Lance Armstrong’s Moving Finish Line

Where were you in 2012 when Lance Armstrong confessed his steroid sins to St. Oprah? […]

Bryan J. / 8.2.18

Where were you in 2012 when Lance Armstrong confessed his steroid sins to St. Oprah? Did you immediately take off your 2004 (!) Livestrong wristband and trash it, or did you simply let it fall behind the bedroom dresser? Was it the talk of your town, or did it just confirm your lack of interest in professional cycling?

It’s been six years since Lance Armstrong was banned from the sport of cycling (and our hearts). Now that a series of lawsuits has been completed and other scandals taken the spotlight, Lance has started to reenter the public square. He’s hosting his own podcast and he’s getting into the cycling commentator business. He’s also beginning to talk openly about his life for the past six years, and wondering aloud what it would take for America to forgive him of his sins.

And a sinner he is, no doubt. He’s started to talk about a number of the practices he went through to keep his steroid use hidden from drug tests. Blood transfusions, backdated prescriptions, carrying out independent tests on his own body to see how big a dose he could take before he hit the allowed drug test limits. It was a massive cover up, and a good one too–a UK newspaper published allegations that Lance had doped in 2004. When Lance sued them for libel, they settled, retracted the article, and apologized.

So when Lance confessed, he was banned from cycling and made public enemy number one. On the most recent Freakonomics podcast, Lance shares what happened as recently as last year as he was leaving a bar in his hometown of Austin, Texas:

And I walk out I’m getting in my Uber and there’s one guy goes, “Hey Lance,” and I fully expected him to go, “What’s up, dude?” and you know, “Right on man, love you,” you know? And I go “Hey what’s up?” He goes “F— you. F— you! F— you!” and he wouldn’t stop. And the next thing you know, the entire patio is screaming “F— you, f— you, f—.” I’ve never had that happen. I was like, “Oh.” I was shaking.

America’s all-star cyclist was finished, and while the rest of America moved on to its next scandal, Lance Armstrong did not have that luxury.

How do you come back from that? It’s a question that drove Lance himself up the wall. It turns out that the course back into public life has a moving finish line. Take this exchange from the same interview:

DUBNER: If you look at the post-career resurgence and public embrace of Alex Rodriguez, here’s a guy who doped at the highest levels and also performed at the highest levels. Do you look at someone like him and wonder why he gets more of a pass than you seem to be? And what are the differences?

ARMSTRONG: The answer is absolutely. But I just want to be really clear that when I ask the question to myself and really, really want an answer, it’s not because I’m jealous or envious. I’ve met Alex many times, he’s been perfectly nice to me and my kids. I wish him the best. The reason I ask is — I just want to know why. Like what, what is the difference? And I actually, this is so funny. It’s f—ing crazy, like you’ve been tapping my phone. Six months ago, I woke up one day, and I was in Austin alone and I woke up and it was on my mind. And I went crazy. I was literally running around the house. And I said, “Okay, I’m going to ask five of the smartest people I know what they think the difference is between Alex Rodriguez and myself.” And the answers were pretty consistent. The one key thing is that Alex Rodriguez was allowed to come back and play. And Alex Rodriguez was part of a team sport. And, thirdly, Alex Rodriguez never stood for anything else other than baseball.

So, I was never allowed to come back to my sport at any level, and most people viewed it as an individual sport. And I stood for much more than just cycling. You want to hear this crazy little side note of that day? I was running — I’m not s—ing you, I was running around the house and it was a Sunday. And I was watching the N.F.L. on Fox, because I love watching football. And the lady says, “And we’d like to introduce our newest cast member on the desk here on N.F.L. Sunday on Fox: Michael Vick.” And man — and then I just lost it. I was like “Okay, you know what, I don’t — f— it. I don’t know what’s going on.”

Michael Vick the dog-fighter is back, A-Rod the doping liar is back, and both of these men did the same thing or worse than Lance Armstrong. And while A-Rod got to earn his way back into Major League Baseball, Lance was never given the chance.

It’s an example of what we at Mockingbird call the “little l laws” of life. While the admonition “do not use steroids” is not explicitly mentioned in the Bible, it is explicitly mentioned in the cycling handbook. More importantly, “thou shalt not use steroids” is codified in the court of public opinion, right next to the commandment “thou certainly shalt not lie about it.” It may not be written down on a stone tablet, but that doesn’t make it less of a standard to live by.

The problem with the law of public opinion is that there is no agreed upon method of justice or atonement for its sins. Lance shared in the interview that he’s traveled the world to make amends with specific people, and that he’s payed out $111 million dollars (!) to compensate spurned sponsors and settle lawsuits. It sounds like a lot, but the wife of one of Lance’s former teammates told the media that she believed Lance “got away with it,” meaning the punishments weren’t harsh enough. Another friend said to Lance that his attempts at atonement had two different audiences. “For the cycling fans it wasn’t enough. For the casual fan it was too much,” reflects Armstrong.

