In Search of Lance Armstrong's Staunchest Supporters
More than four years after publicly admitting to doping, Lance Armstrong remains an outcast in the cycling world. But some of his supporters have stayed loyal to the disgraced American. What has kept them on side through so much turmoil?
"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 am on. What am I on? I am on my bike busting my ass six hours a day. What are you on?"—Lance Armstrong, Nike advertisement, 2001
"I'm not going to be sorry for certain things. I'm going to be sorry for that person who was a believer, who was a fan, who supported me, who defended me, and ended up looking like a fool. I need to really be contrite and sorry about that. And I am."—Lance Armstrong, interview with Agence France-Presse, 2015
Lance Armstrong was arguably the greatest sportsman of all time. While other athletes have climbed from their deathbeds and returned to the field of play, no phoenix rose higher than Armstrong. No other cyclist has won seven consecutive Tour de France titles. No other sportsperson has raised half a billion dollars in the fight against cancer. No other individual has so ferociously redefined the boundaries of the human body without leaving the surface of the Earth. The Tour de France is a seriously difficult race to win; to beat back the death throes of cancer and go on to dominate it should not be possible. Lance Armstrong defied the impossible and wrote an extraordinary tale of triumph over adversity into our collective history.
And now we hate him for it. Doping has ravaged the sport for decades, and allegations hovered over Armstrong throughout his career. The Sword of Damocles finally fell when his former teammate, Floyd Landis, filed a lawsuit in 2010 as a whistleblower for the U.S. government. In 2013, the government took its own action against Armstrong on behalf of the U.S. Postal Service, which paid over $30million in sponsorship to Armstrong's cycling team between 1998 and 2004. Wielding his public relations might, Armstrong was bizarrely afforded the opportunity to confess to his doping on the Oprah Winfrey Show, after which the full extent of his deceit and intimidation towards the media, his support staff and his teammates (as well as their spouses) became apparent. The truth about the lives he broke shattered the legacy, the story became the lie, and the greatest athlete ever became the most infamous cheat in sporting history.
A support base that had transcended the sport appeared to dissipate overnight. Cycling fans, cancer survivors, and even casual admirers of the Armstrong tale were left feeling betrayed, angry and confused. Near-universal admiration was replaced with fervent outrage. Those like David Walsh, the Times journalist who doggedly pursued Armstrong at the height of the cyclist's powers, were vindicated. The cycling community has turned its back on its former icon, who is persona non grata at major events. No current professional cyclist will defend him. His Livestrong charity no long bears his name.
What would it take to still support Lance Armstrong? How much ignorance would one have to affect over his public reaction to doping allegations by his former masseur Emma O'Reilly, who he dismissed as "a prostitute" and "an alcoholic"? Whose devotion to Armstrong could possibly withstand knowledge of the careers he ruined, like those of Scott Mercier and Christophe Bassons, who refused to comply with his doping regime? Who, in 2017, still attends the Church of Lance?
There is scant evidence of active Lance Armstrong supporters' groups, and this is revealing. The "Support for Lance" campaign, whose website has been dormant since 2015, appears to have switched from denial over his doping to a morally relativist stance, coupled with a familiar criticism of the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency (USADA) and the media. A "Friends of Lance" Twitter account (which did not co-operate with this article) remains active but muted. Johan Bruyneel, whose Twitter bio describes him as the "Proud ex-manager of my dear friend Lance Armstrong, winner of 7 Tours de France. No hypocrite" did not respond to a request for comment. Lance Armstrong himself blocked me in 2015.
With the exception of a few, there is an unwillingness to associate publicly with the man, and my attempts at giving his supporters a fair hearing are both largely fruitless and hugely insightful.
The Livestrong connection remains alive but fractured. Brian Patrick Dowd, a cancer survivor and supporter of the charity, is uninterested in the Armstrong scandal. He told VICE Sports: "I am not a Lance Armstrong supporter. I am a Livestrong Foundation supporter. By the way, Lance is old news and since [it] all came out the issue [is] dead to me. I don't waste anytime in (sic) it. [I] only focus on helping people.
