Since Lance Armstrong’s spectacular fall from grace he has been engaged in a battle on at least two fronts: a legal battle to protect the vast fortune he largely accrued through endorsements and bonus payments (on the basis that he was winning clean), and a personal battle to salvage and rehabilitate his image.
Whatever the odds, Armstrong is not a man to go down without a fight, and so while the legal maneuverings whirred away in the background Armstrong began the process of seizing control of the narrative, and attempted to spruce up his image by appearing on Oprah. This appearance was largely criticised as being an insincere and cynical attempt to grab some sympathy. In recent weeks and months Armstrong has become slowly more visible to the world, as he embarks on what has been dubbed by those who are slightly cynical of his motives, the ‘reconciliation tour’.
This most recent round of interviews, appearances and apologies have largely been seen as further attempts to salvage his reputation. Perhaps it is the very public nature of his apologies to the likes of Christophe Bassons (the Mr Clean of the Armstrong era peloton, who stood up to the Texan and the doping culture in general) and Emma O’Reilly (former team soigneur who dished the dirt on Armstrong) that have helped to fan the flames of scepticism; if the cameras hadn’t been rolling and the press hadn’t been on hand to report them, would the apologies even have happened?
This cynical assessment of his current behaviour may ring true for many, but there is one particular argument where plenty of informed observers are very much on Armstrong’s side.
Armstrong recently made the point (not for the first time) that the man who was UCI president at the height of his career, Hein Verbruggen, was fully aware of the extent of drug use in the pro ranks and even tacitly condoned it; apart from anything else, he is alleged to have helped cover up a positive test by Armstrong in 1999. The closest Verbruggen has come to admitting to this is to say he ‘might have’ spoken to Armstrong after the test.
Verbruggen responded to Armstrong’s accusations by quipping, ‘who believes Armstrong anyway?’ Well, Mr Verbruggen, the truth is that people tend to believe Armstrong when it’s a choice between you or him; which says a lot.
Verbruggen has long since been discredited and is widely seen as a large part of cycling’s doping problem in the 1990’s and 2000’s when he was the head honcho at the UCI. David Millar even suggested recently that those dark days of EPO use should be referred to not as the Armstrong era, but more accurately as the Verbruggen era.
It is certainly the case that Armstrong has borne the brunt of the disgrace and the punishment for the years of drug fuelled racing in the peloton – his ‘death sentence’, as he puts it – and there are others who, thus far, have got off relatively lightly. Is this because Armstrong played the game for higher stakes than the rest and made himself a global star in the process? Is it payback for the bullying and the nastiness, as much as the cheating? Did he simply make more enemies than everyone else?
I’m no Armstrong apologist, and I’m not suggesting we all welcome him back with high-fives and Texan backslaps, but he is a man who has seen and done a lot in the sport; doesn’t it make more sense to engage in a sensible, grown up debate about these things, rather than ignoring him and hoping he’ll go away…
…because, lets be honest, he won’t go away. When it comes to the restoration of his image Armstrong will surely stick at it until the day comes when, to some extent at least, his character and reputation in the eyes of the world are rehabilitated; if nothing else, that’s just the cyclical nature of power and celebrity.
Whatever you think of him, he probably has the charisma to pull that particular trick off