Ed Ruscha, "Safe & Effective Medication." Image from Ikon Ltd. Fine Art. This is the painting that Hal Epsen found hanging prominently on Lance Armstrong's living-room wall during a 2005 visit.
Today two journalists discuss their knowledge of Lance's doping, and why they didn't tell their readers what they knew or suspected.
Hal Epsen's piece at The Atlantic, “How I Enabled the Cult of Lance Armstrong,” is a reflection on Epsen's role, while he was editor of Outside magazine, in creating and maintaining the Lance Armstrong myth. Epsen acknowledges his naiveté, credulity, and now, his shame.
The second, by Padraig at Red Kite Prayer, aptly titled “The Cynic,” is a curiously unselfconscious description of Padraig's reasons for remaining silent about his belief that Lance was doping, discouraging investigation of Lance, and dissing Lance's most-prominent critic during the great Lance Armstrong scam.
At first glance, both pieces appear confessional – efforts to fess up to individual failings, as well as the failure of the cycling press to tell the public the truth.
The first is exactly that. The second however, is not.
Let's start with the second. On first read, Padraig appears to acknowledge his complicity in Lance's scam:
I need to admit to you that it’s been a long time since I thought Armstrong was a clean cyclist.
Sounds good. Padraig has been writing about cycling a long time and believed that Lance was doping. He's going to apologize for failing to tell us the truth.
But if you thought Padraig was going to apologize, you'd be wrong.
Padraig's "admission" isn't an admission at all – at least he's not admitting he goofed. It's actually a bit of rhetorical jujitsu -- a bit of self-aggrandizement disguised in the language of a confession. Padraig is telling us that he wasn't a credulous dupe like the great mass of U.S. cycling fans and Lance lovers. He knew more. He knew better.
He just didn't tell us.
According to Padraig's account, Lance's doping was obvious once he looked. Padraig describes the moment in 1996 when his suspicions ripened after glimpsing Armstrong's calf:
It was the most perfect calf I’d ever seen. The muscles were perfectly etched. It was as if skin-colored saran wrap had been stretched across the muscle with no intervening fat to blur the muscles’ definition.
The observation leads him to conclude that Lance is doping. And by the time of the Festina scandal, in 1998 – before Lance's first Tour “win" -- Padraig knows doping is rife in the peloton.
What does he do? He hopes.
He hopes that someone will do something . . . . Someone else.
Why was Padraig silent about doping in cycling? He tells us this:
I wrestled with [the conclusion that Lance doped], what it meant for me as someone who made his living writing about cycling . . . . I figured there was only one thing I could do: No matter what I thought, if Armstrong and other riders weren’t testing positive, then they were clean enough to compete, and if they were clean enough to compete, they were clean.
He fails to write specifically about Lance's doping out of fear: Not unreasonable but far from admirable:
I’ll also admit that I, like many writers, was flat-out afraid of the Armstrong machine. I’d seen the lawsuits, and while I wasn’t trying to break any stories, I didn’t want to get caught in the cross hairs.
Padraig tries to slink out of the moral cross hairs by shoving the UCI into them. Padraig tells us that the UCI's anti-doping efforts are a childish sham:
[T]he UCI didn’t want clean cycling, they just wanted the appearance of clean cycling. . . . Their anti-doping efforts were as vigorous as my father’s game of checkers was with me when I was a kid—he let me win a lot.
Doesn't Padraig realize that the same thing could be said about the cycling press? Did the cycling press want clean cycling or did it just want the appearance of clean cycling? Padraig has already told us his view, “if they were clean enough to compete, they were clean.” Presumably that also means clean enough for Padraig to write about, portraying them as admirable, legitimate, worthy athletic heroes.
Sure the UCI should have done something (and should still do something.) But the cycling press's beatification of Armstrong made pursuing St. Lance difficult, even if the UCI had been so inclined. What was stopping the cycling press from outing some of the dopers to pressure the UCI to do something? The same thing that Padraig tells us was stopping the UCI: Self interest.
Somehow, bafflingly, Padraig feels the UCI's failure justifies his own:
That realization—that the UCI only wanted the appearance of a clean sport—is something that I responded to in the most cynical way possible. To me, the logic was, if the UCI wasn’t really going to do the work to clean up cycling broadly, then a guy like Armstrong should find success.
