We know: You’re sick of Lance Armstrong. When this post hits Facebook, the word “cheater” will pop up in the comments within seconds. It’s like clockwork now. And in a fascinating profile from Esquire about the disgraced cyclist who has been stripped of his titles and most of his income, author John H. Richardson gives us a chance to see what that means for the guy who not only lied, cheated, and sued people who attempted to tell the truth, but who also inspired—and continues to inspire—people with cancer all over the world.
Writing of a young fan with whom Armstrong had grown close who died at the age of 21 following an 8-year battle with brain cancer, the profile notes that:
[H]e did allow himself a tiny heartfelt Facebook tribute on the day Jimmy died. “RIP Jimmy Fowkes,” it read. “You have forever touched my life as well as millions of others. I will miss you. Jimmystrong….”
Even in that moment, his critics swarmed, with pitiless, lacerating comments. “I’ll bet he didn’t cheat,” read one.
So it’s extremely clear that for Armstrong to have any sort of public life whatsoever—even one that simply pays tribute to the young people who’ve died after losing a battle that Armstrong is familiar with—is not something that we, as a culture, are willing to allow. Armstrong himself certainly seems to get this, and the profile spends some time interrogating exactly what it is the guy does with himself instead.
And mostly what he does, it seems, is golf and make videos to people with cancer. Richardson seems to have found a number of those videos, and the people for whom he made them, and they offer another glimpse of the disgraced former champion:
In the video, light comes in slices through the Venetian blinds behind him. He’s wearing a T-shirt and forgot to shave. There’s the smallest hint of a haunted expression in his stony face, as if he’s looking down a long tunnel with no light at the end. But right now, thankfully, it’s not about him.
Hi, Melody. I’m Lance Armstrong. I just wanted to send you a short video message to let you know that I’m thinking about you and I’m pulling for you. I understand you’ve had some up-and-down news when it comes to your health. Just hang in there and know there are brighter days ahead. If there’s anything I can ever do to help you, please let me know. In the meantime, keep kicking cancer’s ass. Best of luck.
This might not seem like much, but Tackett says the message gave Ruggles a boost that lasted for months. “She has so much more energy to fight this now,” she said.
That’s huge, and it speaks to the one thing that you can’t take away from Armstrong: he may have both launched and hurt LiveStrong, the cancer charity that saw its revenues plummet as the truth about its founder’s drug use came out (he stepped down from the organization in November 2012), but what he did for people with cancer can’t be taken away.
Richardson’s profile is less clear about the circumstances under which he saw the videos that Armstrong made. It would be easy to believe that revealing that he makes the videos are part of a spin campaign that Armstrong, who seems to desperately want to re-enter the public’s good graces, is undertaking. (Why else is he even bothering to sit down for magazine profiles that are sure to spend at least some time taking a hectoring tone?) But, according to Richardson, the videos are something that Armstrong keeps to himself.
Last summer, about six months after he did the Oprah show, he put on a fundraiser for a camp for sick kids, just quietly called a few rich friends and raised much of the camp’s annual budget with a single bike ride, but he never mentioned it to anyone, and won’t talk about it now. [Armstrong’s girlfriend, Anna] Hansen was the first to bring it up. He wouldn’t talk about the videos he makes, either. And he really didn’t want to talk about Jimmy Fowkes, a Stanford student from Oregon and longtime Livestrong activist[…]
We’ll assume, then, that Richardson learned of the videos through Hansen or another member of Armstrong’s inner circle, and then tracked down the people who’ve received them independently. (He provides quotes from the people who received them or their family members, all of whom seem thrilled, which suggests that this is a realistic possibility.) But it’s telling that even when discussing the nice things that Armstrong does for people with all of his abundant free time, we’re suspicious when talking about him.
