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The Real Problem With Armstrong

[ 130 ] January 21, 2013 |

I haven’t written about the revelations that have shocked nobody except Buzz Bissinger, in part because I can’t claim to have ever cared about him in the first place. (As the Editors said about Tiger Woods, I pledge to respond to Armstrong’s doping by never watching the Tour De France again, or come to think of it ever before.)

However, I do think one thing separates Armstrong from most of the athletes accused of doping. It’s not about cheating, per se. It’s true that the case he cheated is, on a formal level, stronger than the case against Bonds and Clemens, in that he was violating rules he agreed to in advance and were being enforced with a transparent mechanism. Having said that, saying that Armstrong cheated seems as fundamentally meaningless as Caro’s claim that LBJ “stole” the 1948 Senate election. Since everyone at the upper levels of the sport was apparently doping, it’s hard to be outraged that Armstrong didn’t unilaterally disarm. And while Armstrong did seem like an incredibly sanctimonious liar, I’m also reluctant to use that against him much. It’s too easy to end up with the double standard under which Petitte seems to get a pass for his PED usage while Clemens and Bonds don’t because he’s a nicer guy (and not as good.)

But what is a problem with Armstrong is this kind of thing:

But that’s not all there is to it. The U.S. Anti-Doping Agency’s report on Armstrong, issued three months ago, details numerous incidents in which Armstrong, according to sworn witnesses, pressured, threatened, or intimidated others.

If Armstrong was a doper in a context in which all of his major competitors were, I don’t care. When he’s using lawsuits and other techniques to try to destroy the lives and careers of people who told the truth about him, though, that’s a different story. For example:

Betsy Andreu, a University of Michigan graduate with a quick wit and sharp tongue, has long been considered one of Armstrong’s biggest enemies, but over the past week she has felt mixed emotions. She is one of the few people who refused to remain silent over the years about Armstrong’s dark secrets of doping. And, like the others who questioned his fairy tale story, she was one of those Armstrong tried to crush.

He has called her obsessed and vindictive. He has tried to blackball her husband from working in cycling. He did all that because the Andreus — who were once inside Armstrong’s inner circle — refused to lie about a doping confession they said they heard Armstrong make in 1996 while he was battling cancer.

I don’t care about his doping, but the way he attacked others really is indefensible.

Comments (130)

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  1. Scott de B. says:

    The two, of course, go together hand-in-hand inseparably.

  2. Joe says:

    I care that people do various bad things even if they are one of many. I understand that it doesn’t make them monsters for not unilaterally disarming in various contexts, but I still ‘care.’

    Also, going along, but not being a “incredibly sanctimonious liar” is not the same thing as being a “nice guy” ala Pettite. There is some difference that should not be “too easy” to cross here. When people don’t just go alone, but go the extra mile, what “everyone” doesn’t do, it’s something more.

    Also, I don’t know if “everyone” doped or stuffed ballots, or did it like LBJ did. There are degrees, so blacks in 1948 “cared” what sort of segregationist you were. Not that I think the two are the same in every way. But, for those who DIDN’T dope or use steroids, and there were some, I want to be fair too.

    But, if he did this TOO, yes, he deserves a special degree of opposition.

    • Marek says:

      I thought part of the difference between Pettitte and the others mentioned is that Pettitte admitted using PEDs.

    • Scott Lemieux says:

      stuffed ballots, or did it like LBJ did.

      What seems relevant is that LBJ’s opponent certainly had an extensive history of doing so. The 1948 election was a question of who was going to “steal” it; a fair election wasn’t an option no matter what LBJ did.

      • Incontinentia Buttocks says:

        But in the 1948 election example, who was playing the role of the cycling authorities who were making a good-faith effort to prevent doping? 1948 looks a lot more like baseball than like cycling to me.

        • Scott Lemieux says:

          I would say it’s in between; the ballot stuffing was (I assume) clearly against the law, but you’re right that there was no meaningful enforcement mechanism.

