MEA CULPA

01.14.13

I Was Deluded to Believe Lance Armstrong When He Denied Doping

Buzz Bissinger says he relied on a manipulative liar who insisted he didn’t win his cycling championships through doping. A Pulitzer Prize winner’s mea culpa.
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'Watch a brief history of Lance Armstrong's doping denials.'

"I Still Believe in Lance Armstrong."

That was the headline on the cover of Newsweek last Aug. 17.

It still makes me cringe.

It deserves to make me cringe.

The "I" referred to me. The belief referred to my refusal to see Armstrong for what he truly was when he announced that he was giving up his fight against the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency to strip him of his seven Tour de France victories amid a host of allegations that included virtually non-stop blood doping during his storied cycling career.

I gave him the total benefit of the doubt. I used the logic that his blood doping was irrelevant because the sport of competitive cycling was rife with it. I referred to his heroic battle to overcome testicular cancer. I cited his foundation, Livestrong, and the legitimately good work it had on done on behalf of millions of cancer patients. I repeated his mantra that the witnesses cooperating with the USADA were a rogues’ gallery of disgraced cyclists with proven credibility problems. I wondered aloud how, if he had consistently cheated, he had passed more than 500 drug tests.

I called him a hero, using typically defiant and outspoken language. There were millions who felt the same way. But none of these millions had the power of the printed word like I did.

I did not know at that point how serious the allegations were. I did not know about the statements taken under oath in which former teammates accused him of coercion when it came to blood doping. I did not know about the alleged techniques he masterminded to beat the testing system for the use of illegal performance enhancers. None of that came to light until last October.

It is not a sufficient excuse. Enough good journalists out there had written about the terrible side of Lance Armstrong. When the editor of Outside magazine, Alex Heard, tweeted that I had made an ass of myself, my response was arrogant and flippant.

Because I was played by Armstrong. I was played when he told me with such heartfelt conviction that he was “at peace” with the decision he had made not to fight the USADA any longer.

My cover story about Lance Armstrong, my affirmation of faith, was the worst piece of opinion I have ever written. I did a disservice to myself. More important I did a disservice to readers. I did believe what I wrote at the time. I do believe in staking out strong positions. We all do as columnists today, because of the world we live in, craving to differentiate ourselves from the thousands who populate the Internet every hour.

But I also knew that in trying to defend Armstrong and still insist he was a hero, I had to defy obvious reality: after years of threatening, even suing, those who had previously claimed he had blood-doped or used illegal performance enhancers, you don’t just simply walk away from the fight.

I will not take all the blame.

Because I was played by Armstrong. I was played when he told me with such heartfelt conviction that he was “at peace” with the decision he had made not to fight the USADA any longer. I believed the assertions coming time and time again from his camp that USADA head Travis Tygart was conducting a vendetta and witch hunt, offering immunity to known liars just so they would testify against Armstrong.

I liked it when he sent me a tweet of appreciation after I had written a previous  column condemning the federal government for the millions it spent going after professional athletes for illegal use of performance enhancers (I still believe the money was wasted). I liked telling my son Caleb, who idolized Armstrong, that "you will never guess who tweeted me." My only solace is that my son, like so many others who looked up to Armstrong, now hates him.

All of this comes to a head on Monday when Armstrong sits down with Oprah Winfrey for what he says will be an exhaustive and hard-hitting interview in which no questions will be off-limits.

The interview is to air Thursday. But I will give you a preview now for determining his veracity:

Whatever he says, subtract by a thousand, divide by two, then three, then multiply the whole sum of bullshit by zero.

Don't believe a word he says, because not a word he says can be believed. When he looks at Winfrey with the doleful eyes of contrived contrition (carefully coached, because this is the biggest role of his life) and says I did it (he will apparently admit to limited blood doping), know that he did ten times more. When he says he didn’t do it, which I imagine he will do when it comes to threatening other teammates, know that Armstrong is just continuing his lies. Or is playing the semantic game of what coercion is (“Listen, dude, it’s not really coercion when you ask a teammate to blood-dope. I never told them they had to do it. I would have kicked their fucking ass off the team, dude, but they still didn’t have to do it. That’s on them, dude. Not me.”).

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Last summer, veteran sportswriter Buzz Bissinger vehemently defended Lance Armstrong in an exclusive Daily Beast interview.

Like any celebrity-making public confessional, Armstrong wants something beyond public redemption. I imagine he views it as all part of the pain-in-the-ass process he has to go through to see if he can be reinstated by the USADA and once again be allowed to compete in sanctioned Ironman competitions. It has nothing to do with sincerity or any sense of letting the public down. It is the equivalent of the 12-step Alcoholics Anonymous program for people who have lied themselves into a corner.

All professional athletes are narcissists; it is the nature of what makes them competitive, and Armstrong, along with Pete Rose, is in the highest echelon. I used to believe that people like that had deluded themselves into their denials for so long, they actually began to believe them, created an alternative reality.

I now realize that I was the one who was delusional to ever think that. Armstrong lied for so long because he knew his career would be destroyed if he told the truth. He knew he would lose not only stature but tens of millions of dollars. Since the best defense is a good offense, he used legal action any time the allegations of blood doping and illegal enhancers were brought up. It was a smart gambit, since it is hard to believe that anyone would have so few scruples as to sue for defamation, like he did with The Times of London, when in fact the body of evidence now shows there was no defamation at all.

Now that the house of lies has collapsed, Armstrong is resorting to that great tradition of the Oprah interview. He may shed a few tears. He may show seemingly convincing outrage over some of the more sensational accusations made against him.

When he reads this column, he will no doubt accuse me of jealousy and a need for revenge because I, like a thousand other journalists, was hoping that he would confess to me.

I did want him to confess, because I knew it would be a nice notch on the belt, lots of pats on the head from editors who were all over me to get to the exclusive. I did coo in his ear, playing the familiar but odious game of pissing on his detractors. I did write him emails saying that no journalist would treat him more fairly than me. I detested those emails. I was only further contributing to the slime.

He should do Oprah because of the audience she attracts. If he talks to a print publication, he should pick the one with the widest worldwide exposure. Far from jealous, I am glad I no longer have to grovel. I have done enough damage to myself and readers in the name of Lance Armstrong. I don't have to watch Oprah to reach the conclusion that I should have reached long ago:

He is an immoral, manipulative liar who doesn’t deserve a second more of anybody’s time.

So don’t waste it by watching him Thursday. Don’t continue to feed his insufferable ego. Don’t give him the satisfaction.

Let him be what he has become:

Unimportant and worthless.