I like Lance Armstrong, have always liked him. Not the fairy-tale prince, but the real him, the guy with the scars in his head, both visible and invisible, the combative hombre who once crossed a finish line swinging his fists at another rider, the contradictory, salty-mouthed, anti-religious nonbeliever, who nevertheless restored a chapel. The man who tried to whip cancer fair and square, and did more good with his name and fortune than any athlete I’ve ever met.
I’ve searched high and low for my anger at Lance, and I can’t find it. It’s just not there. I checked — looked in every corner, and I’m empty of it. I’ve tried for weeks now to summon the moral certitude and outrage that others seem to demand, and I don’t have it, maybe because he’s my friend and co-author of “It’s Not About the Bike,” but also because my opinion of him was never based on what he did in a bike race in France 10 years ago. And while we’re on that subject, there is no question in my mind he was the hardest-working cyclist in the world, and for the life of me, I can’t find the competitive injustice in his seven Tour de France victories.
Maybe I’m not angry at Lance because, though I hoped he was clean, it’s simply not shocking or enraging to learn that he was like all the other cyclists who sought a medical advantage in riding up the faces of mountains. Or because I’ve long believed that what athletes put in their bodies should be a matter of personal conscience, not police actions — when we demand unhealthy, even death-defying extremes of them for our entertainment, it seems the height of hypocrisy to then dictate what’s good for them. Or because after reading the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency report, and more importantly the rider affidavits, what emerges is a portrait of a sport in which needles were so deeply embedded that the choice was simply to use them, or quit riding. And I don’t have it in my heart to condemn any of the athletes in it, much less Lance, son of a Kroger supermarket checkout girl,who had a singular talent and whose career option was to go home, and do what exactly?
Maybe I’m not angry at Lance because more informative than the USADA report was an ESPN interview with his former teammate Jonathan Vaughters, who observed: “There is the huge misconception, though, that this is about Lance. This is about a culture that Lance was a part of, and that he participated in . . . If you want people to be truthful and want to know what actually happened, as opposed to chasing ghosts for the next 10 years, then you have to let them know that we won’t chop your head off.”
Maybe I’m not angry at Lance because I’ve decided that the smoldering wreckage of the bonfire that burned down Big Tex was wildly out of proportion to the offense. And because, much as I would have liked a personal or public confession from him, I suspect that he understood what the price of it would be, and found the stakes too high to call up his friend at The Washington Post and bring it all down on his head.