And yet, the “little l” law may not even be a good law. Lance often articulates that he has been singled out for engaging in practices that every single other cycling team used. He’s not wrong to recognize that there are deeper forces signaling him out over the other cyclists of his era. Perhaps there is an unacknowledged projection of our hopes and dreams that Lance didn’t meet. If Lance could could beat cancer and win a national championship seven times, that means there’s hope for us, right? If Lance could do it, that means it’s at least possible.

Again, the finish line keeps moving further out. He wasn’t remorseful enough. The financial punishments weren’t punitive enough. His public apologies aren’t enough. See this artifact of a news article from 2013, published in the wake of the Oprah Interview. It’s a step-by-step breakdown analyzing whether Lance really understood and felt remorse for his actions.

Truthfully, it may be the case that, in 2013, Lance didn’t understand just how bad his decisions were. In fact, Lance articulates that the shoe really dropped in 2016 when one of his former Livestrong staff reached out and shared her experience:

I had a longtime employee at Livestrong finally reach out to me after, oddly enough, she rode the whole wave of this thing and then absolutely hated my guts. Somebody came to her and said, “Let’s listen to his podcast. I don’t know. This guy sounds a little different.” And so she listened to a couple and she started to come around and then she reached out and she said, “Can we go have coffee?” and I said “Absolutely.”

And so she’s walking me through — I asked her about the process of what was happening at Livestrong while all the accusations were there and there was a lot of smoke. And then eventually there was fire. And you know, she walked me through the whole thing, and she said, “You know, at the end of the day we all felt really complicit.”

DUBNER: That must made you feel really good, huh? Now you drag everybody in.

ARMSTRONG: Well, it changed my life.

DUBNER: How so?

ARMSTRONG: Look, “betrayal” is a terrible word. It’s a word that nobody wants, a child to their parent or friend to another friend, a spouse to a spouse, a C.E.O. to — whatever. It’s a very heavy word. Complicit is 100x. For me, I had already started to get my mind and my heart around the fact that people had suffered this tremendous amount of betrayal, and then I was hit with complicit. And it just — it rocked me to the core. But it was, I tell you, it was the greatest — her name is Melissa — it was the greatest gift that anybody has given me the last six years.

If only repentance had a set number of stages and pre-arranged stopping points along the way, where one could complete a course and be done.

One of the great benefits of God’s Law is that it does have a fixed finish line. It’s just that crossing that finish line is harder than winning the Tour de France seven times after cancer–without steroids (zing!): be perfect as your heavenly father is perfect. There are no questions of good enough, no unwritten rule book, no people sitting around discussing your success or failure at the water cooler.

To hear Lance talk about his exile from cycling is to hear a man desperate to atone for his sins, someone who has traded one race for another. Winning seven Tours after cancer may have been pretty easy compared to the challenge of this new race. The confessional of St. Oprah can only go so far.

To my way of thinking, better the race you know you can’t win than the one that says you can but keeps moving the chalk mark. At least in the first instance, victory has substance. It may not be yours or mine to accomplish, but apparently someone did pull it off once. It was so tough, they say the guy was sweating blood.


6 responses to “Lance Armstrong’s Moving Finish Line”

  1. John E. says:

    It appears that the casual, vehement vulgarity and rudeness of the irksome passers-by in Lance’s life are likewise in need of forgiveness as the actions of the sinning cyclist himself.

  2. Sean says:


  3. Charlotte Getz says:

    SO GOOD, BRYAN! What a concluding paragraph.

  4. Hugh says:

    See too the August 5 entry in Tullian Tchividjian’s It Is Finished on Job 33:28!

    I love Paul Kimmage –

  5. Ethan Richardson says:

    Thanks for this Bryan, so well written. It is so true that, as opposed to A-Rod or Vick, Lance’s seemingly unquenchable damnation stems from our collective belief in the myth that he embodied for us. He allowed us a proof that “impossible is nothing.” And so when it suddenly became clear that this storyline was fiction/farce, our rage pointed at him is akin to someone losing their faith…

  6. Tom F says:

    I admit that it’s hard to look favorably on Armstrong, or even in a neutral manner. Yet, it’s hard for me to characterize the feeling as lack of forgiveness, since I didn’t feel personally betrayed or attacked. Neither his sport nor health struggle was especially relevant to me, thus I didn’t view him as a personal role model, champion, etc. Yet, like others, I enjoyed his fall from royalty and I would be dang slow to extend another chance. Thus, I guess I oddly struggle to forgive someone who I didn’t know / trust in. Guilty as charged.

    Perhaps the situation is further clouded by our silly tendency to define (at least partially) forgiveness as the return of positive celebrity status to a former actor, athlete, artist, etc., who should never have ascended to the role of king in our hearts. And it is silly for such celebrity to have ever become accustomed/infatuated to the role of king, to fight desperately to retain the crown and then to cry foul when the crown is not returned. I believe that this tendency partially explains Armstrong’s situation.

    And if the above comments do not make sense, let me further add that it is ‘rightfully’ hard to forgive anyone who goes on Oprah seeking forgiveness!

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