Lance Armstrong’s Long Uphill Climb.

After admitting to Oprah that he cheated, Lance Armstrong faces a long, uphill climb to redemption. Despite all he’s done, Mark Radcliffe hope he gets there.

Lance “won” 7 Tour de France titles on the strength of his performances on long, steep, unending climbs like Alpe d’Huez, Ventoux, the Tourmalet, and Col du Galibier. That kind of long, torturous climb is what he’s chosen to engage in again, after his confession of doping and other sins to the high priestess of public justice, Oprah Winfrey.

The big question is whether he’ll ever again reach the summit. According to lawyers, he should have kept his mouth shut, never admitted the doping, accepted the ban and gone away with his estimated $100 million fortune for the rest of his lonely days.

But he decided he couldn’t do it. Is it a desire to compete again? To be in the public eye again? To appease a guilty conscience? Or is it to release his 13 year-old son from the obligation of defending him? (The one subject in the inteview that seemed to bring Lance to the verge of tears.)

We may never know for sure his motives, but we now have his never-thought-I’d-hear-it-from-his-lips admission of doping his way to all 7 Tour de France victories, to bullying witnesses to hell and back, and to full-well knowing he was a jerk and a liar the entire time. And while many of us didn’t want it to be true for so long, we now have to accept it was.

And now the lawyers are circling, preparing to file their suits. After all, in light of his admission to Oprah, he effectively perjured himself in his 2005 court testimony when in litigation with SCA Promotions.

But to me, as a former top junior racer who still rides and loves cycling but has no real idea of what it is to compete at the international level, I’m left marveling at two things: how unreal it was to hear him finally admit to sins that he’d vehemently and self-righteously denied for 15 years; and how he could be such a staunch supporter of millions of cancer victims and yet simultaneously be such an asshole to all those who dared speak the truth against him.

Lance Armstrong is nothing if not complicated, and the difficulty of all of this lies in separating Lance the doper from Lance the Philanthropist. It’s amazing, actually, that they’re the same person. But, over the last two nights, as we watched Lance confess so easily the sins he so stridently denied for so long, we heard a resounding pledge: “I will spend the rest of my life to make this right.”

♦◊♦

If there’s anyone who knows something about long, uphill climbs, it’s the guy who almost died of testicular cancer and then rebounded to win the toughest race in the world 7 times in a row. (Yes, with the aid of a shitload of performance-enhancing drugs—but ones that the rest of the field seemed to be on too.)

And the crazy thing is: as much as I judge the guy for his deception, for his bullying of completely innocent and well-meaning people who tried to tell the truth when subpoenaed by a court of law, I kind of want him to find his way out of all this.

It sucks that we’ve lost a hero. First Mark McGwire went down, then Tiger, now Lance. We don’t have much left. Maybe I’m just another sucker for the American comeback story, where our fallen hero finds his way back to grace. But the thing is, as despicable as Lance’s behind-the-scenes actions were, his in-front-of-the-scenes actions tell me there’s a guy there who wants to help people. I just believe he wanted to protect the perfect story so much he was willing to crush a few souls to potentially save a few million. He chose to believe the ends justify the means.

But for those of us who have studied the Romantic Hero in literature classes, we know it never works out in the end. You have to be pure of spirit if you want to change the world in a lasting way. You can’t be half-in, half-out.

And so here’s where Lance 2.0 (or 3.0?) begins. He’s made his pledge, now we’ll find out how real his commitment is, even if it might take 10 years to really know.

♦◊♦

For now, Lance Armstrong is going to be in the courtroom for a very long time. (Or at least his lawyers are.) Once that calms down, we’ll see how serious he is about the task of trying to make it up to the legions of people he let down. After all, actions speak louder than words. And in his defense, the thing he said that was most crushing was not learning he’d lost what might be $75 million in future endorsements from his sponsors, but that his own charity, Livestrong.org, said they no longer wanted any affiliation with him. That, he said, was his lowest moment.

But what seemed like the lowest moment to me as a spectator was when he realized his campaign of lies had duped his own son, Luke, into defending him in public. It seems that, despite the dozens, even hundreds of people who urged Lance to come clean, the only person who was ultimately able to do that was Luke, who had swallowed every lie his father had peddled. And to Lance’s credit, he eventually told him, “Don’t defend me anymore. Don’t.”

In the end, maybe it’s his attempt to win back and earn his son’s respect that we as a society will benefit from most. Because I certainly hope Lance will make good on his commitment to undo his wrongs. As flawed as he is, I actually believe he has laser-accurate moral insight into what is right and wrong. I just think he was able to dismiss it each and every time under the justification that his actions were serving a higher good.

And now that we—and he—know that isn’t true, let’s see what he’s really capable of. Go through the public humiliation, Lance. Go through the trials. Surrender your millions. Give up all the riches you gained through illicit means. Join your fellow disgraced cycling brethren like Tyler and Floyd and lose it all. Then become a phoenix again, like you did after nearly dying from cancer, and rise from the ashes.

But do it with honesty. And humility. And a pure understanding of cause.  And don’t ever think again that you can dodge the truth. As Tyler Hamilton says in his book The Secret Race, “Secrets are poison. They suck the life out of you, they steal your ability to live in the present, they build walls between you and the people you love.”

You’ve opened the door to a possible new future, Lance. But you’ve yet to walk through it, to walk the walk. I, for one, am eager to see you at least try.

AP Photo/Courtesy of Harpo Studios, Inc., George Burns

See Mark’s previous posts on the Lance Armstrong story here and here.

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About Mark Radcliffe

Mark Radcliffe is a writer living in New York City. He has a weakness for bourbon, jazz and girls who can drive stick. You can read more of his essays here: www.theradcliffescrolls.tumblr.com and http://markradcliffe.com.

Comments

  1. How badly has this ruined the reputation of cycling as a professional sport?

  2. I don’t give a crap about the doping, but what I do care about is the money he got from sueing people and companies for liable and slander WHEN HE KNEW THEY DIDN”T LIABLE FOR SLANDER HIM.

  3. Mark Radcliffe says:

    @Archy: eh, it’s been troubled for a while now. Cyclists have been getting busted for the last 13 yrs. Sure, Lance’s confessions make it decidedly worse, but most people in the know realize that cycling’s been dirty as hell for probably 100 years now. It’s cleaner now, for sure, as the average speed of the winner has come down over 2km/ hour since Lance’s victories, which is about 4%, or equal to the advantage EPO/ Blood doping & testosterone give you.

    @Aspire: yes, most of us sort of chalk the cheating up to “what everyone in the peloton was doing then,” but of course, the damage he did to the whisleblowers was unconscionable. He’ll have to really “make good” to all of them if he wants any shot at redemption.

  4. Mark Radcliffe says:

    Interesting piece on Salon today about how we’re all somewhat complicit in his duplicitous rise for eagerly drinking his Kool-Aid:

    http://www.salon.com/2013/01/21/how_we_enabled_lance/

    Key line: “…for us, it was not enough for him to survive (cancer), not enough for him to get back on the bike, it had to be about always winning, about being the best. So he took the illegal substances he took and we complicitly looked the other way and sent in money so we could have our Livestrong bracelet.”

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