Buzz Bissinger Still Believes in Lance Armstrong

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Elizabeth Kreutz / Corbis

On the website where seventime Tour de France winner Lance Armstrong explained why he would no longer contest charges that he cheated to gain an unfair physical advantage, there is an image in the background. 

It is faded, but it is a photograph of Armstrong with a huge and toothy smile on his face in the sweet meat of being the ultimate champion. When I printed out his statement, the image was no longer visible, a haunting yet perfect metaphor for what Armstrong has seemingly become: no longer there. At least no longer there in terms of what millions thought of him—a man not only of remarkable, almost superhuman physical resilience, but a man millions of kids grew up wanting to emulate. One of them being my own 21-year-old son, Caleb.

“I took up cycling because of him. I got interested in the tour. He was a really good model of being healthy and being active ... He inspired so many people.”

Caleb is not blind. He said it was hard not to read the statement and conclude that when Armstrong said, “There comes a point in every man’s life when he has to say ‘Enough is enough’ ” and that he was finished fighting the United States Anti-Doping Agency’s fanatical attempt to strip him of his victories, what lay below the outrage was an admission that he may well have cheated with performance enhancers in order to win. That bothers my son. It is why he called the stunning announcement a “sad day.” But it is also why he called it a “weird day” emotionally because of the constant effort to make Armstrong into a villain.

“I think this has been a witch hunt for years,” he said. “There’s clearly been this attempt since day one to take down this hero. Despite the fact he may have had some aid, at the end of the day what he did is pretty amazing.”

Until I spoke to my son, I was all set to declare Armstrong yet another fallen sports idol, so many at this point they could fill the national cemetery.

To hell with that.

I still believe in Lance Armstrong. I believe his decision had nothing to do with fear of being found guilty in a public setting before an arbitration panel, but the emotional and mental toll of years and years of fighting charges that have never been officially substantiated—despite stemming all the way back to 1999.

“I am more at ease and at peace than I have been in 10 years,” he told me in an exclusive phone interview with Newsweek. “I am focused on today and what will happen in the future.”

His thinking, he told me, was that “we’ve got to stop with this. For my own mental health. For my family. For the foundation. And for the sport of cycling. Cycling doesn’t need this.”

There were immediate concerns over what impact his decision would have on the fundraising abilities of his foundation to fight cancer and the Livestrong campaign that promotes it. “The big question some people have is what will this do to Livestrong,” said Armstrong, who will turn 41 later this month. But then he gave me figures showing that between Friday and the day before, the number of donors was up tenfold, the amount given up twenty-five-fold, and the amount of merchandise sold up two-and-a-half-fold.

Armstrong is relieved by the support for the foundation. In the past 13 years, nearly half a billion dollars has been raised. In the eyes of many, the scope of Livestrong, as well as his own story as a cancer survivor who went on to win all those Tour de France titles, makes him a hero regardless of any allegation. But Armstrong himself bristles at the notion. “I never wake up and think I’m a hero. I’m just a guy who got through a disease and I don’t deserve any credit for that. I was just very lucky.”

I disagree.

He is a hero, one of the few we have left in a country virtually bereft of them. And he needs to remain one.

Did he use enhancers? Maybe I am the one who is blind, but I take him at his word and don’t believe it; he still passed hundreds of drug tests, many of them given randomly. But even if he did take enhancers, so what?

Professional cycling is a rotten sport like all professional sports are rotten (anybody who believes otherwise is a Pollyanna fool). It’s “not about the bike,” as the title of Armstrong’s bestselling biography states. It’s about winning by any means possible and then hoping to figure out a medical way of covering it up. Doping has been a rite of passage in the Tour de France. According to The New York Times, at least a third of the top 10 finishers (Armstrong included) have either officially admitted to using performance enhancers or been officially suspected of doping.

Need we say more?

If Armstrong used banned substances, he was leveling the playing field. He was still the one who overcame all odds.

armstrong-fe06-2ndary Tim De Waele

Sorry, Lance.

You may be tough. You may be abrasive. You may be relentless. You are more Texan than Texas. But you truly are a hero.

At the age of 25, he was already considered one of the best cyclists in the world. He had aches and pains, including soreness in his groin and headaches. But he chalked it up to the rigors of the professional cycling life until one of his testicles swelled to three times its normal size. He went to a doctor on Oct. 2, 1996, where he was diagnosed with an advanced form of testicular cancer. By that time, the cancer had already metastasized into his lymph nodes, lungs, and brain.

“I was in complete shock,” Armstrong later said. “Here I was, young and healthy and riding better than ever and suddenly, I have cancer. I was worried about losing my career and, frankly, my life.”

He had surgery twice: the first time to remove the cancerous testicle and the second to take out two cancerous lesions on his brain. Four rounds of chemotherapy followed. Yet he recovered to become not simply the best cyclist in the world but perhaps the world’s best pure athlete as measured by conditioning and physical will.

