Here is the piece I wrote for The Times on Lance Armstrong yesterday. It was thanks to them that I got to know the Texan cyclist, and this is my reflection on him now, following his decision not to contest further the doping allegations made against him.
‘Losing and dying. It’s the same thing’ — Lance Armstrong, 2004. It was my favourite quote, in my favourite interview, in a series on great sportsmen and women that I did for The Times shortly after leaving Downing Street. The paper must have liked it, too, as they put it all over the front of the sports section. Lance liked it as well and he agreed to a second interview, for Channel 5, a few months later.
What I discovered from the response to the article — as if I didn’t already know it — is what a divisive figure he is. To some, the greatest cyclist of all time. Fact. To others, a drug cheat and a charlatan. Fact.
During the Times interview, at the four-bedroomed apartment in northern Spain he was sharing with the singer Sheryl Crow, he saved some of his most venomous language for David Walsh, a journalist with The Sunday Times who had written a book and many articles which sided strongly with the drug cheat/charlatan side of the argument. When I subsequently met Mr Walsh, he said he couldn’t believe that I had “fallen for the myth and the lies and the bullshit” in penning such a favourable piece, and making such a favourable documentary. Today, Mr Walsh denies feeling a sense of vindication, but he and other Armstrong critics will be equating the decision “not to contest” the allegations of the US Anti-Doping Agency as tantamount to a guilty plea.
Did I like Armstrong when I met him? Yes, I did. Was I impressed by his strength of his character, his humour and intelligence? Yes, I was. Was I chuffed that he gave me one of his Tour-winning shoes to raise funds for Leukaemia and Lymphoma Research? Certainly. Was I inclined to believe the passionate denials that he made for the nth time when I asked him about the swirl of allegations that have surrounded him for years? Yes, I was. Was that possibly because a part of me wanted the denials to be true; because I wanted to believe the legend of a man who could come back from cancer to become the seven-times winner of the toughest sporting event in the calendar? I am sure that it was.
So when he spoke of what it was like being him, subject to blood and urine testing at any time, any place; the sense he had that the French just could not stand having an American — and a cocky one at that — dominating their most treasured sports event, I tended more to the “greatest athlete of all time” side of the debate. His oft-made statement that he was the most drug-tested sportsman on the planet, and had never been tested positive, had a certain persuasion to it.
He focused on the Tour, he trained harder, he worked harder, he could endure more pain — that was what made him the best, he insisted. It was as simple as that. “This hot button on drugs will always be there,” he said. “The next thing will be genetic doping. I’m not the first and I won’t be the last (to be accused of doping) but I know the truth and that’s what matters to me. People want to know that the guy who worked the hardest and fought the hardest and got the best coaches and the best team-mates won fair and square. That’s what I’ve been doing.”
That sentiment was part of the backdrop to the statement he made yesterday, which has written the latest dramatic chapter in this seemingly never-ending saga. What comes over is the sense that he is being persecuted and so he is throwing in the towel.
This time, however, it is not the French out to get him, but the Americans. And it is not a new piece of evidence that has emerged as the final straw, but the sense that he has just had enough of it all.
But he knows enough about the way people — and the media — think and act to know that his statement will fuel the sense that he has given up the fight because the circumstantial evidence has grown to the point where he fears he cannot win, or that too much that is currently private will have to be aired in public. Team-mates who have defended him in the past have turned. Whether that has turned him to the position he now adopts, I don’t know. But what I do know is that the statement he made, and his decision never to speak about the doping allegations again, do not fit with the mindset revealed in the quote with which I opened this piece.
At the time, his greatest challenger was Jan Ullrich. Armstrong admitted that the big German kept him awake at night. I asked him what was the bigger fear: that he might die, on being told he had testicular cancer, or that Ullrich might beat him?
And that was when he gave me what I call the Roy Keane death stare, and said those remarkable words: “losing and dying. It’s the same thing.” I asked if he really meant that. He said he did, and I think I believed him. I have quoted it many times since, not least in political campaigns, as the ultimate in a winning mindset.
The reaction on social networks following the latest development underlined his divisiveness. To critics and detractors, this is “the proof”, a tactical retreat which reveals a hidden guilt. To supporters, this is the culmination of a witchhunt against not just a great cyclist, but a tireless campaigner who has helped to raise half a billion dollars for the fight against cancer.
I still want to believe, as his achievements on and off the bike are so remarkable. But yesterday made it harder. The US doping authorities say they alone have the power to strip him of his titles even though, so far, in France, where I am writing this, the Tour authorities have said little. If he leaves it at this, then though he has fought for years to defend his integrity and spent so much time, energy and money fending off accusations, he will no longer be able to say he fought to the end. As though his life depended on it.