Lance Armstrong is back in the headlines.
The pantomime villain who broke all the rules has done his first major interview in two years, sitting down with BBC Sport Editor Dan Roan to discuss his deep and dark past.
There was also a glimpse to the future, and the possibility of redemption for a man still hated like no other in the world of sport.
In truth, there are only two who rank at the very top of this ‘hate’ list. Ben Johnson and Lance Armstrong. For some reason, we can look past the rest.
It’s probably because of the majesty of the two events in questions. The 100m men’s sprint final at the Olympics is the pinnacle of the most-watched sporting event on the planet. Johnson destroyed the field and became a legend in 9.79 seconds.
He tested positive for anabolic steroids and was stripped of the gold medal. But five of the other seven athletes on track that day went on to either test positive or be involved in the use or supply of performance enhancing drugs. Could you name them?
The same scenario occurs in cycling. I don’t profess to be the biggest athletics fan in the world, but I know Ben Johnson is a cheat. I don’t profess to be the biggest cycling fan in the world, but I know Lance Armstrong is a cheat.
I know all this groundbreaking information because they won. They were the best at cheating the system.
But why does that make them any better, or perhaps more pertinently any worse, than the others who took drugs and finished behind them?
Focusing on Armstrong in particular, we know that he ran a sophisticated operation to both evade being caught and become the very best – if that’s what you can call it. Having reached the top of the proverbial mountain, he was there to be shot at.
David Walsh pursuit
And shot at he was – David Walsh’s campaign to bring down the Armstrong lie was long and costly, but he got to the truth and his book, ‘The seven deadly sins’, is one of the great modern sporting reads.
In an effort to protect what he had built, Walsh became collateral damage at a time when Armstrong was the darling of all sport – not just cycling. The man who recovered from cancer to win seven Tour de France crowns – what a story. His charity work and Livestrong foundation only built the legacy.
That doesn’t make it right, of course. Armstrong has apologised to the people he knows he hurt – some have accepted, some have not. You certainly wouldn’t blame Walsh for turning away.
“I can’t say I’m sorry forever,” the 43-year-old told the BBC in response to a question about Betsy Andreu, a teammate’s wife who testified that she heard Armstrong confirm he’d taken a variety of performance enhancing drugs whilst laying on a hospital bed in the aftermath of treatment.
“Or maybe we have to do that, but that seems a little extreme, too. I was and always will be sorry.”
The system or the rider?
The big headlines today are criticising Armstrong for saying that, if he were taken back to 1995 once again, he’d probably dope again.
“If I was racing in 2015, no, I wouldn’t do it again, because I don’t think you have to. If you take me back to 1995, when it was completely and totally pervasive, I’d probably do it again. People don’t like to hear that.”
Why is that such a surprise? If Armstrong wasn’t doping back then, he wasn’t winning. That’s the answer of a winner. And, it’s a pretty much pointless question anyway. We don’t live in a utopian world where everyone fights fair.
As I said earlier, Armstrong wasn’t the first to dope. He was just the best.
20 years on, we live in a world where there have been vast improvements in drug testing. And yet, the dark shadow of drugs continues to linger long after Armstrong has been removed.
Astana have recently been granted a licence by the UCI, despite the storm surrounding the Iglinsky brothers and the questionable management credentials of Alexander Vinokourov. Bjarne Riis remains Team Manager at Tinkoff Saxo – he has admitted to taking EPO in the past, and won the 1996 Tour de France.
It’s this double standard that does not sit well. I’m happy to admit my anti-feelings towards Armstrong. For a while I believed the dream was a reality, but soon came to learn that it was in fact a nightmare.
But, the most armchair of cycling fans can tell you that he was one of many. Marco Pantani, Armstrong, Floyd Landis and Alberto Contador – 12 of the past 16 ‘winners’, all implicated in doping. Contador will compete at this year’s Le Tour for Tinkoff Saxo.
For Armstrong, it’s no longer about competing in a tour event. It’s about the lifting of a lifetime ban from sport, handed down by the US anti-doping agency.
This ban should be lifted, with conditions, to enable Armstrong to do some good.
Charity work – good or bad?
As Roan noted in his interview with the former cyclist, we’re talking about a man of many complexities. Was his charity work all an attempted disguise and distraction from the behind-closed-doors blood bags, or was there a genuine desire to help?
“I spent a long time trying to build up an organisation [the Lance Armstrong Foundation that changed its name to Livestrong after his confession] to help a lot of people. And I can’t lie, it hurts that that has been put away, or almost forgotten, and almost, in some parts of the world, discounted as if it was a sham or PR. It wasn’t.
“That was very real. It meant a lot to me. And the deepest cut was Livestrong saying, ‘you need to step away’.”
Let’s take the man for his word. Some people won’t. A man like David Walsh has no reason to believe anything the former US Postal rider has to say.
Lift the lifetime ban
If this lifetime ban is lifted from Armstrong’s shoulders, then there is an opportunity for the once great cyclist to do some good. Everyone deserves a chance at rehabilitation, right? What could be more cathartic than that?
The man has spoken with the Cycling Independent Reform Commission twice, and claims to have answered every question put to him. He is a man with nothing left to hide – pending a final lawsuit, of course. Always a sub-plot.
A decision to allow Armstrong to compete again – “in some sport at a fairly high level” – would be a step back for many who believe drug taking should be met with a lifetime ban. The athlete has embarrassed the sport and should be punished.
A shot at redemption
But when you fail to deal out the same sort of treatment to other known drug cheats, irrespective of their success or failure, then you are making a rod for your own back. Armstrong deserves to be punished, and he has been. The fact he was at the very top of cycling meant he had the most to lose when it all came crumbling down. Now, he’s at the bottom of the pile.
Why not give him a chance to do some good with a name that once stood for so much. It would perhaps be his greatest achievement to turn things around when everyone stands against him.