Like a man coming up for air, Lance Armstrong burst through the surface of his deep and fantastic past to breathe the air of reality during his interview with Oprah Winfrey on the OWN network. Whether those initial gulps of normalcy were enough to save the man remains to be seen, but it is significant perhaps that Lance Armstrong is not only a cyclist, but a runner and a swimmer. Those are the sportswhere his career started. Then he combined sports to become a triathlete before concentrating his efforts in cycling, where he dominated the world for nearly a decade. He was running marathons and competing in triathlons again before his past caught up with him.
After the first clear admissions of doping to Oprah at the start of the interview, the surface became more difficult to find, for her, and for Lance. To her credit, Winfrey persisted on a couple issues that have bothered many fans of Lance Armstrong. His long denials of truth. His bitter reproaches of those like Betsy Andreu and Greg Lemond and Tyler Hamilton and Floyd Landis, Christian Vande Velde and George Hincapie (and many others…) who legitimately called Lance Armstrong’s honesty into question. His attacks on some of these people, who were once close friends and became bitter enemies, included intimidation and threats, both verbal and legal. These people deserve a public, personal and direct apology from Lance Armstrong. And perhaps more.
But by the time Armstrong was confronted with these facts in the interview, he was swimming as strongly as he could, taking full blame for his actions. Not willing even to center himself as a victim of a cycling culture that unfairly demanded, he did insist, that one should dope in order to compete.
Yet Lance backed off even that indictment of his circumstance. He kept insisting that it was his decision, and only his, to use performance-enhancing drugs and blood infusions. He also made the certain point that those who accuse him of forcing them to dope to remain on the team went on to other teams, and doped there as well. So his case was made that it was not his demand to be part of the mess he’d created and sustained.
Oprah called him out on that one, repeatedly questioning Armstrong about his force of personality, and whether the assumption was made for the other athletes on his team by his example. Was it evident from his behavior that they should modify their behavior? That question will be tried in courtroom of public opinion.
Do circumstances make the man?
It is a compelling question, and one that begs an answer not just from Armstrong, but from every element of society where peer pressure or work culture or living by the rules laid out by the boss are an excuse for bad behavior. As intimated in a blog post on We Run and Ride leading up to the interview, Lance Armstrong is a nearly textbook example of nearly everything that is wrong with America. Watching him squirm and flail on the surface of reality was nothing new if we consider all the other examples of public figures both large and small who make bad choices that give them social or cultural advantage and then go on living that way in seeming good fortune and great levels of denial.
The Bible catches that type of behavior in every century going way back to the depths of early recorded history. King David with his murderous penchants and philanderings comes to mind. Lance Armstrong was the King David of cycling for a while. But let us remember that God denied King David the honor of building him a temple because God told David he had too much blood on his hands.
Alone on the beach of destiny
Lance Armstrong is both retired from cycling and banned from ever competing again, at anything. In his world, that is a reproach worse than death. This competitive man who proved not to be bigger than the sport emerged from the depths of his dishonesty to find himself naked and alone on the beach of destiny. It is a long walk to anywhere on a lonely beach. You look one way and there is surf and rugged sand. You look the other way and there is wind and waves and fallen trees blocking your way.
Better than drowning, but not by much
It may be better than drowning, but not by much. Lance Armstrong has given us an example, a gift really, of timeless value. His will be the walk of humility from here on in, a fact that he admitted in the interview with Oprah, who deserves credit for extending an arm to the seemingly drowning man that is Lance Armstrong. And yet she did not hold his head down as he came up for air, which is what some of Lance’s bitter enemies might wish to do. It seems possible they are deserving of the chance, given the hell he has made of other people’s lives in some ways. But we all deserve a second chance even if we wind up naked and alone. Because that’s the way God, and now the rest of the world sees a man like Lance Armstrong. Stripped of titles, he is exceedingly human, and admits as much. He told us the whole enterprise was not that complicated. It was simple to cheat, really. Not hard at all. Not when you know how, and have the resources to do it decently, or indecently well.
The Retirement Reflex
There is a phenomenon in much of society that grips those recently retired from positions large and small in the business world. Once could call it the Retirement Reflex. When people get done with the rat race, they turn around and try to see what it is they’ve said and done. Quite a few (Chuck Colson comes to mind…) seem to get religion or set out trying to correct the damage they’ve done in the world. Executives who’ve polluted the world with greed or industrial waste get a conscience. Robber barons turn to charity and philanthropy.
Though his life has been blown large by Tour de France victories and a Livestrong Foundation doing good work in the world emanating from Lance’s own story of overcoming cancer, he ultimately admitted that his life was all unreal. His story became an invention of purpose and fame that he did not understand or appreciate in gravity or in scope. It was unsustainable, in other words.
Just a bike rider
He’s just a rider. A really, really good rider whose physical gifts are so great that his abilities could not be separated from the drugs he took to enhance them. Lance was that good. He was also that bad. It’s a hard thing to swim that deep and that long. You run out of breath after a while, and need to come up for air. It’s the people he took down with him that we should worry and care about. Oxygen deprivation can damage your brain. It’s no coincidence that Lance turned to the woman whose TV media network is called Oxygen. A drowning man goes where the airtime is quickest to get.