"You should do a story on all the positive things Livestrong has been doing and how many people they are helping. Amazing impact," Dowd added.
Scott Joy, who like Armstrong survived testicular cancer and now works for Livestrong, remains a staunch advocate of the cyclist. He says that there is still widespread support for Armstrong, and goes so far as to attribute his own recovery to the man.
"I'm grateful to Lance for [his] example in being open and frank about his diagnosis, his fighting spirit through treatment and on behalf of others afterward, and the positive impact he's had in so many cancer survivors' lives, including my own.
"Reading It's Not About the Bike (Armstrong's autobiography) changed my attitude. During my 2005 recurrence, while dealing with disabling side-effects after abdominal surgery, watching the Tour de France kept me going. Getting back on my bike and planning for the Ride for the Roses in Austin gave me focus. The traits I most admire in Lance are his resilience and drive."
It would be difficult to lecture a cancer survivor on the moral basis for their own recovery. Joy tells me of the community of survivors that Armstrong built with Livestrong, a family of the damned whose cause demands unity and figures like Armstrong to drive it forward. It is undoubtedly true that the cyclist is responsible for inspiring millions of Scott Joys through their battles with cancer, and one can only sympathise with a charity that has borne the financial brunt of the Armstrong scandal. Livestrong operates with about half the employees it had six years ago, was forced to drop its original Lance Armstrong Foundation title, and saw its revenues plunge from $47m in 2011 to $16.6m in 2014.
Not all of his supporters are as amiable as Joy. Jerry Kelly, a personal friend of Armstrong, went through my Twitter account and found the tweets that ostracised me from the Armstrong camp two years ago.
Smelling a hatchet job on his companion, he simply tweeted: "If you consider yourself media, you can sum up my response with this: @lancearmstrong World Champion cancer advocate, raised half billion $'s to fight cancer, 7x TdF Champion, #StillMyFriend."
This rabid defence of a friend from what has been a relentless media campaign is perhaps understandable. We can agree that Lance Armstrong has made a positive contribution to fighting cancer, and this point is rarely emphasised by the press. But what about the sport of cycling?
Dom Miller (not his real name) is a competitive triathlete who has competed at the upper end of the UK university level. He thinks Armstrong's accomplishments and the strength of the field around him mitigate the moral turpitude of his actions.
"I respect any athlete that is or has competed at the top of their sport. The sacrifice, dedication and determination required at the top are the same no matter who is racing. That it was one of the most competitive periods in the Tour's history only makes his achievements more impressive," says Miller.
"Lance was operating at a very high level alongside competitors who were making the same sacrifices that he was. Take a look at any competitive sport or high-pressure career and there are conflicts of interest. It was against the rules to take performance-enhancing drugs - the fact large numbers of the pro peloton were using at the same time does not excuse Lance's behaviour, but in my eyes it does vindicate him slightly."
These arguments have been rebutted many times, but it is fascinating to hear them from an athlete with a purely vocational interest in competitive endurance sport. Miller would surely take umbrage at losing out on titles to drugs cheats. He does not believe that Armstrong should be forgiven for his behaviour towards his support staff and the families of his teammates, but identifies a double standard in a sport that still allows convicted doper Alberto Contador to challenge for championships.
If we are to forgive Armstrong, we should expect total contrition. Despite muted apologies for his actions, which have largely been directed towards his own supporters, this has been lacking from the cyclist. Armstrong continues to fight court cases, and asked for the U.S. government's lawsuit against him to be dropped. He maintains that though he was one of many cyclists who doped, he has received disproportionately harsh treatment from the sport. This is not necessarily untrue, but most of us still expect a full apology.
Unless, of course, you don't believe he needs to be forgiven at all. We return to Scott Joy, who owes his life to Lance Armstrong.
"Forgiveness is for the forgiver. I've never felt aggrieved."