          • Incontinentia Buttocks says:

            That seems fair to me. Like cycling, the rules were clear. Like baseball, there was no enforcement mechanism.

          • timb says:

            The Eastern Liberal establishment, which had recently assumed Lyndon was their guy, seemed to know AND turn a blind eye. The Conservative apparatchiks inside and outside of Texas were the ones who coined “Landslide Lyndon.”

    • Dilan Esper says:

      I care that people do various bad things even if they are one of many. I understand that it doesn’t make them monsters for not unilaterally disarming in various contexts, but I still ‘care.’

      Remember that sports isn’t important. It isn’t like politics. Cheating in a sports event is a very minor thing to begin with.

      Cheating when your competitors are also cheating isn’t wrong at all. Michael Jordan committed no ethical violation by intentionally traveling all those times knowing the NBA refs didn’t call it.

      The dopers acted completely ethically in the context of competitive sports. You are trying to win, they aren’t enforcing the rules, your competitors are doing it, your team needs you to do it, so you do it.

      • Joe says:

        sports isn’t important

        Sports is a major part of our culture. It has importance. For instance, sports figures serve as positive and negative role models. There are more important things, obviously, but really, can we show more nuance here?

        “They are doing it too” doesn’t justify. Rules don’t disappear because some other people don’t follow them. When the violations have real harms, like steroid use, it is particularly helpful to respect those who managed to not use them. Which some managed. Pettite, e.g., didn’t have to use steroids. It might have shortened his career and all, but as a good Christian and family man, he surely had other priorities and means to carry them out with the $$$ he already earned. BTW, no snide references to fantasy sky gods necessary.

  3. Sherm says:

    Says a lot about Clemens that it is universally accepted that a lying homophobe is considered a “nicer guy.”

    • mark f says:

      Clemens never gave a shit about personal branding the way Armstrong does, plus he had to deal with the same set of entitled reporters every day. It’s only natural that his dickishness would get more attention.

  4. STH says:

    Yes, he is truly an awful, awful person–a vindictive, sanctimonious bully who used his cancer to shut down criticism while not allowing riders on his team that weren’t doping. His own kids were defending him, for god’s sake; he was lying to them, too. And he continues to lie, even as he makes a big show of “coming clean.” He’s still maintaining he didn’t do any doping in 2009, though tests show he did. He richly deserves all the trouble he’s now in.

  5. barga20 says:

    I don’t care what Lance Armstrong and the filthy Europeans say. Lance Armstrong is innocent!

  6. Mike Schilling says:

    The inexcusably malicious behavior was in defense of the cheating, so it’s hard to give him a pass for the latter.

  7. Major Kong says:

    I just wonder how far back in the pack you’d have to go in the Tour de France before you got to the first person that wasn’t doping.

  8. Mike Schilling says:

    And Johnson did steal the ’48 primary [1], in an almost wilfully obvious way. “I’m 130 votes behind? Fine, here’s a ballot box we just found, with 131 votes. Yeah, all cast in alphabetical order. You got a problem with that?”

    1. Not the general election. In Texas in 1948, the Democratic primary was all that mattered.

  9. John says:

    Uh oh. Sounds like you’re not going to like Armstrong’s new badass persona, Killstrong.

  10. dlg says:

    The “everyone else was doing it” defense holds a little less water if everyone else was doing it because you made them do it.

    • Scott Lemieux says:

      Correct me if I’m wrong, but Armstrong’s teammates weren’t threat to win the Tour de France. The other high-level competitors weren’t being forced to dope by Armstrong.

    • drkrick says:

      Armstrong didn’t invent doping in his sport. It was well established when he started, although it certainly sounds like he did a lot to advance the state of the art.

    • TT says:

      “Everyone” means just about every other cyclist at the world-class level from the eary ’90s through the mid-’00s, and not just Armstrong’s teammates. Virtually all of his peers pretty much just assumed he was on drugs when he came back from cancer, because they all had been before and were at the time.

