PUBLIC self-flagellation over past wrongdoing is over-rated, but that doesn’t mean that those who repent should get to rewrite history, says Fiona McCade
Between 1999 and 2005, 87 per cent of the top ten finishers in the Tour de France cycle race were either officially confirmed to be, or suspected of, using illegal, performance-enhancing drugs.
That leaves a paltry 13 per cent of world-class road cyclists who were not prepared to break the rules.
I wish I knew some of these good guys’ names, but none of them are nearly as famous as Lance Armstrong.
This is partly because he was the most high-profile of the 87 per cent, but mainly because he got caught.
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A brilliant career was wrecked the day the United States Anti-Doping Agency stripped Armstrong of his record-breaking seven yellow Tour de France jerseys and gave him a permanent ban from participating in any formal sporting events.
Two years ago, after much protest, Armstrong finally admitted his dishonesty, but this week, in a BBC interview, when he was asked if he would repeat the same wrong if given the chance, his answer was surprisingly candid: “If I was racing in 2015, no, I wouldn’t do it again because I don’t think you have to,” he said.
“If you take me back to 1995, when doping was completely pervasive, I would probably do it again.”
Wow. Even if you’re deducting marks for being a cheat, you must give the man a gold star for telling it like it is.
In a world where public apologies and angst-ridden hand-wringing are sure-fire ways to get society’s approval, Lance Armstrong is happy to announce that he did it, and he’d do it again. It was the only way.
Of course, Stalin would probably have said the same thing about his purges. The US Air Force certainly think that dropping atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki fits into this particular “no regrets” category, but it’s certainly not a fashionable stance to take.
Nowadays we like people to learn profound, moral lessons from their sins and be suitably contrite.
For that reason alone, Armstrong’s nerve in sticking to his guilty guns is almost admirable.
There are two main reasons why he wouldn’t change a thing.
First, he feels that the attention the victories of his glory days brought to the sport of cycling, plus the half a billion dollars he raised for cancer charities, are too valuable to swap for a clean slate.
That’s almost altruistic, if you ignore how much money he made out of it personally, but the second reason is less attractive.
He told the BBC: “When I made the decision [to dope], when my team made that decision, when the whole peloton made that decision, it was a bad decision and an imperfect time… but it happened.”
In other words, everybody was doing it. We know he’s right, because we know that 87 per cent of Tour de France cyclists were doing it.
However, he sounds to me like a little boy who went scrumping with his friends, all the others scarpered, and he was the only one still left up the tree when the policeman arrived. He’s not sorry about thieving the apples, but he’s furious about being the main one to get caught.
I respect Armstrong for refusing to indulge in conspicuous self-flagellation to make us all forgive him and love him again.
I can also see, as one of the 87 per cent, how it would grate on him to have become the poster boy for corruption in cycling.
It must be immensely painful and galling to be banned, forever, from participating in any and all forms of organised competitive sport, while others who did exactly the same thing are slapped on the wrist and sent on their way.
These double standards must cut deep, but I can’t let him get away with not taking personal responsibility for his actions.
Even now, after he’s admitted his misdemeanours, he’s still more or less saying: “It wasn’t just me, you know! We were all at it! All’s fair in love, war and cycling!”
Except that you weren’t all at it, Lance – 13 per cent of the world’s top road cyclists most certainly weren’t at it and you can’t be allowed to forget that.
You think you won on a level playing field, because you were the best of a crooked crew, but you’re deliberately forgetting those few who, despite everything, refused to defraud the public and the very sport you claim to hold so dear.
Just because you didn’t mix with these people, just because you wryly told the BBC “I know very few people [in the cycling world] that are left with their integrity” doesn’t mean such people don’t exist.
In the end, you can only ever claim to be the best drug-enhanced cyclist of the era.
Thanks to you and your cheating cohorts, we’ll never know who might have made their mark from the clean team. You took their chance away, so now you’re paying the price.
Armstrong is largely unrepentant because, however painful the process has been for him, he still believes that the end has justified the means.
Beneath his blistering honesty hides a Machiavellian acknowledgement that the benefits of his past dishonesty are continuing to outweigh the negatives of his current situation.
I think it’s probably true to say that if you’re considered by society to be a winner, people will applaud you for the ends you achieved.
If you lose, chances are we’ll remember you for the means that led to your downfall. You’ll be forever defined by them. Such are the perils of making it into the history books.
Lance Armstrong still believes that those seven confiscated yellow jerseys belong to him, telling the BBC: “History rectifies a lot of things… I feel like I won those Tours.”
His candour is almost intoxicating. Almost enough to make you believe that really, he’s a winner; he had no choice and that history will show how right he was.
Until you recall the nameless 13 per cent, who did the right thing.