Even if you dislike sport, hate celebrity confessions and distrust Oprah Winfrey, you should follow the story of Lance Armstrong. It is a morality tale of huge implications. Beneath the surface, Armstrong’s story is about the power of celebrity and the complicity of the media. It is a depressing tale but a deeply salutary one.
For now, let’s leave to one side the disgraceful negligence, perhaps even co-operation, of the cycling authorities. Consider the role of the mainstream media in the great Armstrong deception. Most cycling journalists knew it was highly unlikely that Armstrong could have raced at that level without drugs. Not only did the vast majority remain silent, they actively froze out the few writers – such as David Walsh and Paul Kimmage – who were brave enough to fight the Armstrong conspiracy. Cyclists were brutal in cutting down whistle-blowers inside the peloton; they called it “pissing in the soup”. The journalistic mainstream mirrored the peloton: they closed ranks against reporters who challenged the comfortable status quo.
It is an indictment of so-called expertise. The writers who were supposed to know more about cycling than anyone else in the world were unable to write what they must have known to be the truth. Was doping really that obvious, even back then? Yes. Even if journalists ignored the persistent rumours and Armstrong’s association with Dr Michele Ferrari, a master of doping, simple maths should have been enough. The 1998 Tour de France was a drug-fuelled shambles in which the leading team got busted for epic substance abuse. The 1999 Tour, the first “Armstrong” Tour, was billed as the “Renewal Tour”, a clean season free from doping, a fresh start. Yet Armstrong was soon clocking speeds that were simply unheard of.
So the press room faced a very simple calculation: either Armstrong was a freak of nature, the greatest natural athlete on the planet, or else he was cheating. They chose to believe the former. It gets worse. It was already clear that Armstrong wasn’t an athletic outlier. His pre-cancer performances in the Tour de France, when he was at his natural athletic peak, were unexceptional. And his “VO2 max” – his innate athletic potential – was not special, way behind the greatest riders in Tour history. In some sports, where skill and technique can trump athleticism, it is possible to make huge improvements relatively late in your career. It is infinitely harder (without drugs) to do that in cycling. As with maths prodigies, you’ve either got it or you haven’t.
So why did the press, with a few honourable exceptions, show so little appetite for the truth? Because they craved access to the stars, especially Armstrong. They relied on quotes from Lance, a few scraps of celebrity gossip to pepper their copy with, perhaps a sit-down with the great man. And Armstrong, like a brutal political spin doctor, was utterly ruthless about dividing the world into two camps – with me or against me, friend or enemy, soft touch or (in Lancespeak) “troll”. Some of David Walsh’s oldest friends in journalism eventually refused to share a car with him because Armstrong made a note of who travelled with the “troll” and cut them off accordingly.
So where does the blame lie? The cycling press can, half-justifiably, blame their employers and their editors, who demanded the usual round of quotes, mini-scoops and interviews. The reporters could argue that they were simply following a narrow interpretation of their professional obligations.
At this point, however, the Armstrong story becomes more uncomfortable: because the editors, of course, were trying to anticipate and satiate the appetites of their readers. In the great journalistic trade-off, the very beginning of the story, the first domino, is the public’s credulous demand for meaningless quotes and soft interviews.
Forget cheating for a moment. Indeed, forget sport. The same pattern of trade-offs is repeated in more serious spheres. It is ironic that the insights of “insiders” are valued more than ever. And yet it is obvious that insiders find it difficult to write stories that might lead them to being excluded from the system of patronage and leaks that oils the wheels of daily journalism. One of the most depressing lessons I learned as a professional sportsman was that players who leak information to the media get a better press than they deserve.
A further irony awaits. Many of those who inflated the Armstrong bubble will now capitalise on his confession. As I write this, Armstrong is due to appear on US television in an interview with Oprah Winfrey, in which he would offer a carefully calibrated confession – just enough to hint at the truth, not so much that he faces ruinous legal challenges and a trial for perjury.
Armstrong’s confession is just the latest and most high-profile in a line of confessions of convenience. Tyler Hamilton, Armstrong’s former team-mate and ex-doper, won last year’s William Hill Sports Book Award for his ghosted autobiography. It was a deeply seductive book and Hamilton enjoyed a wonderful round of sympathetic interviews for his book tour. It was hard to open a newspaper without reading a quote from Hamilton: “Lance should tell the truth”, “the truth really will set you free”, “a weight off my shoulders”. The only way to get a better press than promoting Lance Armstrong before the fall was to dish the dirt on him after his disgrace.
There is an eerie symmetry here. We might call it reputational overshoot. When a hero’s shares are booming, the market rewards ever-greater price inflation. When those shares are tanking, short-sellers become the kings.
The real losers in this game are the clean riders and the writers who contradict the mood of the moment, those who spoke out against doping at the time. There is a market for the truth but it is a very fickle one. We’ve all got some thinking to do about the rise and fall of Lance Armstrong.