      • Kurzleg says:

        He was clearly on drugs before cancer. Take a look at him in ’96, especially in the spring classics Liege-Bastogne-Liege and Fleche Wallone. He won in the latter ’96, and the headline in many cycling publications was “Like a buffalo.” The dude was enormous for a bike racer who’s winning or getting on the podium in hilly races like these.

      • actor212 says:

        Six of the seven second place finishers at the Tour behind Lance were either convicted of or suspected of doping.

        This is a large part of the reason, I feel, why the Tour folks haven’t bothered with awarding the maillots jaune that Armstrong vacated.

  11. Gone2Ground says:

    Not only that, but as a guest sportswriter indicated last week on Democracy Now, the leader of the bike team is like the CEO of the team – he sets the tone and the rules and can fire people at will – there is no cyclist’s union.

    And Armstrong was clearly the World’s Worst Boss – bullying everyone on the team to participate in the plan and destroying those who refused to, both “at work” and in their personal lives. What a nightmare.

  12. Kurzleg says:

    Here’s one especially aggregious story that illustrates how big an asshole Armstrong is. He basically took it upon himself to prevent one rider for even having the opportunity to participate in a breakaway in a Tour de France stage. Armstrong couldn’t even let the guy take his chances against the other 6 riders in the group (plus the entire peloton, since the breakaway could easily get caught). Armstrong’s actions give new meaning to the term “petty”.

    Armstrong’s like the Dick Cheney of bike racing: malevolence and no sense of proportion.

    • actor212 says:

      That’s really not that unusual a case tho. I can’t think of a Tour where a rider has been put into the breakaway who hasn’t been told to dial it down a notch.

      • Kurzleg says:

        But that’s not exactly what happened in this case. I don’t know of another case exactly like it.

        • actor212 says:

          In the 2012 TdF, if memory serves, Froome was ordered back from a break to help Wiggins up a climb. This is on top of the flatted stage when Froome could easily have swept past Wiggins and into yellow but was told to stand down.

          • Kurzleg says:

            Which is completely understandable within the context of one team in the TdF and has happened numerous times throughout the history of the event. On the other hand, it’s virtually unprecedented for the maillot jaune to personally draft a rider all the way up to a breakaway for the sole purpose of preventing that rider from participating in the break. Some mj’s have ordered their teams to chase down opposing riders for personal reasons, but it’s rare since teams need to conserve their rider’s energy.

  13. actor212 says:

    On the other hand, Scott, we only have their word for it, and while Armstrong admitted he behaved like a dick, he fell far short of admitting that he bullied people into cooperation.

    Indeed, his characterization was far different than bullying, more like encouragement.

    I suspect this is an instance where he still needs to work on his “process” as he termed it. I don’t think he’s fully grasped the depths that he sunk, altho when he addressed with Oprah the issue of his kids, he seemed to start to form an idea.

    By the way, the single greatest athletic event in terms of flat out athleticism and achievement, and you’ve never watched it?

    Shame on you.

    • Scott Lemieux says:

      Many sports that involve remarkable feats of athleticism are also insanely boring spectator sports.

      • actor212 says:

        Yes.

        Like American football.

        • John says:

          American football is exciting to watch when you watch 6 or 7 games at a time on Red Zone. Otherwise, yeah, extraordinarily tedious. People get bored by baseball, but the pitcher/batter duel is actually interesting and rewarding if you have the patience for it. Most of a football game consists of watching a bunch of guys milling around.

          • actor212 says:

            I like baseball too, and for the reasons you cite. Having palyed the game a bit, I rather enjoy watching the strategic parts of it.

            It’s something like that for me and cycling, too. There’s a chess-like strategy that teams employ that makes it pretty compelling. Plus, the beautiful countryside.

            • cer says:

              I agree. To each their own. I don’t enjoy baseball but thoroughly enjoy the TdF. The teamwork involved is under appreciated. Plus the bizarre fans, beautiful locales and occasional unpredictable moments (like crashes) makes it entertaining. That said, one of the worst parts of the Lance Years was that the coverage (in the US) focused exclusively on him. In many ways I think that distorted perceptions of cycling as an individual rather than a team sport.

