Wednesday, Sept. 10, 1 p.m. ET
Sally Jenkins on Lance Armstrong's Return
Wednesday, September 10, 2008; 1:00 PM
Washington Post sports columnist Sally Jenkins was online Wednesday, Sept. 10 at 1 p.m. ET to share her thoughts and take your questions about cyclist Lance Armstrong's decision to come out of retirement. Jenkins is the coauthor of Armstrong's book "It's Not About the Bike: My Journey Back to Life."
A transcript follows.
Capitol Hill, DC: Thanks for doing this chat Sally. I'm looking forward to reading the Vanity Fair story in full when it comes out, but I've been racking my brain since yesterday to try and figure out why Lance would do this. You are obviously as familiar as anyone with the sacrifices he put himself through to get himself ready to win the tour (dieting, 6 + hours a day of training, etc.).
Do you think that he simply wants to compete again in a race that he can win (i.e. not a marathon because he's got no shot there)? Or, does he want to try and prove that he can do this "clean" as slap in the face to the constant questioning of him by the French? I just don't see what he's got left to prove and I'm looking for insight as to what is motivating him to do this. Thanks.
Sally Jenkins: Hi all. Let's kick start the discussion with an observation: just about every question readers are asking boils down to one word: WHY? I haven't spoken directly to Lance, just swapped a couple of coy emails with him. He's waiting to roll out the answer at the Clinton Global Initiative on the 24th. But that right there indicates that the answer to the why question isn't simple. I suspect from what I know of him that he's doing it for myriad reasons. He's interested in multiplying the money that can be raised to fight cancer on a VERY large scale, and his best platform for fundraising is aboard a bike, it's the best way for him to command attention. He's got a new lifestyle website that he's rolling out, on which he issues dares to his readers to compete in their every day lives, and he may want to put his own body where his mouth is. And he feels like he's fit enough and still viable enough to make a run at the thing. Those are my best guesses.
Denver: Does Lance regret not being more open before in regards to drug testing? He had to be aware the competition was doping and could question his legacy by association. And in your opinion how likely was it that a clean Armstrong beat a strong doping field seven straight times?
Sally Jenkins: Open? I'm not sure he was ever closed. He took every test, and asked for every test to be published. He also devoted some of his money to helping research new testing methods. And privately he had his own opinions. What he refused to do was publicly criticize other cyclists, because he didn't particularly believe in picking public fights with his competitors. There were some rivals he couldn't help jabbing at, like Marco Pantani. But generally I think his code was sort of old fashioned: you do your talking with the bike. I'll add my own opinion here, quite separate from Lance: a lot of doping in cycling, I believe, is a function of emergency. The events put real stress on the athletes, and so what you see is guys who maybe take something to help them recover, or to combat an injury. So not every guy who pops a test is a serial doper, but rather someone who is hurting, or just trying to stay aboard the bike for another day in the midst of suffering. That's my suspicion.
Arlington, Va.: Sally, I'm a long time bicyclist and have followed Lance's adventures over the years. However, I have to admit that since he retired the news has been (fairly or not) on his big spending playboy image. I have changed my opinion of him from positive (great athlete, cancer survivor, fighting to get more resources for cancer research) to self-absorbed. Do you think his image can be realistically salvaged?
Sally Jenkins: This is the price of winding up in the gossip magazines, I guess. My take on him hardly includes self absorbed. He's a very engaged father of three kids, he's raised nearly $300 million to fight cancer, and he spends a good part of every day talking to, writing, or visiting cancer patients. At the end of those days, he occasionally goes out and dates, and by the way, he invariably dates smart, accomplished women who tend to have big careers and children of their own. So I don't get why people have an issue with his social life. All he does is good work.
Rockville, Md.: Hi Sally, Not a question, just a comment. A few years ago, I read Daniel Coyle's book about Lance. His story seems reminiscent of so many luminaries throughout the ages. Lance has done much to raise money and awareness for cancer, but he seems to be quite pig-headed on a personal level. He certainly doesn't seem to have much time for his own kids.