But it wasn’t all storybook. In 1998, during a race from Paris to Nice in hideous weather, he quit in the middle. It served as proof to many that yes, he was a noble cancer survivor, but no, he would never have what it takes to ride competitively.

The naysayers were wrong.

He won the Tour de France a record seven straight years from 1999 to 2005. He was named Sportsman of the Year by Sports Illustrated in 2002. The Associated Press named him Male Athlete of the Year from 2002 to 2005. His net worth, according to a survey by Forbes, is about $125 million, and he makes roughly $20 million a year.

The accolades and honors and money seem superfluous now. Because of his decision not to fight the charges, the USADA is taking his silence as an admission of guilt.

He is officially being sanctioned by the agency for a laundry list of infractions—using the banned blood booster EPO, the illegal use of testosterone, and corticosteroids, blood transfusions (a.k.a. “doping”), and the utilization of masking agents.

It means that he will be stripped of all seven of his Tour titles and banned from the sport of cycling for life. It means that he will lose the Bronze Medal he won at the 2000 Olympics. He will also be required to return money he won from 1998 forward, although the precise amount is difficult to determine.

It’s a tenet of American society that the accused do have a right to fairly represent themselves. But in the case of the USADA rules, Armstrong said he was not even allowed to see the evidence against him, evidence apparently being proffered by more than 10 different witnesses, the agency said. Two former teammates likely to testify were found to have lied about their own use of performance enhancers during a federal investigation of Armstrong that, following much hoopla and predictions of indictment by The New York Times, was quietly closed.

Even though Armstrong has retired from competitive cycling, the USADA lodged the charges in June. Some were 13 years old, despite the agency’s own statute of limitations of eight years. But the agency apparently justified all the charges on the basis of drug tests taken in 2009 and 2010, when Armstrong was still competing, tests that were said to be consistent with doping. In his statement, Armstrong described the agency as a “bully, threatening everyone in its way and challenging the good faith of anyone who questions its motives or its methods.”

In a lawsuit filed by Armstrong in federal court to block the USADA from forcing him to defend allegations of doping or otherwise be found guilty, U.S. District Judge Sam Sparks in August did rule in favor of the agency. He did so primarily on the basis that the court was not the proper forum in which to settle the dispute. But like Armstrong himself, Sparks questioned the motivation of the USADA, stating that “among the court’s concerns is the fact that the USADA has targeted Armstrong for prosecution many years after the alleged doping violations occurred.” The judge also said that Armstrong’s allegations in the suit—that riders prepared to testify against him had been offered reduced punishment—if in fact true, would make it “difficult to avoid the conclusion that USADA is motivated more by politics and a desire for media attention than faithful adherence to its obligations.” Armstrong did not appeal the decision. If Judge Sparks wasn’t going to find in his favor despite his comments, no other judge would touch it.

But the whole thing stinks.

What point is being served here besides the USADA’s own desperation to prove to the public that it is cleaning up sports? It’s a slam job, and Armstrong is the victim of that slam. It has been that way for 13 years, an almost pathological desire by a select group of haters to bring him down—either out of jealousy or a determination to make a name for themselves. If he was the only one in cycling suspected of doping, then by all means tar and feather him. But he is not. Not even close. He is a target, the biggest target there is, the perfect symbol for the USADA to prove its existence.

“It’s a sad day for all of us who love sport and our athletic heroes,” said Travis Tygart, chief executive of the USADA, “it’s yet another heartbreaking example of how the win-at-all-costs culture, if left unchecked, will overtake fair, safe, and honest competition.”

Save me the absurd self-righteousness.

“I know who won those seven Tours … and everyone I competed against knows who won those seven Tours,” said Armstrong in his statement. “We all raced together. For three weeks over the same roads, the same mountains, and against all the weather and elements that we had to confront. There were no shortcuts, there was no special treatment. The same courses. The same rules.”

He is right. And perhaps Travis Tygart, before trying to destroy Lance Armstrong for his own job security, should get his ass out of the chair in his office and try it himself.

Even if he doped, he wouldn’t last a mile.

1996

Diagnosed with testicular cancer and given less than a 40 percent chance of survival.

1997

Launches the Lance Armstrong Foundation, which goes on to raise more than $470 million.

1999

Wins his first Tour de France (the second American ever to do so) after a brutal recovery.

2004

Undergoes allegations of doping following his record-breaking sixth Tour win.

2004

Starts selling Livestrong wristbands. Celebrity fans include Robin Williams and John Kerry.

2006

Ends relationship with singer Sheryl Crow after a very high-profile three years.

2009

Returns to professional cycling after a three-year break, but doesn't win another title.2011

Announces retirement while still embroiled in charges by the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency.

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