Let's Talk About Lance: Honestly

It’s 11:30pm on a Sunday evening and Manflu is invading my brain at a ridiculous rate of knots. With a head full of alien mucous and an inability to sleep I find myself watching the increasingly mundane repetitions of BBC news 24. I am dissmayed to find that its sleep enhancing repetition is about to be broken by Dan Roan’s full length interview with Lance Armstrong.

In the preceding week I’d already watched this interview, or at least, extracts of this interview, dozens of times. Our Twitter timeline had been bombarded with all kinds of opinion on the aforementioned interview and its subject and I had repeatedly been asked to share my opinions. 

I had resisted sharing any reflections on the subject largely because I  felt sure I had very little to add to what is all too frequently a fairly life draining conversation. 

The facts appear clear. Between 1990 and 2005 Lance Armstrong cheated on an industrial scale, he bullied those who questioned his success and he sacrificed those close to him in the most brutal of fashions. No one, including Armstrong, debates any of the above. But that’s not what made the headlines. Instead what made the headlines (both cycling and non cycling press) was Armstrong’s response to the question, “Would you do it again?” to which he replied “Yes” followed by a well rehearsed appeal to the importance of context and timing. Armstrong stated that he would not cheat now because it is not necessary to cheat now but that when he cheated every member of every successful peloton was playing the same game.  

In truth I find Lance’s interview difficult to watch. Why? Partly because the facts are now so well rehearsed, so uncontested and so depressing but also because Armstrong appears to have developed a much more naunced and demanding way of thinking into which he invites every listener. 

Take persons found of wrong doing in any public office and some will confess while others persist in denial; rarely however have I heard anyone  state, 

“I would want to change the man who did those things”

In order to understand the behavioral outcomes we call ‘doping’ Armstrong has to look back and see beyond the athlete, beyond the success story, beyond the cancer beater and into the very soul of the man.  It appears that what he saw was less than pleasant but heck HE LOOKED and that is a road much less travelled!  

What I find so difficult in Armstrong’s interview(s) is that having spent years perfecting the art of deceit he is now inviting a whole new kind of honesty; an honesty which does not simply acknowledge the wrong actions of a now historical figure but which rigorously engages the personhood responsible for those actions as he lives in the present. To be capable of such thinking Armstrong appears to have gotten to a place where he ‘doesn’t care what anyone else thinks’ and for once that’s a constructive place to be. 

To understand why that is so important let’s imagine Lance had answered “No”. 

“No I would not do it again” is undoubtedly the easy answer we all wanted to hear. Surely that is the rightful voice of remorse. 

However I find myself asking how could Armstrong possibly know enough for such a statement to be in any way meaningful? If he wouldn't why did he? 

    Armstrong's Livestrong Foundation

   Armstrong's Livestrong Foundation

“No” is an answer which makes the preceding question completely meaningless and maybe that’s why we like it, because it would have offered another tidy ingredient to the constant yearning for easy moral equations of right and wrong.  What Armstrong understand to be interesting is not the 'yes' or 'no' but the 'you'. Behaviour is not an equation or act it is a person.

Instead Armostrong is interested in knowing Armstrong more clearly and that means messy, confused, conflicting realities because that’s the nature of personhood. Some say this articulation just demonstrates Armstrong is fundamentally a sociopath, to my mind that just proves how lazy we have become in our listening to others. 

“For fifteen years I was a complete asshole. . . . I’m going to try and make it right with those people.” 

Armstrong is not interested in not doping, that is both boring and meaningless, he couldn’t win jack shit even if he did dope. Armstrong is interested in not being the kind of person capable of doping, he is interested in a transformation of character not outcomes and I find that compelling. 

Bouncing back from Cancer Lance Armstrong made an informed and calculated decision that he and his team mates would do anything humanly possible and impossible to achieve unprecedented success and that was the story we all wanted to hear. Armstrong would not only survive but he would demonstrate life lived to the max, and we loved it. The last thing we wanted was an average story of an ordinary recovery and a withdrawal into mediocrity. We bought his book in the millions and we loved the illusion. 

Towards the end of the interview Armstrong drags us yet further into the ever complicated search for honesty acknowledging that how he acted is deeply and humanly influenced by the pressures and expectations of others. Admitting he’s sorry not for what he did but ‘that he was put into that kind of place’ where honesty and integrity felt impossible.  

 Armstrong's first full confession on Oprah

Armstrong's first full confession on Oprah

Whether in terms of his own story Armstrong has a point or not I simply don’t know enough to make that call; but as the Father of an emerging young talent Armstrong reminded me that I must never make my son feel as though success only comes in one particular form. As a human being I must never seek to be accepted so much that who I am is no longer a person I even want to know. 

And so once again I’m left wondering and hoping if, having gone through the illusions of success what emerges before us is a new Armstrong able to acknowledge that such a life has little to do with the stature you hold before others and much to do with the character of your very being, a character defined by what you do for others. What is emerging  is a man reluctant to ask for forgiveness and fully aware that his ‘word does not matter any more’. That is at least very refreshing. 

I know all too well that for the overwhelming majority of readers Lance Armstrong is simply a cheat and a bully. I get that. But if those labels exist as little more than a means of our disengaging with Armstrong’s much deeper questions then I suspect we rob only ourselves.