For Lance Armstrong, it’s time to find out what living strong really means


Team Radioshack rider Lance Armstrong sits at the starting line in Visalia during the Amgen Tour of California in this May 20, 2010 file photo. (ANTHONY BOLANTE/REUTERS)
Mike Wise
Columnist May 24, 2011

Every believer to pull an elastic, canary-yellow rubber band imprinted with the word “LIVESTRONG” on their hand and around their wrist — everyone who ever pledged a dollar toward cancer research so they could symbolically overcome as their inspiration overcame — is confronting some hard questions today.

Lance Armstrong’s decade-long insistence he is a clean champion feels so forced and hollow now; heck, after watching Sunday’s “60 Minutes” piece, even the most devoted bracelet people must be saying, “Uncle, I give.”

Mike Wise is a sports columnist for The Washington Post. View Archive

In the most credible assault to date on Armstrong’s legacy, former teammate Tyler Hamilton said what he said to federal investigators about Armstrong last summer: He saw Armstrong use.

Armstrong distributed, too, Hamilton said, once FedExing the banned substance EPO to him, after Hamilton said he called and asked Armstrong for the blood booster.

Most damning, though, was the hole finally punctured in Armstrong’s long-held “I’ve Never Tested Positive” defense. Hamilton said Armstrong told him he had tested positive in 2001 during a race in Switzerland, but that Armstrong and his people “made” the test result “go away.”

George Hincapie, one of Armstrong’s closest friends in cycling, also testified under oath to Armstrong’s use of performance-enhancing drugs, the CBS report said.

These aren’t bitter soldiers from Lance’s army now craving publicity; these are subpoenaed, former world-class cyclists who grudgingly gave up the greatest champion in their sport because they did not want to go to jail themselves.

After barely 30 unsparing minutes, all that’s left is a pending grand jury indictment, a Bondsian phalanx of lawyers shepherding Armstrong into a courtroom.

And even if Armstrong’s people try to portray Hamilton’s confession as another cash grab, merely advance publicity for an upcoming, tell-all book, there are too many others directly connected to Armstrong, too much mounting evidence to not see the facade of an athletic icon quickly crumbling.

In the seven years Armstrong won the Tour de France, just one cyclist on the podium beside him from 1999 through 2005 was never connected to performance-enhancers. That means every rider, save one, who placed second or third was dirty. So in a cycling culture that employed synthetic chemists like masseuses, the only other rider who didn’t use was the guy who won all the time?

Consider the revelation that Armstrong donated $25,000 to the International Cycling Union at about the same time he reportedly met with a lab manager to allegedly discuss his suspicious EPO test in Switzerland. Three years later, he donated another $100,000 to the organization to promote “clean testing.”

Think about that. Imagine generously giving to the company responsible for your employment drug test. Now imagine trying to explain the charitable contribution to your tax guy. You know, Dave, I really thought about Habitat for Humanity, earthquake relief and of course the Homeless Animal Shelter this year. But when it came down to it, those swell folks doing the urinalysis over at Qwest — now that’s a cause I want to get behind.

This isn’t meant to crater the entire Lance legend. I know, the size of the heart chambers, his oxygenated-blood numbers, they’re all off the charts. He is truly a unique physical specimen. We have known for a while he is the Secretariat of his sport. We just didn’t know he could also be its Marion Jones.

It’s insane to think that the fastest woman in the world has served time for lying about doping, or that the greatest home run hitter of all time will be sentenced on a similar charge in June and the most dominant pitcher of his era is about to go on trial for not telling Congress the truth. It’s getting so hard to believe what we see is real anymore from our uber-humans.

Armstrong denied the “60 Minutes” report through his people, who sadly ran the old patriotism misdirection play while lambasting the U.S. government for not prioritizing their resources, so they could “protect Americans from wrongdoing” instead of picking on persecuted retired cyclists.

Why does it take so long and cost so much to land the biggest fish? Because people such as Barry Bonds and Roger Clemens and, I believe, Armstrong devoted a significant amount of money and time to prolong the lie. We can minimize cheating all we want and play the We Need To Fix Schools First game. What we can’t escape is the overall deterrent effect: If they bring down Armstrong, they can damn well bring down anybody.

If I am Armstrong today, and I have seen the public tide change after Sunday’s report, I hold my first authentic news conference in more than 10 years. I talk about fending off that deadly disease, how many millions were inspired to overcome their own battle.

I talk about the millions of dollars raised from those yellow LiveStrong bracelets, and how a man no bigger than an accountant transcended not only his own niche sport but all others as well, becoming a national symbol for perseverance.

In my money-shot moment, I would look in the camera, a la Tiger Woods, and say I lied because I didn’t want to let down the people who believed in me, or the people who would give generously when they heard my story.

I would say I lied because, yes, I wanted to win and almost everyone else good or great was doing it in my sport, to the point where blood doping became part of my profession. But mostly I lied because if one more little girl or grandfather fighting their own battle could find the resolve in them to continue like me, if one more caring person could fork over another grand for research, then it would be all worth it. I would conclude by saying I now wish I hadn’t done it, that I feel I duped everyone around me, that my Tour de France victories were not real but my overcoming cancer was, and that’s all that matters.

After such an apology, people could make their own decisions about Armstrong and his legacy. But until it happens, he looks like someone who needs to preserve his own fable — that indeed this was never about the bike, his fellow cancer-battlers or the others who needed that strip of yellow around their wrists to help them stand up to whatever demons they’re confronting.

Instead, it will appear that it was about Lance. It was always about Lance.

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