Lance Armstrong sat down with Oprah Winfrey on Monday for an interview (to air later this week…take your time, Oprah) in which the embattled former champion reportedly admitted he cheated during his long, illustrious and recently tarnished bicycling career.
It took you long enough, dude.
The thing is, Armstrong doesn't owe an apology to any of us who never thought he was clean. He doesn't even have to apologize to those who tried to prove he was a cheater, both in print and in the courts.
Monday, he reportedly apologized to Livestrong, the cancer-fighting foundation he spearheaded. But even that group isn't at the top of the list.
He really only has to apologize to those who never stopped defending him. He wasted our time, sure. But he wasted their trust.
Armstrong made a living by outlasting (as much as outpacing) those who stood between him and sports immortality. The dichotomy within Armstrong is what made him so uniquely human: He went to such lengths to become an immortal in the world of sports while fighting the most public fight imaginable with his own mortality.
Armstrong beat cancer. Who the hell cared if he beat a bunch of cyclists in a bike race too?
He cared, and that eventually became his undoing.
Like most of the world's best athletes, Armstrong was consumed by winning. When his body was unable to beat the field by conventional (read: legal) means, Armstrong decided to do what many top athletes in this era of sports have done: He remembered he was human.
His body could not do what his mind thought it should, and Armstrong took to artificial means to prolong his dominance. All the while, Armstrong denied claims he was a cheater.
His denials were so strong and systematic that we, as Americans, had no choice but to believe him. How dare the European press single him out just because he was better than their riders. The man beat cancer.
As more and more time went by, and more and more of his contemporaries were caught in the web of scandal, Armstrong was methodically able to ride free. It became only a matter of time before someone would turn on him.
With a net as wide as reports have indicated, Armstrong surely thought he could deal with any potential outliers. He probably underestimated Floyd Landis. He probably never thought the investigators would have enough to get the entire world of cycling to come clean about being dirty.
Through all the denials and lies, Armstrong probably never once thought about those who stood behind him, staunchly fighting his fight and defending his virtue, both on a bike and in life.
When Armstrong's sit-down with Oprah to talk about his career airs—to acknowledge his cheating in whatever detail he feels is enough to ride past this part of his life and never look back—people will have the opportunity to amend their beliefs about him.
Was he a good man all along? Can good men cheat, or does the admission of cheating finally and indisputably make him not a good man? Can he become a good man once he atones for the misdeeds?
It's quite possible that in many ways he is and isn't a good man, depending on the angle of focus. Admitting he cheated probably won't change what he is or isn't to most of us.
But from those whose opinion will change with his admission, Armstrong must seek forgiveness.
Armstrong owes those poor lost souls the biggest apology he can muster. He must let Oprah be a conduit to them.
Really, those are the only people to whom Armstrong owes an apology. At one point, those who believed in Armstrong were the strong majority. But as time went on and new information continued to leak out, most of the people who believed Armstrong was telling the truth began to question their conviction along with his, even if they still defended the cyclist in other ways.
Sure, Armstrong may have cheated, but that doesn't deny all the great work he did for cancer research. He may have been living a lie on the track, but you can't ignore all the lives he saved with his philanthropy, his time and his inspiration. You can't really be a bad person if you help all those people, even if you were only able to help them because you cheated.
I get that. Heck, part of me even feels that way about him too. I never felt duped by Armstrong because I really never believed he was clean. The cheating, especially when the most virtuous riders have admitted impropriety, is really not that big a deal within the context of the sport.
(Think of it like this: We care so much about steroids in baseball that it will keep legends of the game out of the Hall of Fame. But most people couldn't even name five players suspended for steroids in the history of the NFL because few people care if players cheat in that sport. Sadly, that's what cycling has become for anyone not closely associated with the sport.)
So it really wasn't the cheating that had people up in arms. It was the lying. It was the defiance, the idea that Armstrong assumed he would never get caught. The hatred toward him has far more to do with the lies than the cheating.
Had the man just admitted the cheating years ago and come up with some nonsense story like he needed to feel like a hero again after the cancer took not just his career but part of his soul—feel free to use that with Oprah, Lance—the admission would have made him more human.
He may have been stripped of a yellow jersey or two, but the admission, back then, would have made him flawed in a way his fans could justify. He isn't perfect. He's more like me than I ever realized.
Instead, Armstrong stood in the face of allegations and spit on those who sought the truth.
He lied to good journalists like Sally Jenkins who wanted to believe him when writing books about (and with) him, implicating them after the fact in his systematic cover-up.
He lied to dogged investigative reporters like David Walsh, who was the first journalist to accuse Armstrong of doping more than a decade ago. Hell, Armstrong sued Walsh's paper in London to quash the publication of allegations under England's horribly constrictive privacy laws.
He doesn't owe either of them—any of them—an apology. In our profession, covering professional athletes and their lies comes with the territory. We know (or should know) the situation we put ourselves in when working with professional athletes. It's all part of the game.
Armstrong doesn't even owe the sport of cycling an apology either. Doping in cycling has been so widespread that it's impossible to know who was clean and who is still lying about it. If we throw a theoretical blanket around the steroid era in baseball, Armstrong's era of cycling is akin to being locked in a straitjacket.
Sure, those great cyclists who came before him probably deserve an apology. Greg LeMond may deserve a special notation from Armstrong, but history will surely remember riders like LeMond in the proper context without any specific act of contrition from Lance. What will Armstrong's hollow apology serve to him?
(Note: Others have brought up that Armstrong owes an apology to the mechanics, trainers and assistants whose lives his cover-ups have potentially ruined. For those who knew Armstrong was cheating and did nothing about it, including other riders whose careers he threatened to ruin, their culpability is linked to this as well. Of course Armstrong owes everyone he bullied, pressured and threatened a personal apology for that, but not for the lying; they already knew about the lying.)
The only people left are just those who believed him and never stopped.
Armstrong owes them an apology more than anyone. He let countless true believers fight this battle for him, defending his good name when he knew all too well how bad it truly was.
Armstrong let these people go from part of a loyal majority to a conflicted minority to a fringe crusade, all because they chose to believe him over the barrage of information that continued to come out against their embattled hero.
Misguided as they were, it was as much Armstrong's fault as theirs for believing in him. In his sit-down with Oprah to talk about his lies, those are the people he should be talking to. The rest of us won't believe a word he says anyway.
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