The fact is that, at some point, Armstrong will almost certainly receive something resembling public redemption. The only thing we love more than a villain is a redemption narrative, after all, and the trust that Armstrong has broken with the public is his biggest obstacle: we need to believe that, if he deserves to be redeemed, that he doesn’t want it, that he’s doing it all for the right reasons, that he’s genuinely become a different person.
Interestingly, it appears that this is something that the staff at LiveStrong realized last year, as they were looking for ways to rebuild the organization’s donor base after their founder left and they were left to watch their resources plummet.
Not long ago, the foundation held a strategic planning session where people tossed out radical options to revive their flagging fortunes. One woman suggested that 2014 should be called the “Year of Redemption” and Armstrong should be given a desk in the office and he should come every day and work like everybody else, stuffing envelopes and making phone calls.”
“To pay a penance?”
“To say: ‘I want to do this.’ To say: ‘I’ll do anything.’ “
The idea that Lance Armstrong would be showing up for work every day in short sleeve button-up shirts and a tie, fetching coffee for the people at LiveStrong, has a legitimate appeal. At the very least, it’d be humanizing in the way that we want our redeemed heroes to be human: Armstrong as a flawed man who admits his weakness and just wants to pitch in any way he can is a powerful image. He was a hero because he was so wildly, unbelievably successful—if he wants people to treat him like a man again, he probably needs to spend a lot of time being very ordinary.
Richardson’s profile goes on to demonstrate the alternative for Armstrong, and it sounds like a veritable nightmare for just about anybody.
To earn an income (he lost $150 million worth of endorsements in one day in 2012, and has $132 million in outstanding lawsuits still pending), Armstrong has apparently taken to leading alpha male types on “Man Camps,” or athletic retreats out in the desert somewhere, where Armstrong takes them cycling. Most of these guys come from Wall Street—the profile spends a bit of time talking about an investment banker/triathlete named Ken Rideout who seems to take particular delight in taunting Armstrong.
There’s an unmistakable element of safari to the whole thing, with Armstrong in dual roles of hunter and prey—a fellow competitor and also the Great Beast whose mounted head would look awesome above a rich man’s fireplace.
Already the trash talk is out of control.
“I came this close to beating Lance in the first race,” says a Wall Street investment banker named Ken Rideout. “I attacked like a rabid dog. I had a gap on him.”
The drama between Armstrong and Rideout continues apace throughout the camp; at one point, Armstrong’s hand starts bleeding after a rock hits him while he’s on his bike, and Rideout says, “I hurt Lance Armstrong! I broke him! I made him bleed!” Richardson makes the point that this is what we want from Armstrong, ultimately: his blood. But there’s perhaps another explanation here that’s simpler, and more satisfying.
Lance Armstrong’s sins, ultimately, are acting like a jerk. His lifetime ban from any sort of competition that falls under the Olympics banner (he’s not allowed to enter even a local Austin swim meet) is probably disproportionate to his crime, since other guys who did the same thing were yanked out of the pool for a mere six months. But Armstrong wasn’t just a doper; he was mean about it. He sued people who were telling the truth, acted like a victim when he clearly wasn’t, hid behind cancer victims when he thought it would deflect criticism, and wanted us to know that he was bigger than the allegations, that if they were true—and we’d never prove it—then who cares? He’s Lance Armstrong, and he’s not doing this for us.
All of that is ultimately what he’s being punished for when he’s barred from competing ever again, when he can’t post a few words about a young man he knows who died without receiving barbed comments from people who may well have once worn yellow rubber wristbands. There are cheaters in every walk of life, yet people villify this one in special ways. But the penance that he deserves, ultimately, isn’t the sort of competition ban that no one else ever faces, or even snark about dead people he may have known (seriously, that is just tacky)—it’s the living hell of being taunted, for the rest of his life, by the alphas of the world.
If the only way Lance Armstrong can ever earn a living again is to go work for those guys, trying to keep the front tire of his bike four seconds ahead of the next guy’s in order to remain someone they want to pay to ride against, that might be the price the public wanted to see him pay all along.