Sally Jenkins: And your insight into his parenting comes from where? In Touch Magazine? I think Lance is more concerned with the opinion of his kids and his ex-wife Kristin about what sort of parent he is. Douglas Brinkley has a very good piece about Lance in Vanity Fair, which is up on their website, and he goes out of his way to remark on Lance's "hands-on" parenting. According to everything I've ever seen, Lance is an uttering devoted father.
Herndon, VA: With all due respect to Lance Armstrong, what sort of bind do you think this puts Astana in now?
Bruyneel has Contador, the guy who won the TdF the year after Lance retired, next year's Giro d'Italia, and who has at least a shot of winning this year's Vuelta. Bruyneel has Levi, who must be cursing his timing yet again.
How do you NOT take Lance? But, when you do take Lance, who do you kick off the team? Lance is definitely not a domestique, so he's only coming to win. How's that going to play with Alberto or Levi?
Seems ready made for lots of drama
Sally Jenkins: Well, this is the very interesting question. My suspicion is that Lance's comeback has nothing to do with Astana, which already has a very strong line up. My personal, private suspicion is that Lance may be interested in launching a new team. I have nothing to base that on other than, it would be typical of him to do something on a large scale like that.
DC: Hey Sally. I know this is probably a very peripheral question, but I was curious for your take.
Lance once said he was loyal to a few of his sponsors b/c they were there for him during his cancer. What do you think he would do if he were on a team with a rival sponsor? Say Pearl Izumi instead of Nike or Specialized instead of Trek.
Sally Jenkins: I'd be extremely surprised if he did anything that conflicted with his loyalty to Nike and to Oakley, because they were there when no one else was. Extremely. However, if he got the okay from them to go in a different direction, he's a cool enough businessman to do it.
Bethesda, Md.: As a cancer survivor who bikes, I must admit that, of all athletes, Lance is truly my hero.
Having said that, I have only one question...Why???
If he was doing something new, like tackling the Race Across America, it would make sense, but isn't this: Been there, Done that.
Is he trying to save a drug damaged sport or possibly trying to quiet those voices in Europe which are whispering that he "must have used PEDs"?
Sally Jenkins: I think the doping issues have something to do with this. I know the doping accusations gnawed at him. Everytime a journalist would write something accusatory, the phone would ring or the email would light up from him. He'd want to confront the publication. I used to say, "Let it go. You can't answer every critic." And he'd say, "That's easy for you to say. It's not your name out there." Which of course is true. And in fact he's tried to answer every critic. Also, he loves cycling, and the Tour. And he may feel that he can do something to help rebuild the sport.
Paoli, PA: It seems odd to me that Lance makes an announcement like this and Johann Bruyneel seems to know nothing about it?
Sally Jenkins: I agree. That's why I wonder if this has nothing at all to do with Astana. I also think this has been cooking since early in the summer. In August he raced in the Leadville 100, a very arduous mountainbike race in the Rockies. He finished second. He says that the race is what made him think about a come back. But I also wonder if he didn't ENTER the race to get a gauge on his body.
Gaithersburg, Md.: I am a big cycling fan (and rider) and really would like to believe that Lance is a clean rider because his story is so compelling. But I keep seeing very heated arguments from his critics saying that he did dope and they are convinced of it. I'm only looking for objectivity -- is there any evidence that he did dope or do you think he is being criticized for receiving too much publicity and only taking part in the higher profile races?
Sally Jenkins: My opinion on this stuff is colored by friendship, and the fact that we collaborated on two books. I'm hardly an impartial judge of the accusations against Lance. That said, none of the accusations have held up. I read the L'Equipe story very carefully, and didn't buy it, and neither did a scientific panel that evaluated the evidence.
Ducktown, Tenn.: Sally, I enjoy you're writing for the Post (Redskins/GMs/Snyder/etc) and about Lance (your columns and books.) But you almost seem like two completely different people when you write about Lance vs. writing about the Redskins. As I said, I really enjoy both but wanted to ask what is the effect of Lance on your writing in general and how you see sports in general?
