Armstrong and Oprah: Part I

So, Lance Armstrong has admitted to the world that he doped during all seven of his Tour de France victories.

In an exclusive interview with Oprah Winfrey, Armstrong admitted to using EPO, growth hormone, cortisone, testosterone and blood transfusions throughout his career in cycling. Armstrong was clearly uncomfortable throughout the whole interview as he described his action as ‘sick’ and ‘scary’ and admitted that he is seeing a therapist to address the serious ‘flaws’ in his personality. Winfrey, it must be noted, had clearly done her homework and conducted a well-structured and intelligent interview covering all bases in the Armstrong saga.

When asked by Winfrey if, at the time, 1. He felt that his doping was ‘wrong’; 2. He felt ‘bad’ for what he was doing; or 3. Felt that he was ‘cheating’ by doping, Armstrong said ‘no’ on all accounts and said of each response that it was ‘scary… scarier… scariest’. Armstrong rationalised this by saying that he ‘looked up the definition of cheat’ and that the definition is ‘to gain an advantage on a rival or foe’ and that he ‘didn’t view it that way’, he viewed it as ‘a level playing field’. Armstrong clearly felt- though he did not feel at liberty to name names- that it was not possible to win the Tour without the aid of doping.

When Winfrey asked if he thought it possible to win the Tour without drugs Armstrong replied: ‘Not in my opinion, no.’ It was clear that Armstrong felt that there was a drug culture within cycling at the time, what he termed ‘the EPO generation’ starting in the mid-1990s and ending in 2009 when Armstrong stated that he felt he was returning to ‘a clean sport’. The Texan would appear to be correct. Tour de France winners Bjarne Riis (1996), Jan Ullrich (1997), Marco Pantani (1998), Floyd Landis (2006) and Alberto Contador (2007, 2009) were all found guilty of at least one form of doping or another and subsequently banned. Furthermore, of the eight men who finished behind Armstrong on the podium in his seven Tour titles, only Spaniard Fernando Escartin, who finished third in 1999, has not been implicated in a doping scandal. It does seem that on the bike, while what he did was wrong, Armstrong is suffered because he performed better on the drugs than everyone else. Armstrong himself said to Oprah that while he would not complain that his lifetime ban was ‘unfair’, he acknowledged that his ‘death penalty’ was ‘different’ to the ‘six months’ received by others.

In elite sport, particularly those so dependent on one’s God-given anatomy, like athletics or cycling, those that are not as much dictated by technique so much as stretching the body’s limits beyond breaking point, drug use is more common. Furthermore, in sports like athletics and cycling, where it is only one man who really gains any recognition- the gold medalist or the yellow jersey holder- the gamble on success is so much greater.

As former Canadian sprinter, Desai Williams, said in the BBC’s documentary about the 1988 Olympic 100 metre final, The Race that Shook the World: ‘You train every day, as hard as you can, dedicate your whole life to it, with no guarantee of success.’ If you are an elite athlete and believe that other elite athletes are benefitting from artificial agents, it must be very difficult to accept mediocrity in your livelihood, your raison d’être, in exchange for a clear conscience. To live your life hoping and reliant upon the authorities that be confirming your suspicions of others. Is it better to have tasted that glory and then experience the fall of an Armstrong or a Ben Johnson, than to finish in fifth for a decade? Logic suggests that they even each other out. If a significant number of others are cheating, why is it Armstrong who gets singled out? Because he was better at it than the others?

William Cook


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