          • redrob64 says:

            the pitcher/batter duel is actually interesting and rewarding if you have the patience for it.

            I think that’s the nub of the problem right there; one could say much the same about the process of paint drying.

          • Rhino says:

            John, a TiVo solves that problem. You can watch a full nfl game a d never miss a play in about an hour.

    • Kurzleg says:

      To name one example, Armstrong basically ran Andreu out of pro cycling. Andreu didn’t want to dope any more, and Lance wouldn’t have him on the team if he wasn’t doping. But more than that, I think Lance made efforts to ensure Andreu couldn’t get work as a DS for another team. So yeah, Lance may have been encouraging initially, but he still resorted to extortive methods when he chose to.

      • actor212 says:

        Andreu’s cycling career was basically over when Armstrong came back in 1999. He started in 1984. To say Armstrong forced him out is rather…curious, to say the least. He raced one more season then become part of the USPS team management.

        Now, he did lose his job in 2006 with the Toyota team in part because of the Armstrong situation, but that was well past his cycling career. And it should be noted that Andreu went on to manage the Rock Racing team in 2007 and was let go after doping broke out there, as well, despite his public declaration that there would be no doping.

        • Kurzleg says:

          I’m pretty sure I read about Andreu getting forced out of USPS in the reasoned decision deposition Andreu gave. Now, it’s Andreu’s testimony, and it’s not like he was cross examined. And sure, he was older, but I get the sense he’d have been on the team if he’d agreed to dope.

          On the Rock Racing thing, I’m not sure how much of that can be laid at his feet. It sure sounded like Michael Ball was running the show there and hiring the riders. You see the names, so it’s hardly surprising.

  14. Murc says:

    This seems a little bit… double standardy, Scott.

    You say you don’t care about Armstrong doping because everyone was doping. The unspoken corollary here is that he had to be doping if he wanted to pursue a career in cycling.

    But doesn’t it also follow that his later actions were necessary as well? Doping is against cyclings stated rules. If you admit to it, or get found out, they strip your titles and your career ends. Therefor, is it not equally necessary to further your career to lie about the doping, and to intimidate and pressure others who can out your doping to keep silent?

    Why is being a cheater okay if everyone else is doing it, but the necessary acts to cover up said cheating aren’t okay? The one demands the other.

    And, frankly, if your chosen career demands you be a lying cheater, I would argue that you have a moral and ethical obligation to either refuse to engage or to find another career. If this career is literally all that’s keeping you and your family afloat, that might be a countervailing ethical weight, but that ain’t really the case with Armstrong, is it?

    • Scott Lemieux says:

      Again, you’re going to have to find me some examples of PED-using athletes who routinely sued people.

      • Incontinentia Buttocks says:

        But, just playing devil’s advocate here (since I feel the same way you do about Armstrong’s bullying…but rather different about cheating, even if everyone’s doing it), what was Armstrong supposed to do when people revealed that he’d been doping? Did he have an ethical obligation, in your view, to come clean at that point?

        And let’s imagine a world in which every doping cyclist did respond to accusations of doping with SLAP suits. Would that make SLAP suits ethically ok in your view, since everyone would be doing it?

        • McAllen says:

          This doesn’t seem like a very difficult problem to me. There’s a clear difference between doping, where the harm it does to anyone else in unclear, and trying to destroy someone’s career.

          • Incontinentia Buttocks says:

            But (again playing devil’s advocate) Armstrong’s accusers were trying to destroy his career….all because of something that harmed nobody (in your telling). Why doesn’t a self-defense argument apply here?

            • The Dark Avenger says:

              It’s not self-defense to defame others to protect his cheating, he had the choice to deny the claims without acting innocent when he knew he wasn’t in the first place.