Wow. Since the cops, aren't doing their job, the con man deserves his success? I suppose if you start with this premise the rubes deserve their fleecing, too.
So Padraig wants the UCI held accountable for not deflating the dope-inflated myths that Padraig helped create. Yet he doesn't hold himself accountable for helping create the myth or for failing to help deflate it. He doesn't hold
himself or the media accountable for helping the con man keep his scam hidden and the marks coming.
I admire his chutzpah.
Padraig opposed the investigation into Armstrong and criticized Greg LeMond for being churlish for piping up in a press conference. But, there's no mea culpa in today's post. LeMond may have been telling the truth, but LeMond's behavior was "unseemly." (Oh Martha! Martha! Bring the smelling salts!)
Padraig was part of the cycling media that refrained from writing what it knew to be true. Self-interest, fear, and following the rules of the peloton, including the rule ostracizing anyone who suggested a rider was doping. The writers wanted access and that meant silence. Silence meant complicity. Only a handful wrote about the truth, and they were often ostracized -- not just by the riders but by the rest of the press.
The public, based on the pandering accolades of the cycling press, gave their faith, adoration, and their dollars to a con man. The writers got published, and the public got screwed.
This would be sad, at most negligent or incompetent, if the writers believed Lance was clean. But at least some of them – including Padraig – believed Lance was a doper.
The title Padraig has chosen for his post, "The Cynic," may be as close as Padraig is going to get to accepting some blame for not writing about what he believed to be true. Don't look for an apology.
By the way, Padraig's post – whatever I may think of its content – is well-written. The first paragraph of "The Cynic" is worth reading even if you know only the barest facts of Lance's rise and fall from grace. Padraig's merging of narrative and metaphor nearly made me gasp:
In the summer of 1989, . . . I received a copy of VeloNews in my mailbox, . . . . In it there was a story about an American cyclist who went to the Junior World Championships and took off early in the race, amassing a huge lead, only to see it and him swallowed up shortly before the finish. The writer suggested that the name Lance Armstrong would be one to watch for the future.
In contrast to Padroig, the press's complicity in the Armstrong's scam actually troubles Epsen. Epsen was editor of Outside from 1999 to 2006. A period that “almost exactly overlapped Lance Armstrong's seven consecutive Tour de France victories,” and a period in which Epsen's magazine put Armstrong on the cover “no fewer than three times.” Outside won awards for issues that “packaged Lance as a heroic icon.”
Epsen tells us his view of his role:
. . . [A]s a magazine journalist once deeply invested in covering the Armstrong era in cycling, I . . . feel a shock of self-recrimination as I struggle to reconcile my part in lionizing a man who, in hindsight, was almost certainly a cheat and a liar of breathtaking audacity and shamelessness. How could I have characterized the rumors and accusations that Lance relied on banned performance-enhancing drugs and techniques as part of a "myth"?
. . .
I can't avoid acknowledging my culpability and naiveté in sustaining the Armstrong myth. I recall how colleagues who knew much more about cycling than I did were convinced that Armstrong was guilty of doping. . . .
I tried to remain agnostic about the allegations that Lance was dirty, but now it seems I relied far too much on rationalizations about the sheer implausibility of his guilt. . . . It was a failure of imagination on my part, and most excruciating of all, a bet on a losing proposition: that Lance Armstrong would never viciously inflict such pain and betrayal on kids, women, and guys with cancer, and their families, and every person he inspired, and every company that gave him money and trust.
Epsen was a journalist, and he discussed the matter with cycling journalists. But, he was not a member of the cycling press. And unlike Padroig, he didn't believe that Lance was a doper.
Epsen's is the sin of credulity, not of silence.
Epsen participated in “Lance boosterism,” ignored the evidence, and behaved like a credulous bumpkin. He accepts “how ridiculous that credulity looks today.” And though he holds Lance primarily responsible, he has the courage to accept some shame for himself.
More writers need to acknowledge their part in the harm Lance caused to so many people, particularly those who knew Lance was a doper but said nothing.