Viewpoint: Why Lance Armstrong Couldn’t Stop Himself (and Still Can’t)

A writer's experience with a tarnished icon

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George Burns/Oprah Winfrey Network via Getty Images

Lance Armstrong, while being interviewed by Oprah Winfrey.

You could always ask Lance Armstrong anything. About competing in the Tour de France, about living with cancer and his work at Livestrong, about his parenting skills, or about his love life, which at one point was fairly busy. And what you’d get back was quotable and candid. That included, in every interview I’ve done or read about him, the inevitable question about doping.

The Associated Press reported that Lance Armstrong has admitted to Oprah Winfrey, in an interview to be aired Thursday and Friday, that he doped while winning Tour de France titles; on Tuesday morning, Winfrey confirmed that Armstrong “came clean.” All of this follows the report released in October by the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency that offered overwhelming evidence that he cheated. Armstrong denied doping to me, although he never seemed to resent being asked about it. He was more angry at being the target of government and anti-doping agency investigation. Sources lie all the time, of course. They call it spin. But Lance’s lie was remarkable for all the effort he had to put into it. He was as committed to the lie as he was to everything else he did. A lot of athletes, say, Michael Jordan or Tiger Woods, have a practiced sincerity in responding to questions and absolutely refused to discuss certain subjects. With Jordan, anything having to do with, say, gambling or his private life was not going to be answered. Tiger wouldn’t go near politics broadly, or racial politics in particular, if you put a driver to his head.

(MORE: Straight Dope: Is Lance Armstrong Memorabilia Worthless Now?)

Armstrong, on the other hand, is a political animal. He helped convince the Texas legislature to invest a $1 billion in cancer research. He has prodded governments around the world to do likewise. A man with that much conviction carries with him a certain amount of implied credibility.

And when the credibility came into question, Armstrong turned on his competitive instincts and beat back the doubters like he would someone challenging him on a Tour stage. He was famous for being the boss man of the Tour, for keeping a certain order to things, and any cyclist who got out of line would be run down by an Armstrong teammate or, for certain violators, by Lance himself. He did the same thing with former riders who challenged his story, especially Floyd Landis. He worked relentlessly for years to disgrace his accusers and keep other former teammates in line. When the U.S. attorney decided not to press charges last year, he could see the finish line. But he couldn’t see that the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency boss Travis Tygart was putting in just as much work cracking 11 former teammates. And Tygart had a hammer: he would ban them for their competitive lives if they didn’t cooperate.

It is likely that Armstrong will be just as competitive in The Redemption as he has at everything else he’s done: triathlete, cancer patient, and elite cyclist. He needs to be an athlete again—the guy still trains relentlessly—and I’m sure he’d like to reconnect with the cancer community, where his goodwill account is still positive. Expect a full bore admission for Oprah, although one coached as to limit the legal damage. Expect USADA’s Tygart to be unyielding until he gets what he wants.

And then it will move on to court. Armstrong is being sued by Landis in a federal whistleblower case over allegedly defrauding the government, which sponsored Armstrong’s U.S. Postal team from 1996 to 2004. He may settle with the feds. Which is kind of ironic, since you could argue that Armstrong absolutely fulfilled the contract. Even as he was doping, Armstrong put all of his energy into making the Posties a winning outfit. It gave the U.S.P.S.— a functionally bankrupt, quasi-government outfit — more positive impressions than it could ever buy with conventional advertising, as it is demonstrating today. Even as a cheat, Lance Armstrong could never do anything else but compete.

MORE: What Drugs Are Lance Armstrong Accused Of Taking?