Lance Armstrong owes so many apologies, he could be paying off the debt longer than he ruled the sport of cycling. They’ll need to be delivered individually to all of the people he tried to silence -- former teammates, competitors and friends who had to endure the ruthless tactics of a gangster in yellow polyester.
But there is one apology that Armstrong shouldn’t bother uttering. He cannot say he’s sorry for using performance-enhancing drugs. If he wants to confess, as reported on Friday by The New York Times, he has to leave it at that. The trained-seal routine for celebrities caught in a scandal won’t work here.
He doesn’t want forgiveness for his pharmaceutical adventures.
He wants his old life back. He wants to compete in sanctioned triathlons. He wants to return to the leadership of his cancer foundation. He wants to matter again.
Did you see the photo he sent out via Twitter in November, of himself lying on a huge sofa at home, surveying his seven framed Tour de France jerseys? This was not a prelude to contrition. It was a raised middle finger.
Less than three months earlier, Armstrong had promised that he wouldn’t respond to the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency and its 1,000-plus pages of evidence. He said he didn’t want to dignify the agency or its recommendation of a lifetime ban. No one who knew him expected that vow to last long. The guy who mocked teammates for not passing up a cookie has a different kind of weakness. He can’t live without an audience.
A confession would bring everyone back to Channel Lance. They’d come for old times’ sake, for schadenfreude, for another moon landing. Wrong Armstrong? Not exactly. This moment would be otherworldly and gravity-defying.
We’d all want to hear what Armstrong had to say, because we never thought he would reach this point. No athlete fought half so hard to cover up the truth about his chemical augmentation, or had so many accomplices in the media. His back story inspired countless journalists to look the other way, to practice professional negligence.
Who knew the side effects of surviving cancer included other people’s apathy?
Given the choice between hearing a rote apology from Armstrong or an argument in favor of unchecked doping in sports, I’d prefer the latter. I wouldn’t agree, but I’d appreciate the audacity and originality.
In his book, Jose Canseco sneered at PED prohibition, saying that chemical augmentation should be allowed. But when he testified under oath in front of Congress, the brashness vanished. He acted like a Boy Scout working toward his anti-doping merit badge.
So we’re still looking for that steadfast pioneer, an exceptional athlete vouching for these drugs and campaigning for them to take their rightful place alongside ace bandages and ice packs.
Remorse? We’ve seen that before, packaged in ways Armstrong can’t hope to deliver. He does not regret anything but getting caught and losing the admiration of the people he set out to fool.
He cannot claim that he merely adhered to the culture of his sport. He bulked up its cynicism.
Armstrong set out to dope bigger and better than anyone else, and expected teammates to do the same. He looked for any edge he could find and buy.
The USADA report documented payments of at least a million dollars to Michele Ferrari, the Italian doctor who once flippantly compared using blood-doping agents like EPO to drinking orange juice. Only in excess, he said, would either be dangerous. (Well, then, it’s a good thing that elite athletes never do anything to excess.)
The one hint of restraint came in the USADA affidavit of George Hincapie, who said that Armstrong stopped using human growth hormone after he had cancer. Hincapie also testified that Armstrong had used HGH before the cancer appeared.
If this is true, does Armstrong believe that growth hormone contributed to his cancer? And how did it threaten him, post-cancer, more than the other drugs the USADA report accuses him of using?
That’s valuable information, something that would make a thorough confession more than a piece of theater. If this substance scared off Armstrong, average middle-aged folks trolling online for some youth-restoring HGH might want to reconsider.
Even more interesting: How did he beat all those drug tests? Who helped him? Were bribes involved?
Willie Sutton got out of prison and consulted with banks on how to avoid robberies. It could be Armstrong’s destiny to bring real meaning, at last, to athletic urine samples.
He can save the apologies for Greg LeMond, Christophe Bassons and Filippo Simeoni (cyclists he bullied for telling the truth); Emma O’Reilly (his former masseuse, whom he viciously maligned for speaking up); reform-minded team doctor Prentice Steffen; USADA chief Travis Tygart; truthful ex-teammates Jonathan Vaughters, Floyd Landis, Dave Zabriskie, Tyler Hamilton and Frankie Andreu, and Andreu's intrepid wife, Betsy …
None of his amends is likely to find a warm reception.
“Forgiveness is a process. Acts mean more than words,’’ Betsy Andreu said by email. “... If Lance is really sorry, let him pay Christophe Bassons the millions he lost from Lance derailing his career. Let him pay Greg back for having helped destroy his bike company.’’
Without that, the apologies will sound obligatory. But that’s precisely the point. Sincere or not, they are an obligation.
He ruined or tried to ruin most of these people. Unlike the doping, the attacks weren’t essential to keeping him on top. The public wanted to believe him. The media wanted to defend him. He just couldn’t help himself. That part of his nature separates him from all the other athletes accused of doping.
Barry Bonds was a difficult personality, but he never threatened teammates or journalists to keep his secrets. He pretty much kept his eye on the ball. Even Bonds, as disliked as he is outside Northern California, could probably pull off a public apology about doping. He might have done it already, if confessing wouldn’t cement the obstruction-of-justice conviction he hopes to overturn.
If Armstrong wants an example of real remorse, he should read up on track champion Kelli White. When she accepted a USADA ban and then publicly confessed to doping, White told reporters to go look at the pictures of her after she won the 200 meters at the world championships a year earlier. She didn’t celebrate. She looked glum and lost.
Even then, White said, when the drugs took her to the height of her sport, they also brought her shame. She didn’t feel like herself anymore. She’d had to lie to people she loved about why her voice had turned husky.
That’s how real regret about doping sounds. Very few athletes, when caught, reach that level. Most of them still earn compassion from the public, respect for finally owning up. Armstrong lied more ardently than any of them, to people who more profoundly needed to believe him. He has no shame, not yet. He shouldn't bother pretending he does.