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Lance Armstrong: Why disgraced cyclist's doping problem has become a money problem

Craig Medred

Celebrity and former Tour de France cyclist Lance Armstrong has a problem, and it’s not his lying and cheating. It’s money. It usually is.

By now, of course, you either know it has been revealed Armstrong won a record seven Tour de France yellow jerseys on a cocktail of drugs and blood doping, or you are living in a cave in Alaska's Brooks Range sans satellite Internet. Armstrong’s story has gone global, and not just because he dominated a French bike race. The man is far more than a cyclist.

Friend to presidents both in the U.S. and abroad. One-time fiance of rocker Sheryl Crow. Pitchman for Michelob Ultra beer and Nike sportswear and the U.S. Postal Service. Founder of Livestrong (real name The Lance Armstrong Foundation), a multimillion-dollar charity that spawned the yellow, Livestrong bracelets now seen everywhere.

The bracelets were sold to help raise hundreds of millions of dollars to promote cancer awareness. In the process, they helped to promote Armstrong to the position of the best known cancer survivor in the country, possibly the world. Cancer nearly killed him. He lived. Then he came back to win those seven Tours. A lot of people found it inspirational.

He became not a man but a myth: A youngster from a broken home in Texas, raised by a single mother, discovers he has a talent for riding a bike. He becomes a brash young upstart challenging all those Euros in a sport they think they own. He falls victim to cancer. He nearly dies. He battles back from death’s to door to get back on his bike. Many scoff. Some laugh. None give him a chance of ever becoming a competitive cyclist again. Then he wins the Tour and goes on two win six more, the most ever. Along the way, he becomes incredibly rich and incredibly famous.

It is an American story. A Horatio Alger cycling tale.

And now it has all come tumbling down. The spoil sports with the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency (USADA) have revealed that all seven Tour victories came thanks in part to an expensive and complicated doping program that involved not just Armstrong but his whole team, with Armstrong serving as the chief dope pusher. Armstrong continues to deny this (more on why later), but the USADA case is a slam dunk. Many of Armstrong’s former buddies in the U.S. Postal Service/Discovery team have already confessed their involvement. Some of them have put the smoking syringe in Armstrong’s hand. The financial records tying Armstrong to notorious Italian doping doctor Michele Ferrari are there.

Armstrong doped. You’d have to be a dope to believe otherwise. Even Armstrong appears to have tacitly accepted this reality.

A man who once vehemently protested against the rumors of doping that followed him throughout his career, he strangely made no protestations of his innocence at a gala for the Livestrong charity in Austin Friday night.

“During the last few days a lot of people have asked me how I am doing. And I’ll tell you, I’ve been better, but I’ve been worse,” said the newly resigned chairman of the Livestrong board. “It’s been a difficult couple of weeks for me and my family, my friends and this foundation. We will not be deterred. We will move forward.... I just have one last request. Let’s have a hell of a good time tonight.”

Not a word there about what Armstrong’s lawyers have previously called a USADA “witch hunt.” Could it be because there was no such thing or because the USADA in this case found an actual witch? Whichever the case, Armstrong now has a huge public relations problem, and all the experts agree the only way out is for him to admit what he has done and seek forgiveness.

But you didn’t need a PR expert to tell you that now, did you?

We are all familiar with this route to redemption. America is big on forgiveness. We had a president who lied to us all; remember “I did not have sexual relations with that woman“? President Bill Clinton lied and came close to being thrown out of office for encouraging, some might argue pressuring, an intern to give him a hummer. He eventually confessed. Most eventually forgave him. He is with every passing year becoming more of a revered national figure.

And what Armstrong did is far less egregious than what Clinton did. Hell, if Armstrong came out and admitted to cheating to win those Tours, a fair part of the country might admire him for it. Many sports, NASCAR most notably, have a reputation for winning by bending the rules. Were any fans of the New England Patriots really upset when it was revealed coach Bill Belichick had been caught illegally spying on other teams in an effort to gain the winning edge?

The reaction might not be at all bad if Armstrong tomorrow said this:

I won those seven Tours because we trained the hardest, we raced the smartest, and we put together a better doping program than any other team in the race. Yes, we cheated, but everyone was cheating. And I decided that if we were going to win, we were going to have to run not only the best cycling program on the bike, but the best medical program off the bike. And we did. All those European cyclists are mad today because we beat them at all levels of their sport, and there is no doubt doping was one level of that sport.

I have no doubt a fair part of the country would listen to that and say, “Yo! Go Lance!

Only Armstrong can’t say this. Why not? Money.

Armstrong collected $12 million in bonuses from SCA Promotions, a Texas insurance company, for winning a series of Tours. He collected a rumored $1 million from London’s “Sunday Times” to settle a libel suit after it published a story accusing him of doping. Both of those entities are now making rumblings about how they want their money back. So, too, some of the people who contributed to Livestrong because they bought a fraudulent Armstrong myth. Amaury Sports Organization, the company that runs the Tour, could well decide it wants its money back, as well. And there could be many more like it. Armstrong defrauded a lot of people with his bogus claim to have always ridden drug-free. If he now admits that was a lie, he might have to pay a lot of them back.

But here’s the rub.

As long as he goes on denying he doped, all of those folks are left in a position where they have to prove he doped in order to collect. Given the nature of the U.S. courts, a plaintiff is sure to face a long and costly fight to collect, even with the groundwork laid by the USADA.  All of which provides Armstrong some leverage. As long as he clings to the claim of innocence, his lawyers can battle for negotiated settlements. They can try to get him out from under for quarters on the dollar, or dimes or nickels. And they can surely drag the process out for years and years.

Of course, this isn’t the all of it. There’s also the little matter of a federal investigation into whether Armstrong defrauded the U.S. Postal Service.

The investigation was shut down amid a bit of controversy, but it can easily be reopened. And there is more, much more. If you want to read about it all, Brian Alexander wrote a superb story for Outside Online a month ago titled “Why Lance Armstrong Will Never Give In.” Outside had fallen out of favor with me, I will confess, because most of what it publishes about Alaska is so full of mistakes and misperceptions that it’s garbage, but Alexander did a first-class job of trying to redeem the organization’s reputation. His analysis of why Armstrong can’t confess is an exercise in great journalism. I’d suggest it to anyone left wondering: “Why doesn’t Armstrong just confess and get this over with?”

The answer is because he can’t. It’s about the money. Armstrong might, as he told the crowd in Austin, be going through “a difficult couple of weeks,” but as Alexander observed at the end of his story, “it looks like he’ll be able to press on, dented but not destroyed, as long as he never admits to doping.”

Ride on, Lance. Ride on.

The author’s views are his own and not necessarily endorsed by Alaska Dispatch. Contact Craig Medred at craig(at)alaskadispatch.com