I’m trying to remember what I thought about Lance Armstrong before the USADA report came out. I mean, if I thought he was clean. I’ve got personal reasons for liking him: he comes from my hometown, and in 2006 may have helped to save my brother-in-law’s life. Asher Price, who works for the local Austin paper, the American Statesman, got the same kind of cancer that Armstrong had. On the day his testicle was removed, he got an email from the cyclist, which offered not only the usual sympathy but a recommendation: he should see Lawrence Einhorn in Indiana, the doctor who pioneered the treatment that saved Armstrong.
Asher called Einhorn’s clinic, but couldn’t get an appointment for six weeks. So he emailed Armstrong, asking for advice. Armstrong responded within the hour: he’d contacted Einhorn’s office and there shouldn’t be any problem. The clinic saw Asher the following week, and he’s been clear of cancer for six years.
But if you’d asked me even while all this was going on if Armstrong had doped for his seven Tour wins, I think I would have answered: ‘Probably.’ One of the curious features of the recent series of revelations is that they haven’t really changed the way people see him. Before the USADA report was published, Armstrong came across as weirdly, unpleasantly competitive, a control-freak and borderline monomaniac. The report didn’t add anything to that picture; Armstrong’s interview with Oprah only filled in some of the gaps. Revelations are supposed to shock us into revaluations – in this case all that’s happened is that we’ve had some of our almost-certainties confirmed.
Armstrong told Oprah that he looked up ‘cheat’ in the dictionary and decided he wasn’t one – what he was doing just levelled the playing field. I can see what he means; I’m not sure that the use of steroids crosses any kind of meaningful line. Cycling is a trainer’s sport – it involves complex equipment and team strategies, and success on the bike depends to an unusual degree on the endurance and physical condition of the athlete. In other words, it’s not only a trainer’s sport but a doctor’s sport. One explanation of Britain’s Olympic success is that the organising committee did a very good job of identifying the sports for which a well-run training programme can make a difference. And cycling is clearly one of them, with or without steroids.
Then again, cheating is still cheating – steroids were banned when Armstrong raced. Even if everybody else was taking them, the doping regimen of the US Postal Service team must have had an effect on the general culture. And the need to lie about it pushed Armstrong into all kinds of ugly behaviour: he sued people and bullied them. Unjust systems (and there’s something obviously unjust about a sport that forces people to cheat to compete) produce a lot of secondary injustices, and Armstrong was clearly guilty of many of them.
Yet there’s also something unsavoury about the expense and the moral indignation that has gone into exposing him. Enforcing the ban on steroids costs a lot of money, requires the existence and unstinting efforts of several international agencies, and submits the athletes to routine violations of their privacy and freedom which most people would consider intolerable. There’s something disproportionate about it. We’re talking about a bicycle race, after all. One of the lessons of the whole saga is that a certain kind of justice can only be achieved at the expense of a decent and reasonable sense of the importance of the case.
For all the criticism that Armstrong is taking now, and deserves to take, it seems clear to me that he’s done more good in the world than harm. And the good he has done is plainly related to what’s dislikeable about him. One of the things the Oprah interview made clear is that he’s a serious, rigorous, disciplined guy. His sporting life was spent paying close attention to detail, working the percentages, doing whatever he could to shift them slightly in his favour. And that is exactly what he did for my brother-in-law, God bless him.