It is not overstatement to say that Lance Armstrong's careening fall from grace has no rival in recent American history. Perhaps only Richard Nixon earns equal status of disgrace.
This summer, with news of the full USADA (U.S. Anti-Doping Association) report alleging of Lance's doping throughout his spectacular Tour de France career, I was still standing behind the athlete. Even when Lance, known as a fighter extraordinaire, announced he would no longer do battle with USADA and dropped his long-term legal defense of all the doping charges, I was somehow still imbibing the Lance Kool-Aid.
I spent five years investigating and reporting doping in sports, from 1997 to 2002, which covered the lion's share of Lance's victories down the famed Champs d'Elysees.
Two French cyclists, who rode at that time for non-French teams, agreed to be interviewed on camera if their names, nor faces nor voices were revealed. I must say they were darn convincing in their analysis of the widespread and exceptionally progressive science of doping in the world of professional cycling. Their attitude... and they stressed that this was the given thinking throughout the culture of the sport... was that some men in blue suits in Lausanne (home of the International Olympic Committee) issue from their glass offices the rules of sport and have no clue as to how sophisticated the evolution of chemistry had become at that point. They stressed that it would be a joke, an untenable reality, for these cyclists to climb these grades, to average time trial speeds of some 35mph, and perform their seemingly superhuman endurance feats without chemical help.
(Sounds reminiscent of NFL players back in the day when their steroid scandal hit its peak, pointed out that the public goes wild for these bionic bodies but then is crushed to learn that those supermen were built by better chemistry.)
Drugs in endurance cycling were hardly a phenomenon new to the sport during Lance Armstrong's era. We can trace the sport way back to the 1880's when the Europeans then used amphetamines to pump up and down the Alps. There were athletes tested dirty, and plenty of innuendo of others riding dirty, over virtually all the decades pre-Lance. But it was the end of the 1990's and into the first half of this century that the newest menu of chemicals to boost oxygen uptake came onto the scene. EPO (erythropoietin) and Human Growth Hormone, as well as blood transfusions were the Lance-era menu, all difficult to detect and all effective in encouraging red blood cell production, meaning more oxygen-rich blood.
When you picture steroids making higher muscle-to-fat ratio, then you can understand how any athlete needing brute strength would be better, built by steroids. (Let's not even get into long-term health here... a whole different ball game.) Legend has it that a San Diego Charger lineman of the '50's was getting crushed by his counterpart. He got to the sidelines and said to the line coach: "Whatever that guy's on? That's what I want." And that started the era of the Chargers providing a little blue pill at the training breakfast table. That pill was in fact Dianabol, the steroid du jour.
A baseball home run hitter can't pick his pitches, make his swing smoother, create eye-hand timing through steroids. You are not making a talented athlete out of drugs. But the extra 40 pounds of muscle that almost magically swelled Mark McGwire's body surely did mean an extra 30, 40, 50 feet of home run distance.
Well, it's the same analogy with cycling. Lance Armstrong was no doubt a freak of nature, an anomaly of endurance talent. He tested off the charts in every category. Years before he won those Maillots Jaunes in Paris, years before he beat cancer, he was a clearly superlative mountain biker and athlete.
EPO and the endurance drugs don't make a mediocre athlete into a world-class athlete. But they do help an athlete recuperate from grueling workouts, able to charge into a series of climbs or sprints day after day, instead of needing recovery days.
For me, right or wrong, I've been somewhat open to the endurance lean toward experimenting with chemically "improving" their bodies.
After all, we live in a modern tech world where even genetic engineering a body toward better athletic performance is not so very far away.
We the public use coffee and protein powders and all manner of chemicals as we seek better performance in our everyday lives. So who are we to say that an athlete shouldn't be hip to sophisticated methods of boosting his natural potential to 100%?
OK, I'm blatantly omitting the level playing field here. Yes, there is the point that the rules of sport just aren't in sync with chemical betterment. I'm just saying that when I heard of the USADA report this summer, at first blush, my memory of Lance Armstrong winning those seven yellow jerseys was not tarnished.
I wasn't, frankly, terribly surprised that he might have doped. It's been the way of the sport for many decades. Only the menu of drugs and the methods of masking for testing having evolved.
Many dug down when the USADA report came out to find that it would be a futile exercise to now give those jerseys to the riders who finished behind Lance. Turns out all of them, every single one, doped right alongside him.
Until the last couple of weeks, I have stuck with the loyal crowd, those that either don't believe he ever took drugs or don't care that he did because the entire sport was up to their eyeballs in EPO.
But the new information is just too much. We are now reading allegations that the great champion pushed his teammates into the drug circle. He threatened and bullied and bribed many of them to both join the drug cult and then to keep quiet about their injections and transfusions. He was not only the talent of his Tour de France era. Lance was the ringleader of doping during his era, according to the latest report.
I personally hope the Lance Armstrong Foundation continues its success. Nobody can ever take from Lance the years of dedication that he has given toward raising nearly half-a-billion dollars for cancer treatment and research. Nobody can take from Lance his survival of multiple cancers and the fact that millions of people dealing with cancer have turned to him as an unparalleled "living out loud" success story.
What can be taken from Lance are his Tour de France victories, his Olympic medal, his entire athletic career and reputation, his bevy of sponsorships, his right to compete in sanctioned athletic events.
Now that all those devastating knocks have already occurred, do you think he's ever going to stand up and tell us all how it happened, why it happened?
Is Lance Armstrong ever going to find a drop of humility within himself? Is he going to speak the truth? Is he going to paint a picture of what his life was like, giving those of us who believed in him the respect of at least trying to muster some understanding of what brought him, post-cancer, to those EPO decisions?
I, for one, would without a doubt wind up in a better Lance Armstrong place... as witness to a sincere, full disclosure from him... than I am at this moment of profound disillusionment.