was Armstrong’s teammate with the U.S. Postal Service team. Andreu’s wife, Betsy, was among those who provided evidence against Armstrong. She reported that Armstrong admitted (to his doctor) using performance-enhancing drugs during her visit to his room when he was hospitalized with cancer. For years he denied that “confession,” calling Betsy Andreu “crazy,” thus igniting her simmering anger. This is among Armstrong’s betrayals, some admitted, some omitted, during his overhyped interview with Oprah Winfrey this past week.

His semi-cathartic Oprah confession has been widely panned. Many viewers and several sports writers felt he didn’t come clean enough or was not sufficiently contrite. His inability or unwillingness to cry crocodile tears was evidently not Oprahish enough for the sharks circling their HD television sets. I didn’t see it that way at all.

Let’s get a few acknowledgments out of the way: Yes, Armstrong was a sophisticated doper. Yes, for years he was a serial, aggressive denier. Yes, he vilified anyone who dared to contradict his lies. And, yes, the overall picture appears that of an unrepentant psychopath who told the truth only when it appeared he might salvage something from disgrace.

The public moralizing over Armstrong’s behavior is hypocritical. During the recent presidential campaign, fact-checking revealed that candidate Mitt Romney lied repeatedly. The media have developed “meters” to point out when our political leaders are “pants-on-fire” liars. Ho hum. Just politics as usual. Many officials, most notably Dick Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld, Condi Rice and the much celebrated Colin Powell either lied outright, omitted information or stretched the truth in the PR campaign leading up to the invasion of Iraq. We looked for weapons of mass destruction in Iraq almost as long as we’ve been looking for traces of EPO in Armstrong’s sample vials.

It’s easy to imagine corrupt investment bankers and other Wall Street scoundrels wintering with their ill-gotten gains in the Bahamas while Armstrong was discussing his misdeeds on Oprah. I suppose many of them were also dissatisfied with the limited extent of his mea culpa. The multi-millionaire banker Thomas Weisel is among those suspected of enabling or encouraging the win-at-all-costs climate that produced the doping culture. In a recent New York Times interview, Weisel denies knowledge, but his denial is implausible. He bankrolled the most famous rider in the world during an era rife with doping scandals, and he wasn’t interested?

Lying politicians and corrupt titans of finance have cost billions of dollars, millions of jobs, and hundreds of thousands of lives, American and other. I’d enjoy a much-hyped Oprah interview with any of the “leaders” who distorted the truth and led us into an immoral war. But, no. We have Armstrong to vilify and arouse our righteous indignation. He disappointed his fans.

Those of us who care about cycling, not just the Armstrong “brand,” always knew that he used illegal substances. Finding the “clean” finisher of any of Armstrong’s tour wins requires moving your finger down the finish list to 17th place. All of those above that line have been found guilty of (or confessed to) doping. Even many who finished lower than 17th were probably using. It’s just that they hadn’t been caught. The practice was, by most accounts, that prevalent during Armstrong’s reign.

Armstrong’s confession was limited, but I believe it was due mostly to an odd clinging to self-respect. The sport, for many, many years, maintained a code of silence. Perverse, yes, but I believe that Armstrong’s reserve was an odd but understandable way of preserving some of the stoic dignity that he thinks represents the brotherhood. I’m not applauding that culture, simply recognizing it. His failure to sob uncontrollably comes from the same sense of pride that fueled his unparalleled career. This pride, layered with raw arrogance, was part of his downfall, but also part of his fierce competitiveness. The Tour de France is not a Prouty ride.

Armstrong is arguably the greatest cyclist in history. He was a world-class triathlete as a teenager. His training regimes were legendary. He and his coaches pioneered training innovations, including pedaling technique, that transformed the sport for riders, clean and dirty. With Oprah, he opened up enough to give a glimpse of a scrappy mother and her boy who sharpened their claws to survive. He acknowledged being a bully throughout his life, although he tried to soften that later in the interview. He described a spiral of lies that spun out of control. At a certain point, he was just too far in to see a way out. Not noble, but clear enough for me.

Those who accuse Armstrong of confessing to clear his name so he can compete at a high level are silly. Even the greatest rider of all time knows he won’t win the Tour in his 40s. He may want to compete in some competitive events. But only because he feels fully alive when his legs are burning, when he’s testing himself against himself, pushing himself harder than others are willing to push themselves.

Steve Nelson lives in Sharon and New York City, where he is the head of the Calhoun School, a private school.