Clare Balding: “Lance Armstrong, you deserve nothing”

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"The modern confession is not to a priest or a loved one in private. No. The modern confession demands an exclusive TV or newspaper interview, usually accompanied by tears and a promise to reform. The reformation often takes the form of a book for which, of course, a publisher will pay a hefty fee and a film of his or her life story. The fallen star will then appear in reality shows for the rest of his or her life, or as the villain in panto.

It’s all one big show, which is why we can’t take much of what Lance Armstrong said to Oprah Winfrey at face value. He is a liar, a cheat and a bully. That much he has admitted. He is the embodiment of all of sport’s ills, which is why a lifetime ban from elite sport is the only punishment that fits the crime. He calls it a ‘death penalty’. To a man who can only define himself by sporting achievement, I am sure that’s how it feels. But it’s not.

Armstrong is still alive and he is, for now, a wealthy man. That he still feels he is entitled to compete when he has so calculatedly, consistently and aggressively shattered the premise of sporting endeavour is beyond comprehension.

“I think I deserve it,” he told Oprah. Lance, believe me, you deserve nothing, absolutely nothing, from sport. The lives you ruined, the morals you murdered, the money you stole and the glory you robbed from others condemn you to a life without competition. For the rest of us, what have we learnt from the fall of a sporting hero? The story reminds me of a Greek myth. Indeed the Greeks have a word for it, hubris: overbearing pride or presumption.

To quote a few good men, he can’t handle the truth

Armstrong, speaking of himself in the third person says he was a guy who was ‘invincible, was told he was invincible, truly believed he was invincible.’ That is a dangerous place to be, particularly for someone whose success is built on sand. At the heart of it is the most extreme version of selfish arrogance. A kind of madness that makes the subject believe that the ‘win at all costs’ mentality makes you more of a sportsman rather than less. The kind of man who has lied so much and so aggressively that he has started to believe his own lies. A man who has written his own version of history.

Nicole Cooke, who recently announced her retirement from cycling, made clear the damage done to women’s cycling by Armstrong & Co’s systematic doping. Men’s road racing may have been tainted but it still flourishes and winning the Tour de France still comes with a massive cheque. Women’s cycling was choked before it could really blossom, tainted by association as sponsors withdrew and teams folded.

Cooke’s tale is one of huge inequality from start to finish: a lack of races for girls, a lack of team support for older girls and the non-existence of a minimum wage and the reluctance of teams to pay at all, so that most ‘professional’ riders were earning little or no money from it. It is almost incredible that women’s road racing has survived at all, but it could be on the verge of its most exciting period, with the announcement of the new British Honda Wiggle Road Race team for women, supported by Sir Bradley Wiggins’ foundation.

As Cooke decides how she wants to spend her non-sporting life, Armstrong searches for a definition of himself based on truth. This will be a challenge. His ex-wife has told him, ‘the truth will set you free’ but I fear that, to quote A Few Good Men, he ‘can’t handle the truth.’ I predict an extensive period of therapy, possibly a religious conversion for a man who has so far struggled to find a spiritual life or a series of masochistic and dangerous challenges for charity.

His legend will of course live on because Lance Armstrong will forever be the great yellow cheat. The arrogance of tweeting a photo that showed him lying on a sofa beneath his seven framed Yellow Jerseys is breathtaking. If I ran the PR for the Tour de France, I’d change the yellow jersey – such has he tainted its meaning. I’d go for red or purple.

For those of us who love sport, we will recover from the disappointment of another fallen hero and will watch with interest and perhaps despair as he tries to recover. He will no doubt take heart from the example of Tiger Woods – disgraced but still in the Nike family. The key difference is that Tiger wasn’t banned from sport because his cheating was at his wife’s, not golf’s, expense. To that degree, I suppose Armstrong is right when he says a lifetime ban from sport is a ‘death sentence’. Until he can redefine himself as a human being, that is what it will remain.”

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Picture credits: Rex Features

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