There are almost endless reasons to dislike Lance Armstrong, the former king of the Tour de France, once the greatest endurance sportsman in the world.
There’s also the manner of Armstrong’s cheating – an elaborate, carefully planned scam – and the damage he did to the reputation and integrity of cycling and the hurt he caused to his friends, family, co-workers and fans.
If that’s not enough, there is the fact that despite having to pay back millions in fines and penalties, he remains by all accounts exceedingly wealthy courtesy of his investments (funded from his cycling pay cheques) in funds that backed the likes of Uber.
Perhaps – most galling for some – is the fact that he appears to have put all the doping and cheating behind him, forgiven himself and moved on with his life. He has embarked on new business ventures and hosts podcasts, like The Move, about the Tour de France. In short he appears pretty content for someone whose fall from grace has in its Icarus-like plummeting – had no equal in the world of sport.
An unexpected reaction
But a strange and unexpected thing happened to me when I listened to an interview Armstrong gave on the popular podcast, Freakonomics Radio: I found myself liking (just a little bit) the Lance Armstrong I heard during the course of his conversation with host Stephen Dubner.
I mentioned this to a friend, who was appalled.
For him there was no forgiveness. In essence, he said repeatedly, I had been duped by Armstrong who according to my friend had fooled me and others with his seemingly sincere words.
But I wasn’t the only one. The podcast host himself, Stephen Dubner (author of the best selling book Freakonomics) had an even stronger positive response that bordered – dare I say it – on admiration for the world’s most famous sports cheat.
Finishing his hour-long interview with Armstrong, Dubner said, without any trace of irony or sarcasm: “Lance Armstrong, you’ve come a long way. It’s impressive.”
I emailed Dubner, told him how similarly I felt and my friend’s angry reaction. He replied:
“Yes, I heard quite a lot of the responses that you described. I tell people that I love living in a world where people are free to rabidly disagree about who/what they like, as long as they can stop short of violence.
No doubt many people (including my friend) “rabidly disagree” with my softened position on the disgraced cyclist.
In many people’s eyes what Lance Armstrong did is unforgivable and some would even go so far as to say he has not been punished enough.
Charismatic, candid and interesting
So what softened my opinion?
Well for one thing I found Armstrong to be a charismatic, candid and interesting interview subject.
I guess I was also charmed by the way he spoke; Armstrong has a propensity to include cycling metaphors into his speech:
“Life adjusts, the burn rate is taken down,” he says referring to the end of his sporting days, and with reference to the cycling union he says “it has no power, no stroke”.
Asked about the infamous Oprah Winfrey interview, Armstrong admits “it did not go well”.
“For cycling fans it was not enough and for the general public, it was too much,” he says quite eloquently.
He also admits that “he sued people and treated them badly” but that he has “travelled the world to sit down with people, to talk and to apologise”.
“I have tried to make amends and move forward,” Armstrong says.
How to fix cycling
I also thought he had a lot of good things to say, like how to fix the sport of professional cycling.
According to Armstrong there needs to be a strong cyclists union so that riders earn a fair cut from television revenues.
I was amazed to learn – I’m assuming its true – that the organiser of the Tour De France, ASO (Amaury Sport Organisation) takes all the television rights revenue that come from the race, sharing nothing with those that compete.
Or to put in Armstrong’s vernacular: “[For riders] it starts with a zero, and ends with a zero.”
Armstrong believes a strong union could push for a fair cut of the Tour’s revenues, starting small and then negotiating a bigger amount over time.
Under the current system, he explained, a cycling team that loses its sponsor has nothing (apart from some bikes, gear and vehicles) at the end of the season, and this “creates the incentive to do what ever you can to succeed”.
But, if everyone is making money off TV revenue – regardless of if they come first or 20th – “then you would think and I truly believe athletes would self-police” Armstrong says.
Throughout the interview it seemed clear to me that Armstrong had changed a lot.
Nothing encapsulated this more than an incident Armstrong recounted to Dubner where he was heckled by former fans. It was in Denver the previous summer and Armstrong was about to catch an Uber taxi to a cycling event.
A guy at the bar got up and in Armstrong’s words: Started yelling “Fuck you” over and over again and would not stop. Soon the whole patio was chanting it and Armstrong was shaking.
“I thought to myself. I am Lance Armstrong. I have to do something,” he tells Dubner.
But rather than storm back into the bar and pick a fight, he phones the restaurant, gives the manager his credit card details and tells him to use it to pay for everyone’s meals and drinks.
It’s the only thing he could think of doing at the time, he says. “I get it,” Armstrong tells Dubner referring to the anger people still feel about him and how he let them down.
It’s anecdotes like this, that paint a picture of a guy who is not all bad.
Dubner also reminds us that for all his faults, Armstrong the cheat is also the guy who encouraged a generation of Americans – a country with a massive obesity problem – to get on a bike and do a bit of exercise.
He was also the guy, who founded the Lance Armstrong Foundation, now called Livestrong, a charity which has raised tens of millions of dollars to support cancer sufferers. Armstrong resigned as chairman in 2012 after the doping scandal, but the charity continues and has helped over 100,000 people battle the disease.
Let’s also not forget Lance Armstrong defied the odds and beat an advanced stage of testicular cancer in a truly inspirational story
The truth is Lance Armstrong is a complex character, with shades of light and dark, good and bad.
Even the great racing commentator Phil Liggett, who knew Armstrong better than many of his fiercest armchair critics, admitted in an interview he gave to Brisbane’s Courier Mail in 2016 that he still had some affection for him:
“…I find it extremely difficult to hate him because of the way I had seen him help cancer victims. And he was still the best rider of his era. I have always said drugs don’t turn a donkey into a thoroughbred.”