Sally Jenkins: Interesting question. Obviously, as I said a moment ago, my take on Lance is affected by friendship. It just is. All I can do these days is write about him from that standpoint, for whatever context or insight that's worth. As for the Redskins, I've written almost uniformly positive things about the players and coaches whose careers are on the line every season, including some who were roundly criticized, like Mark Brunell, Laveranues Coles, and Joe Gibbs. I almost never write anything positive about Redskins owner Dan Snyder or vice president Vinny Cerrato, because I believe they've mismanaged the team and rooked the fans, purely out of ego. I think if you look, you'll see I have two sharply different voices when I write about the players, versus management. And in general, across the board, my take tends to be pro-athlete, and suspicious of officialdom. Not always, but often.
I don't see how his retiring has anything to do with his cancer, despite what he may say. He reminds me of the great fighters who had to get knocked out before they could walk away.
Sally Jenkins: That's certainly one explanation. But if so, what's the problem wwith that? Athletes are in the business of exhausting themselves, that's what they do. We don't like to see ballplayers or fighters who can't walk away, because it can ruin our posterized ideals of perfection. But think about all the great things people have done when they were supposed to be past it. If everyone walked away at the top, there would be great second and third acts. Jimmy Connors' electrifying run at the U.S. Open. Monica Seles and Jennifer Capriati coming back after their teenaged traumas. Martina Navratilova winning Grand Slam doubles titles well over 40. Dara Torres swimming in the Olympics. John Elway winning a Super Bowl. The list goes on and on.
Arlington, Va.: Do you think he can win the TDF? What about Team Columbia and reuniting with Big George? They aren't built for an overall victory yet and that goal would conflict with Cavendish getting sprint victories, but on the other hand they are very visible in the anti-doping fight and are U.S.-based.
Sally Jenkins: I suspect being visible in the antidoping fight is critical to Lance. And I would be extremely surprised if he did anything without George Hincapie, who last I checked was his longtime best friend in cycling. And who by the way may know more than anybody about Lance's plans, given his "no comment" when asked yesterday. And I suspect an American team would be very attractive to Lance. That's just my instinct.
Pau, France: I don't care why he is doing it...only that it made me instantly excited about seeing him ride through the Pyrenees again. He can single-handedly rejuvenate the Tour at a time where the Tour desperately needs him. Hopefully, all those naysayers will realize this and take full advantage of his presence instead of thinly veiled acts of jealously. I love the French, but it sure gets old when it comes to their unsubstantiated allegations of doping against LA. You can mock our Pres., but not a 7-time champ!
Sally Jenkins: A very interesting comment, from a very interesting place!
Beaverton, Ore.: If he does decide to field his own team, I'm guessing he won't be hurting for sponsors, right?
Sally Jenkins: I shouldn't think so, Beaverton. Say. Isn't there a big sneaker company near Beaverton, Ore.?
Arlington, Va.: Some people may think all Lance is doing is what they read in the tabloids, but as a 3-time Livestrong Challenge participant, I get enough emails and read enough about about the Lance Armstrong Foundation to know that he really is working hard fighting cancer. The information is out there and it's not hard to find.
One interesting note that's being reported by velonews.com is that even Johann Bruyneel was surprised by the news, and he doesn't even know what team Lance will be riding for (although he hopes it will be Astana).
As for why Lance is returning to racing, I received this yesterday in an email from livestrong.org:
AUSTIN, Texas - September 9, 2008 - Today, Lance Armstrong, cancer survivor, founder and chairman of the Lance Armstrong Foundation (LAF) and cycling champion, released the following statement regarding his return to professional sports:
"I am happy to announce that after talking with my children, my family and my closest friends, I have decided to return to professional cycling in order to raise awareness of the global cancer burden. This year alone, nearly eight million people will die of cancer worldwide. Millions more will suffer in isolation, victims not only of the disease but of social stigma. After the passage of Proposition 15 in Texas, a $3 billion investment in the fight against cancer which is helping to make this disease part of the national dialogue in America, it's now time to address cancer on a global level."
