The dark and closely guarded secrets of the heroic rise of Lance Armstrong have been on display for months now. In October, the U.S. Anti-Doping Administration (USADA) delivered its 1000-page report presenting evidence that Armstrong not only used performance-enhancing drugs (PED), but was also at the center of “the most sophisticated, professionalized and successful doping program that sport has ever seen.” Now, Armstrong has apparently admitted to using PEDs on his way to seven consecutive Tour de France victories and a bronze medal in the 2000 Sydney Olympics.
The timing and urgency of Armstrong’s admission is understandable. USADA has banned him permanently from competing in any of their sanctioned events, including the Ironman Triathlon series, which Armstrong had targeted as the focus of his post-cycling athletic career. By coming clean, the 41 year-old Armstrong is likely hoping to minimize the length of the USADA’s ban.
The nature of Armstrong’s admission is, however, jarring. On Monday, he taped an interview with Oprah Winfrey, who subsequently announced on Tuesday’s CBS This Morning show that he had in fact come clean, but “did not come clean in the manner that [she] expected.”
So, how do we make sense of Armstrong’s latest publicity stunt?
First, Armstrong, who by most accounts is not a religious person, may be seeking forgiveness from the priestess of pop culture. This strategy may in turn help drive more favorable public sentiment and help repair some of the damage done to his cancer foundation’s brand, which carries his namesake: Livestrong.
Second, the surprising “manner” of his Oprah confession may allude to the legal ramifications of a full admission of PED use. Former United States Postal Service (USPS) teammate, Floyd Landis, has filed a lawsuit against Armstrong, which contends that the former cycling champion defrauded USPS by falsely denying PED use and violating the terms of the team’s contract with the federal agency. Under the False Claims Act, Landis stands to gain a sizable portion of any money the federal government reclaims from Armstrong.
It is hard to imagine that Armstrong will admit to using all the banned substances he allegedly used, mainly due to the sheer length of the list: testosterone, human growth hormone (HGH), cortisone, erythropoietin (EPO), human chorionic gonadotropin (HCG), and various masking agents. Moreover, as PED testing methods evolved, the sophistication of the doping conspiracy grew exponentially. Armstrong apparently hired a medical staff, led by the notorious Italian physician Michele Ferrari, to extract blood from several USPS team members, which was later re-infused to riders during the Tour de France and other major races to provide a boost, a practice known as “blood doping.” The conspiracy is also marked by cover-up scandals, most notably in 2001 when the International Cycling Union (UCI) turned a blind eye to an Armstrong urine sample that tested positive for EPO, the endurance-enhancing PED. Armstrong subsequently donated in excess of $100,000 to the UCI and its anti-doping efforts.
Third, the Oprah interview will likely provide Armstrong an opportunity to give context to his decision to use PEDs. In two recently published books, Irish journalist David Walsh and former Armstrong teammate Tyler Hamilton provide particularly poignant anecdotes regarding the pressures to use PEDs in professional cycling. In the Seven Deadly Sins, Walsh highlights a race in 1994 when an up-and-coming, pre-cancer Armstrong and his Motorola team were soundly beaten by a team of known dopers. Following that race, Armstrong became convinced that he needed to use PEDs to succeed in his sport. Having narrowly escaped death and with seemingly few alternate career options, we can imagine an Armstrong even more determined to win at all costs post-cancer. Furthermore, as Hamilton’s account in The Secret Race suggests, PED use was so ubiquitous amongst top riders that it was considered standard practice for anyone who wanted to contend in the Tour de France.
What remains to be seen when the Oprah interview airs on Thursday night is how Armstrong will address accounts that he bullied teammates into using PEDs and damaged the careers of those who wanted to go public with the truth, many of whom were close friends or colleagues.
Now, with nearly full knowledge of the Armstrong era, what punishment fits those crimes?