Open Mic

Why Lance Armstrong Needs Oprah Winfrey in the Worst Possible Way

Chuck Ross Posted October 11, 2012 at 9:08 AM

When I was a teenager growing up in a middle class neighborhood here in Los Angeles in the mid-‘60s, it occurred to me that you lived in either a Newsweek house or a Time house.

The parents of my friends who lived in the houses that got Time magazine were more conservative, more traditional, more staid.

The parents of those of us who lived in the homes that subscribed to Newsweek were more liberal, more open to non-traditional ways of looking at things, and just plain cooler.

And I don’t recall any house subscribing to both magazines. And it really did seem to me that the characteristics I have ascribed to the parents of my friends living in the Time or Newsweek houses clearly fit the differences in the look and demeanor of both magazines.

My teenage preference for Newsweek over Time has been with me my entire life.

Or, I should say, at least until the Sept. 3 issue.

That’s when Newsweek ran a big picture of Lance Armstrong in full cycling regalia on its cover, with this cutline: “I Still Believe in Lance Armstrong, by Buzz Bissinger.”

Thumbnail image for newsweekcoverarmstrong.jpg

The cover coincided with Armstrong’s decision to not fight allegations by the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency that Armstrong took banned substances when he was winning his seven Tour de France bicycling championships, and was going to be stripped of the championships.

Furthermore, the article was written by Buzz Bissinger, a Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative journalist whose journalism I highly admired. Not only that, but Bissinger is also the author of “Friday Night Lights.” I haven’t read the book, but I loved the TV show it spawned.

Talk about cognitive dissonance. Loved Newsweek and Bissinger. Armstrong? Hmm, not so much. I was trying as hard as I could to keep an open mind about the doping charges, but as the years have gone by the evidence was mounting. Against Armstrong.

In his Newsweek cover story, Bissinger concluded that Armstrong was still a hero. Really? Bissinger said the doping agency clearly had a vendetta against Armstrong.

Bissinger also wrote: “Did he use enhancers? Maybe I am the one who is blind, but I take him at his word and don’t believe it; he still passed hundreds of drug tests, many of them given randomly. But even if he did take enhancers, so what?

“Professional cycling is a rotten sport like all professional sports are rotten (anybody who believes otherwise is a Pollyanna fool). It’s ‘not about the bike,’ as the title of Armstrong’s bestselling biography states. It’s about winning by any means possible and then hoping to figure out a medical way of covering it up. Doping has been a rite of passage in the Tour de France. According to The New York Times, at least a third of the top 10 finishers (Armstrong included) have either officially admitted to using performance enhancers or been officially suspected of doping.

“Need we say more?

“If Armstrong used banned substances, he was leveling the playing field. He was still the one who overcame all odds.”

It’s not an argument I find compelling.

Yesterday, on Wednesday, Oct. 10, 2012, the doping agency made the details of its case against Armstrong public.

The New York Times’ main story about the case published yesterday carried the headline “Armstrong Was Central Figure in Doping Ring, Officials Say,” and the piece is devastatingly brutal.

A few excerpts from The Times’ article: While winning his Tour de France championships “Armstrong was a hero on two wheels, a cancer survivor who was making his mark as perhaps the most dominant cyclist in history. But the evidence put forth by the antidoping agency drew a picture of Armstrong as an infamous cheat, a defiant liar and a bully who pushed others to cheat with him so he could succeed, or be vanquished.”

And: “‘The U.S. [Postal Service] Team doping conspiracy was professionally designed to groom and pressure athletes to use dangerous drugs, to evade detection, to ensure its secrecy and ultimately gain an unfair competitive advantage through superior doping practices,’ the agency said. ‘A program organized by individuals who thought they were above the rules and who still play a major and active role in sport today.’ Armstrong has repeatedly denied doping. On Wednesday, his spokesman said Armstrong had no comment.”

We are left with detailed allegations to which Armstrong said this past summer he would not respond.

So what is one to believe?

It seems to me that we need to give the most credibility to what George Hincapie has to say. Hincapie was a teammate of Armstrong’s during all of his Tour de France championships. Armstrong has dedicated two books to Hincapie, praising him for his friendship and loyalty. And, like Armstrong, Hincapie never tested positive for drugs.

And now Hincapie, in a sworn affidavit he gave the doping agency, has implicated both himself and Armstrong in the doping scandal, saying they both ingested banned substances.

According to an article, also published yesterday, in USA Today, “While Armstrong has attacked past teammates who went public with their tales of doping, the admission by Hincapie, one of his closest friends in cycling, is harder to overcome. Hincapie said the whole scandal was a product of the times: He, Armstrong and their teammates raced in an era when cycling was inundated with performance-enhancing drugs.

"‘The doping controls were not very good, and we came to believe that we needed to use banned substances to compete at the very highest levels,’ [Hincapie] stated. ‘While I understand that the choices we made were wrong, I understand why we made them and why, at the time, we felt justified in making them. I do not condemn Lance for making these choices, and I do not wish to be condemned for the choices I made.’“

The USA Today piece adds, “Hincapie said he was aware Armstrong used blood doping in every Tour de France from 2001 to 2005. Before the 2005 Tour de France, Hincapie said, Armstrong ‘gave me two vials of EPO while we were both in Nice, France.’“

EPO is used as a performance-enhancing drug.

Bissinger and Hincapie are both wrong when they say that it was OK for Armstrong to take drugs because he was just leveling the playing field.

There’s a terrific bit of dialogue in the classic movie “The Third Man” wherein Orson Wells, whose character has done some terrible things, tries to justify his behavior. He says:

After all, it's not that awful. Remember what the fellow said: In Italy, for thirty years under the Borgias, they had warfare, terror, murder, bloodshed, but they produced Michaelangelo, Leonardo Da Vinci, and the Renaissance. ... In Switzerland, they had brotherly love. They had five hundred years of democracy and peace, and what did that produce? ... The cuckoo clock.

The argument for Armstrong is that as a cyclist he was just doing what everyone else was doing, and OK, maybe that was wrong, but my God, man, look at all that he’s accomplished since then with his foundation and the inspiration he’s been.

And there is no doubt that a lot of cyclists who competed against Armstrong in the Tour de France were also doping.

But not everyone was cheating. What we’ll never know is what greatness might have been achieved by one of those non-cheaters if all of those who had been doping were caught. A non-cheating victor, with all the publicity he received, might have started his own foundation and done even more wonderful things than Armstrong’s foundation has achieved.

What I also know is that Americans, as a group, are a most forgiving people. But in order to grant redemption, we want and need the Oprah/Walters moment. The moment the person confesses his or her past sins. Tears are shed, healing is begun, and our fallen heroes and heroines are reborn. It’s redemption and it’s the American way.

Lance, think about it. Oprah is waiting for you to call.#