Mr. Armstrong will discuss his cycling program and an international LIVESTRONG strategy on September 24th in New York City at the Clinton Global Initiative."
Sally Jenkins: Thanks for your take, and for the info.
East End, DC: The thing I'm most afraid of is that Armstrong is putting himself back in the cauldron of the public eye where the Society of the Tour de France and the International Cycling Union have, it seems, been out to "get" Lance. I would fear that if there was something he eats or drinks is one microgram outside of the "tolerances" that the World Anti-Doping Agency has set, that there would be an absolute torrent of activity in trying to strip Lance of his seven wins, all of the prize winnings from those wins, and any and all wins he has had since time immemorial. Dick Pound, Hein Verbruggen, and Patrick Clerk, I feel, really would like to "get" him.
Sally Jenkins: He ain't afraid of them.
Anonymous: Sally, do top athletes just have short memories or not learn from the past? These un-retirements rarely seem to go well. I remember Michael Jordan saying, when he came back with the Wiz, something along the lines of, why play at the Y or the park if he could play in the NBA? Do you think Lance has some of this attitude, that if he's going to run and ride and train anyway, he might as well keep competing. But would he be satisfied with something less than a win?
Sally Jenkins: I have a different opinion. I love watching athletes age -- I find them much more realistic and candid, and easier to relate to, than icons in their prime. Older athletes tend to lose some of their vanity, and they learn to test themselves in a different way. It becomes all about a deeper kind of heart, and about learning to cope with a certain amount of inevitability. Why is it so romantic for an athlete to quit in his or her prime? I don'it get that. Lance doesn't like fairy tales, either. We talked about that after his cancer: he wants people to understand that while he survived, others don't. That his happy ending was a matter of good fortune, and of fighting incredibly hard, and it wassn't a Disney story.
washingtonpost.com: Lance Armstrong Rides Again! (Vanity Fair)
Sally Jenkins: Here's the link to BNrinkley's very good piece.
Fairfax, Va.: Sally,
Do we really believe his comeback is about cancer research? I have to believe more than anything that he's doing this to clear his name and that he is just too competitive to sit idle.
Sally Jenkins: I think that's a big part of it. But don't underestimate the role of cancer fighting as his motivator. It's almost all he thinks about -- even when he was riding in his prime. It's a genuine obsession with him.
Rockville, Md.: I can't believe he's doing this. I mean really, he's already got seven in a row. Is Lance THAT bored?
And if he doesn't join Astana, who do you think he would want to race with? Is a better question "Who would want to pick HIM?" I guess if anything, I'd want to see him join Team Columbia; it's an American team, and he'd be back with George Hincapie.
Sally Jenkins: Lance is never bored. He can't sit still, and doesn't. He needs big projects, and he literally craves massive amounts of physical exercise.
Alexandria, Va.: At his stage of life--arguably middle age, hasn't Lance seen and done everything there is to do in biking? What's really motivating Lance to return to the tour? Is it boredom? Does he need the spotlight on him? What is it?
Sally Jenkins: I believe part of it is, this is what he's made for. Whether you want to attribute it to God or nature, his body was fashioned for arduous endurance sport. I think he feels obliged to see what's left in the tank. Again, this is what great athletes do, they explore their innards. And the fact that he can combine it with expanding his foundation work overseasn, is probably the clincher.
Arlington, VA: Sally,
I've been a long time reader of your articles and book on Lance. Does anyone have any idea who he'll race for? I've heard the rumors about him racing for Astana but I feel like the Tour isn't going to make it easy for him to get in with any team, agree?
Sally Jenkins: We'll find out shortly. All right folks, sorry to cut this off, but I have to run. It should be an interesting winter for cycling fans. I'll leave you with one bit of info: last I heard from Lance yesterday, he had spent all day cycling through the Rockies.
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