Also in Slate, Jeremy Stahl argues that there should be no Tour de France winner on the books from 1999 to 2005.
If you want to believe Lance Armstrong cheated his way to his seven Tour de France titles, there’s sufficient evidence—blood samples and accusations from former teammates and cycling officials—to convict him a dozen times over. And, up until this week, if you wanted to believe in the innocence of the man behind the yellow bracelet, there was more than enough to grab on to as well. Two of Armstrong’s most prominent accusers, after all, are a pair of brazen liars. Tyler Hamilton claimed in 2005 that his positive test was the result of a “vanishing twin” that died in utero; five years later, he finally confessed. Floyd Landis, who said whiskey was to blame for his drug-test failure at the 2006 Tour de France, professed his innocence in a book called Positively False and begged for money for the Floyd Fairness Fund. In 2010, he admitted that he’d taken performance-enhancing drugs throughout his career.
Armstrong, it seems, will never join Hamilton and Landis in confessing that he’s been a phony and a fraud. And by opting out of the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency’s arbitration process, he’s ensured he’ll never have to. USADA may—if the International Cycling Union agrees—be able to strip the ex-champ of his closet full of yellow jerseys, but they won’t be able to take away Armstrong’s most prized possession: his righteous indignation.
The USADA investigation, which alleged that Armstrong was the mastermind of a wide-ranging doping conspiracy, was “an unconstitutional witch hunt,” the cyclist said in a statement on Thursday. He also called it a “charade” and “one-sided,” claiming that “there is zero physical evidence to support [USADA chief executive Travis Tygart’s] outlandish and heinous claims.” Rather than fight for his innocence against a system that was rigged against him, Armstrong said he was “finished with this nonsense.” He continued, “I will no longer address this issue, regardless of the circumstances. … Going forward, I am going to devote myself to raising my five beautiful (and energetic) kids, fighting cancer, and attempting to be the fittest 40-year old on the planet.”
This has been Armstrong’s default mode for a decade: angry, defensive, paranoid, self-aggrandizing, and messianic. This isn’t just a defense mechanism—it’s a brand. In 2005, Neal Pollack wrote a piece for Slate called “Lance Armstrong Ruined My Gym,” describing how his local 24 Hour Fitness converted itself into a “Lance Armstrong shrine” that featured “dozens of photographs … alongside various laminated newspaper articles, Sports Illustrated covers, line-by-line breakdowns of his workout regimen, a racing bike in a glass case, and a history of his life broken into four sections: In The Beginning, The Detour, Born Again Cyclist, and The Road Ahead.” Looming over the weight room was the following Armstrong quote, lifted from a Nike ad: “This is my body, and I can do whatever I want to it. I can push it. Study it. Tweak it. Listen to it. Everybody wants to know what I’m on. What am I on? I’m on my bike busting my ass six hours a day. What are you on?”
For a long time, these sulky, aggro monologues worked as a PR strategy. When nobody thought he would endure testicular cancer, Armstrong got healthy and became the greatest bike racer ever. The world’s most famous cancer survivor then stared down drug accusations the same way that he did disease. His accusers were doubters, and doubters were poisonous. When everyone is against you, the only way to prove them wrong is to fight and fight and fight some more. Eventually, you’ll wear them down, win, and be a hero. That is the way Lance Armstrong saw himself, and that’s the Armstrong we came to know in Nike spots.
So why did the man who never ducks a fight run away this time? I believe it’s because, for the first time ever, his best friend in cycling didn’t have his back. As Juliet Macur explained in the New York Times last month, George Hincapie was Armstrong’s most valued teammate and confidant, a man the seven-time Tour de France champion has described as “loyal” and his “best bro in the peloton.” Unlike Tyler Hamilton and Floyd Landis, Hincapie is a man who everyone in cycling believes. He is seen as honest, trustworthy, a man who does not have any scores to settle. And he was, all sources indicate, going to testify against Armstrong at the USADA hearing.
It’s exceedingly rare for athletes to rat each other out for doping. It’s rarer still for someone with nothing to gain—that is, someone who isn’t Jose Canseco—to talk openly about a teammate’s drug use. When it does happen, it tends to be devastating. Even though Roger Clemens was ultimately found not guilty of perjury, his reputation was destroyed by Andy Pettitte’s declaration that the Rocket had told him he’d taken HGH. Hincapie’s testimony promised to be more extensive and direct, implicating himself as a participant—perhaps in exchange for a reduced suspension—in the alleged doping of Armstrong’s cycling teams. For a man who has called everyone who questioned him a liar and a fraud, this was an existential threat: The man he trusted most telling the whole world he cheated his way to the mountaintop.
Instead of giving Hincapie and others—USADA claimed that 10 of Armstrong’s ex-teammates were set to testify—a platform to discredit him, Armstrong dynamited the platform. By refusing the opportunity to confront his accusers, he will likely lose his Tour de France titles and will be banned from competing in any sport that governs itself by the World Anti-Doping Code. (And that’s pretty much every sport.) But what Armstrong won’t lose is his ability to claim he’s been wrongfully accused. In the absence of the USADA hearing, Hincapie might never feel compelled to open his mouth. So long as that’s the case, Armstrong should be able to keep his loyal supporters by his side.
Armstrong’s duck-and-deny strategy has already succeeded. “Lance has stated his innocence and has been unwavering on this position,” Nike said in a statement on Thursday. “Nike plans to continue to support Lance and the Lance Armstrong Foundation, a foundation that Lance created to serve cancer survivors.”
For now, then, Armstrong’s position will remain remarkably unchanged. So long as there’s a sliver of a belief that he might have raced clean, he’ll remain viable as a fundraiser and a public figure. This week, Armstrong recognized that the doubters will always outnumber the loyalists—that the best he can do is maintain a pocket of true believers. Like that Nike commercial said, for the longest time, everybody wanted to know what Armstrong was on. Now, all Armstrong can do is hope that some people continue to turn away from the answer the rest of us already know.