              • Ed says:

                But in this view Armstrong isn’t doing anything wrong or harmful to himself or others, although he is breaking what are presumably foolish rules (and of course “everyone’s doing it”). He can’t just keep his head down or merely issue denials when people are repeatedly accusing him of lying and cheating – when the accusations get loud enough the innocent party has to do something. If others don’t want to dope, it’s hardly Armstrong’s problem. Other considerations come to mind. There were people whose testimony supported Armstrong against the Andreus. He couldn’t leave them hanging.

                It is true that Armstrong brought the same ferocious brio to his counterattacking efforts that he brought to his competing and cheating but that seems to be Lance. They all go together.

  15. N__B says:

    I find the combination of his use of the emotions connected with “cancer survivor” and litigious bullying to be uniquely nauseating among current-day athletes. It makes me want to cry “Bring me his testicle on a stick!”

  16. blowback says:

    “Since everyone at the upper levels of the sport was apparently doping”

    Bullshit – everyone in the TdF wasn’t doing it and we’ll never know if some of those who weren’t doing it would have been successful enough to reach the highest levels if there had been a level playing field with no doping at all.

    Part of the USADA’s allegations is that the USPS and Discovery teams of which Armstrong was the leader took doping to whole new levels. So to claim that Armstrong had to do it because everyone else was doing it (they weren’t doing it to the same level) is garbage.

    • Scott Lemieux says:

      Again, Armstrong didn’t force the other high level competitors on other teams to dope, but apparently they all were.

      • blowback says:

        And your proof that all the other teams were doping? I hope you’re not relying on evidence from Lance Armstrong to make this claim.

        In a sport such as cycling, doping of any form gives you such an advantage, that the “other high level competitors” were probably only “high level competitors” because they doped; without doping they might have been merely mediocre.

        Armstrong didn’t force the other high level competitors on other teams to dope

        Effectively he did by so dominating the TdF for seven years and taking doping to such an advanced level.

        I’m sure Adolf Hitler would have loved to have you on his defence team if he had ever been prosecuted for genocide.

        “Everybody was doing it, my client was just the most effective! What’s wrong with that?”

        • actor212 says:

          Six of the seven men that Lance defeated were suspended for doping. The sole “clean” racer was Beloki, who actually was suspended in 2006 as part of Operation Puerto but later cleared and reinstated.

          • blowback says:

            Sorry, I didn’t realize the TdF only ever had two entrants. Perhaps you could explain what the other 180 odd cyclists who ride along are doing there. Is it their annual cycling holiday?

            • Rhino says:

              Well, since only three or four guys have a real shot at the yellow, the rest are domestiques, sprinters, and stage specialists. Most of the guys lining up at the beginning are not there to win.

        • Halloween Jack says:

          Are you proposing that Lance invented doping, either in sports in general or cycling in particular? That would be an amusing assertion.

    • Green Caboose says:

      If you read the details that have been written by Landis and others it is clear that Armstrong had taken the cheating to levels far beyond what other teams were doing, and that’s basically the conclusion of the legal report.

      Landis talks about joining another team and being shocked that they didn’t have a cheating regimine – that it was just a little bit here a little bit there. He showed them how to organize things so as to maximize the use of blood doping and PEDs and at the same minimize the chance of detection. Others have made similar reports – that until they joined Lance’s team they never saw anything as professional as how Lance did it.

      No, this wasn’t just “well everyone else was doing it”. It wasn’t a level playing field. Lance, and his whole team, gained far more benefit from the medical cheating than his competitors did. He may not have been the best cyclist on the tour, but he was far and away the best cheater.

  17. DocAmazing says:

    Not to defend Armstrong, but Jesus, doping? By the end of his career, the guy was training using hypobaric chambers, riding custom-engineered bikes, and employing batallions of exercise physiologists to give him every possible edge. Adding a few extra red blood cells seems almost trivial at that point.

    • ploeg says:

      Yes, well, if you are looking for every possible edge, is it so far of a stretch that you’re looking for every possible edge? If you think that you can dope with impunity and that doping gives you an edge, you’re going to do it.

