My first nine years at the Los Angeles Times were spent covering hard news. The 1990s were incredible years to be a news reporter in Southern California: wildfires, earthquakes (Thursday marked the 19th anniversary of the devastating Northridge quake), riots, the Menendez brothers and, of course, the O.J. Simpson matter.
When I moved over to the sports section in 1998, and almost immediately started covering the Olympic movement, a friend at the New York Times told me, referring to the athletes I was now covering, “You know, they’re all doping.”
That initially seemed — implausible.
I learned quickly.
Indeed, and to be fair, not all of them were doping.
Then I met, for instance, Marion Jones.
And then others. Along the way, I covered the BALCO affair.
In 2005, and Lance Armstrong knows this, because I have told him about it, I took my wife and three children to Paris to watch him cross the finish line on the Champs Élysées, a winner of the Tour de France for a record seventh time.
You might want to remember this, kids, I told them then. For a lot of reasons.
Did I know that day in Paris that Armstrong was a cheater? After everything I had learned by then, it was patently obvious it would be inordinately difficult to win the Tour — especially the years Armstrong was riding — without performance-enhancing drugs, in particular the blood-booster EPO.
But where was the proof?
The proof came the next year, in the form of tests, testimony and other documents that emerged in the course of litigation over a bonus Armstrong claimed for the 2004 Tour from a Texas company, SCA Promotions, Inc. In the course of my reporting, it became clear what was what. Even so, the case had been settled, with SCA agreeing to pay millions of dollars.
The Times printed what it could.
In our house, the truth of the matter was understood.
As was this: truth always emerges with time.
Everyone who ever watched Lance Armstrong ride the bike took a hesitant step toward the truth Thursday with the first of his two-part interview with Oprah Winfrey. Part two airs Friday.
To be clear, the 90-minute Oprah show Thursday is nowhere near a full and complete accounting of the record. Armstrong did not, for instance, address what really happened in a hospital room in Indianapolis in October, 1996 — when Betsy Andreu, the wife of a teammate, says he admitted illicit drug use.
Though he admitted in Thursday’s show to doping through his Tour wins, Armstrong did not name names. One can only imagine the advice his lawyers — understandably viewing the possibility of millions of dollars of civil liability, not to mention the possibility of criminal exposure — gave him before he went on-camera.
Of all the things that were so striking — and different people will of course see things differently — it wasn’t just Armstrong’s affect, which often came off in this first part of the interview as flat, or that he acknowledged the way he so readily bullied so many people, Betsy Andreu and others.
It was the matter-of-factness about the doping.
It was, he said, like air in the tires or water in the bottles.
Moreover, he said, he didn’t consider doping cheating — even though he also did acknowledge that the oxygen-boosting drugs he was taking were, in his words, “incredibly beneficial.”
Further, he never really worried about getting caught. Even though he was, in 1999, for instance, with a corticosteroid positive — which got explained away.
He said he viewed doping as leveling the playing field.
He said he looked up what it meant to “cheat,” and it said “to gain an advantage on a rival or a foe,” adding in an implication that his significant rivals in the field were doping as well, ” I didn’t do that.”
Cheating means breaking the rules.
It’s also absurd to assert that a race among dopers is a level playing field. As another of Armstrong’s former teammates, Jonathan Vaughters, has explained, there are three reasons why:
One — Athlete A might get a bigger boost than Athlete B from using the same doping technique. Two — Athlete A might physiologically adapt better to a particular drug than Athlete B. Three — athletes with greater resources are typically going to have access to better doctors, better coaches and better drugs.
At the time he was cheating, Armstrong said, he didn’t feel bad about cheating at all. Not in the least.
Let’s be candid. The primary reason Armstrong is talking now is because he wants to compete in triathlons, and he can’t because he has a life ban hanging over him because he got caught.
Why did he get caught? Because the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency pursued the truth when others — including the U.S. Attorney’s office in Los Angeles — would not. Why that office last year mysteriously dropped an inquiry into Armstrong’s conduct remains an open question.
If Armstrong’s comments to Winfrey awaken the rest of America — and, indeed, the world — to the culture of doping that has beset not just cycling but track and field as well as baseball and other sports for far too many years, then it will have done good.
A culture that considers doping like air in the tires or water in the bottles is insidious, and must change — or be changed by others who understand better not just what is right but what is good about sports.
As far as Lance himself — he knows already that this public-relations ploy isn’t going to get him where he wants to go. But as he explained on-air, he has thrived on control, and this is a way for him to test what it’s like to tell the truth.
To see the tape of himself on the podium in 2005, to relive that day in Paris, when he was given the microphone and said, “I’m sorry you can’t dream big and I’m sorry you don’t believe in miracles” — it’s all so awkward now, even ugly, perhaps for him as well, because as he told Oprah, “Watching that — that’s a mistake.”
But this is the crux of it:
What was the real mistake?
Or — getting caught?
“Tonight,” the chief executive of USADA, Travis Tygart, said in a statement issued after the television show aired, “Lance Armstrong finally acknowledged that his cycling career was built on a powerful combination of doping and deceit.
“His admission that he doped throughout his career is a small step in the right direction. But if he is sincere in his desire to correct his past mistakes, he will testify under oath about the full extent of his doping activities.”