Like many others, I was transfixed last night. The first thing to say is that Oprah Winfrey is one hell of an interviewer. As an exercize in journalism, in an extremely fraught interaction, she was focused, clear, calm and relentless. Not since Martha Raddatz …
As for Armstrong, I’m afraid I cannot muster much anger about the actual use of what he correctly calls “performance enhancers”. If everyone is cheating, in some ways, no one is. And the ubiquity of performance enhancers in the sport when he was at its helm means he was competing against chemically-enhanced equals. He still won. Those drugs take human performance to new levels, but they do not abolish core and real athletic prowess, focus, and psychological grit. I’ve long believed in ending prohibition in sports on performance enhancers – because they are everywhere and unstoppable. We should rather have tests that ensure equality of enhancement. We could also have drug-free football, for example, alongside the steroidal monstrosities of the NFL. Fans might even prefer to watch human beings play the game again, rather than herds of steroidal human cattle, slowly turning their brains to mush.
My point is that we are all pharmaceutically-compromised now. From SSRIs to Adderall, from Xanax to taurine and caffeine energy drinks, it’s harder and harder to draw very clear lines between what chemicals are illicit and what chemicals aren’t. We don’t begrudge injured athletes drugs that alleviate pain and speed recovery. And the distinctions between preventing pain and improving performance will become harder to maintain.
I can see a day when human growth hormone is almost universally used among male retirees, just as testosterone is now being prescribed routinely to those facing the decline of age. I have a bias here. Without pharmaceuticals of extreme sophistication, I’d be dead. Without testosterone replacement therapy, I’d probably be terminally depressed and sick. Without Xanax, insomnia would destroy my productivity. But I hope that bias does not negate the fact that the human mind has made the human body qualitatively different than it was only a couple of decades ago. We don’t just live longer because of drugs. We live immensely better lives. This is a fact that will affect every aspect of our lives, and sports, of course, will be part of that. The money involved, the sheer power of the drugs, the availability of them … we can continue to deny this and get outraged every time it emerges, or we can begin to have a calmer, saner conversation about it.
No, to my mind, what’s disgusting about Armstrong was not his drug-use; it was his unconscionably vicious assaults on the truth-tellers.
He went so aggressively on the offense against far weaker human beings who were simply telling the truth. He used his fortune to bully, abuse and destroy them. He trashed their reputations, while celebrating his own. He lied and betrayed others every single step of the way. What he called so many of them is simply beyond belief. He never had to do any of that. And Winfrey brilliantly exposed the monster he became. What she unpeeled is what living a lie will do to anyone’s integrity. It isn’t a one-off event. It is a slow-burning destruction of the human soul.
And, of course, even if performance enhancers didn’t give him an unfair advantage over his rivals, who were also pharmaceutical experiments on wheels, they were nonetheless clearly banned in his sport, he knew it, and the rules matter. Real sportsmen follow rules; they don’t find elaborate, conspiratorial means to foil them. And the use of cancer-survival as a device to keep the truth at bay is simply despicable.
Look: I’m a libertarian in most things and a Christian. I believe in forgiveness – which must start, of course, with Armstrong and those he wronged. But what I see in Armstrong is extraordinary intelligence, peerless will-power, and staggering athleticism – all destroyed by pride and deceit. He is living proof that greatness and evil are often intertwined in the self-destructive longings of the lost soul.
We know this already. And we are all human. Not many of us can say we have never lied. But I just want to say how impressed I was by how skillfully Oprah Winfrey laid that truth out in front of us, like a patient etherized upon a table. She is a broadcaster without equal.
(Photos: American Lance Armstrong with team RadioShack rides in a breakaway during stage 16 of the Tour de France on July 20, 2010 in Pau, France. By Spencer Platt/Getty Images; a young fan holds a sign in support of Lance Armstrong as watches stage six of the USA Pro Challenge from Golden to Boulder on August 25, 2012 in Boulder County, Colorado. By Doug Pensinger/Getty Images.)