    • Green Caboose says:

      It may *seem* trivial until you look at the race Landis won until he had his title stripped. He’d fallen behind badly the day before, took an extra-heavy dose that night, and blew the doors off the rest of the pack the next day.

      When cheating can have that much effect it isn’t just “an extra blood cell or two”.

    • actor212 says:

      He claims his return was clean. In 2009, he placed third behind Contador (who was later suspended for doping) and Andy Schleck (who’s brother Frank was suspended this year for doping.)

    • Kurzleg says:

      Nearly all top pros use the same resources, and the oxygen-deprivation sleeping chambers actually assist in increasing one’s red blood cells. If you look at the substances to which Armstrong and his ex-teammates admit to using, it’s more than just EPO. Cortisone, testosterone and HgH were all part of the regimen, and taken together, could have increased performance as much as 5%.

  18. lawguy says:

    So what I seem to be hearing is that most people think that everybody at the higher levels of cycling was doping. And they were doing it before Armstrong came along. He just did it better?

    But we should be really mad because in addition to all that he is a prick. Isn’t that a little like keeping Ty Cobb out of the hall of fame because he was a racist bully?

    • virag says:

      exactly. armstrong did it better. mostly he trained harder, and focused exclusively on le tour. his whole team was geared around armstrong winning in july. armstrong’s doctor, doctor ferrari–yep,that’s his name–is an evil genius of performance enhancing drug programs.

      • Kurzleg says:

        I call bs. He didn’t train any harder than anyone else, and the “focus on the Tour” was really just a way to limit testing exposure and facilitate the doping regimen.

  19. virag says:

    had armstrong not been quite such a ginormous assholes, and well-known mutton-head, too, he had the chance to actually change the doping culture in cycling. he did dope. every knew it. all the riders did. the difference is that armstrong had the best training, the toughest program, world-class equipment, AND he trained harder than the other riders.

    if he’d been an honorable man, he could have taken his miracle cancer survivor schtick and come clean, thereby forcing the sport to face reality. instead, he spent a decade plus being a maxi douche and lying his ass off. anyone who believed he was racing clean was a world-class moron.

    • Kurzleg says:

      Where do you get the notion that he trained harder?

    • actor212 says:

      This raises the point that I made at my blog last week: we’re all pretty complicit in this, we fans.

      We wanted to believe the miracle. A guy comes back from metastasized testicular cancer, in which he had less than a 50-50 shot of surviving and within 10 years has seven TdF titles under his belt.

      Really? Cleanly?

      Now, say what you will about Armstrong but his impact on the sport of cycling as it pertains to Americans is pretty profound, and he raised awareness for cancer survivors manifold. That’s all due to the story he built around his miracle.

      After all, if this guy could survive and even thrive after cancer, then how hard is it for you to swing your leg over a saddle and ride five miles a day?

      It was inspiring, and because it was inspiring, we along with the federations looked the other way.

      • Kurzleg says:

        And it’s not just the cancer. As I’m sure you know, Lance was never considered a TdF-type rider pre-cancer. He was considered a good one-day racer and possibly a one-week stage race contender. That he turned into a three-week stage race champion would have been surprising even without the cancer.

        If you’re saying people should have been more skeptical, I guess I agree to a point. But as I’m also sure you’re aware, Lance came back a MUCH leaner rider with a completely different style (spinning versus mashing). Sure, it was remarkable he won the TdF after having cancer, but the physiological and stylistic changes added a sheen of plausibility that wouldn’t have been there had Lance come back as the old, heavier Lance.

        • Halloween Jack says:

          I remember reading an article way back in the day that went into this in some detail, even citing an old injury that supposedly resulted in his maintaining a lower riding stance that made him a skosh more aerodynamic, IIRC.

  20. [...] Guns and Money’s Scott Lemieux makes the point that arguably worse than Lance Armstrong’s cheating was the fact that he treated people who [...]

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