We were all deprived of the The United States of America vs. Lance Armstrong last week when Armstrong agreed to pay $5 million and avoid potentially paying $100 million in damages for defrauding the U.S. government.
It could have been the sports trial of this century. The U.S. Postal Service would have tried to argue that Armstrong did more harm than good to the brand when he rode for its racing team from 1998 to 2005, a timeframe in which he won seven Tour de France titles but also ran one of the most Machiavellian, cheatingest cheating operations imaginable. The trial would have been a very literal tallying of what Armstrong was worth, ending in either absolute vindication for one of the greatest villains in the history of American sports, or his utter destitution.
I couldn’t wait. I had plans to be in the courtroom, writing about it as if I was shoveling bigger and bigger gobs of popcorn into my mouth hole as Armstrong faced every person he once regarded as an enemy, rat, turncoat, and weakling. Then in turn, those people would have dragged him through the mud, rubbed his nose in ever corner of his house of cards and lies, and ushered in his reckoning like the ghosts of Christmas.
But I didn’t get that.
Armstrong paid back less than one-sixth of his $32 million U.S. Postal contract and ended the whole thing.
So now I’m here.
Seeing how many metaphors I can blow in a single sentence.
And I know it’s silly to be upset.
Preparing for the trial — which was first set for November, then pushed back to early May — was like digging through a box of stuff you kept from when you dated your ex. I hadn’t thought about Armstrong much for years, then it hit me how bat shit it all was, and how much I cared. Patrick Redford at Deadspin ran down the entire history of the Armstrong saga. It’s impossible to pick out just one excerpt to sum it all up — that’s how many lives Armstrong manipulated and often ruined — and it’s all worth revisiting to see just how mean and petty someone can be.
My favorite example of how strange things became (and one of very few details overlooked in the Deadspin piece) is when Armstrong’s former teammate Floyd Landis recruited a personal cadre of internet trolls to subtweet Armstrong from a Twitter account for a fake lawyer named “Chade O. Grey”, who worked at a fake law firm called @GreyManrod.
After the 60 Minutes report aired, Landis sought out people on Twitter who “were saying the most fucked-up things [about Armstrong] but seemed to be educated.” Landis sent them private messages with the password to @GreyManrod and told them to “go on here and talk a bunch of shit.”
According to one person who received the password, Landis doesn’t just give it out to any old Lance-hater: a recent inductee was subjected to a month-long informal interview process after he learned Manrod’s identity from the March 27 webvideo.
After having his Tour title stripped in 2006, Landis blew the whistle on Armstrong in 2010, filing a lawsuit on behalf of the U.S. government under the False Claims Act. Landis’ subsequent campaign to discredit Armstrong ranged from subtle taunting — @GreyManrod tweeted “Nap time. Back in 60 Min” ahead of Tyler Hamilton’s 60 Minutes interview, in which Hamilton corroborated Landis and said he saw Armstrong inject EPO — to not-at-all subtle dick jokes. All of it could have potentially played a role in the trial — likely not in a good way for Landis and the U.S. Postal Service. But alas, Chade O. Grey never got his day in court.
To see Landis and Armstrong in the same room again is what I wanted most of all. Though technically one of many side characters, Landis was every bit as compelling as the boss himself.
Landis was Armstrong’s perfect foil — a former right-hand man who became cycling’s enfant terrible after immediately being stripped of a comeback yellow jersey for doping. Landis is a former Mennonite, now cannabis company owner, who never quite could buy into cycling’s pomp. Where Armstrong was an All-American depiction of grit and heroism, Landis was mostly just a goof who dug riding his bike. And in the two and a half years between his whistleblowing and Armstrong’s awkward confession to Oprah, Landis came off as the ultimate fink, like a henchman in a crime organization ready to offer up his mother to save his neck.
If anyone won the settlement, it was Landis, who took $1.1 million straight from the pocket of his archnemesis, and another $1.67 million to cover nearly a decade of legal fees. Not that he can feel truly vindicated — some of that money will go to paying off what he still owes to the victims of his fraud conviction, the more than 1,700 people who donated nearly $500,000 for his legal defense against doping allegations. Nonetheless, the law offices of @GreyManrod ought to have been overjoyed.
If only time hadn’t passed. Landis began to rely on opioids to deal with pain in his hip in 2006, and then eventually as a stopgap to deal with depression after he was officially done with cycling in 2010. He also lost his overwhelming desire to ride his bike, something that had driven him since he was a kid. He eventually discovered weed, cleaned up, mellowed out, and — though he still occasionally lobs bombs at the sport of cycling — largely left his feuds behind.
Landis had free license to tap dance all over Armstrong’s memory this week. And maybe he did, but if so he has yet to do it publicly. In his post-settlement statement, Landis no longer sounded like a merry prankster, saying both men are now “better off,” and that he thinks “[Lance] probably feels the same way.” Whenever Landis spoke in the months before the trial before then, it was only to say how much he wished the damned thing would be over with. Via the Atlantic:
I asked Landis, before the settlement was announced, about the prospect of the whistleblower suit making him rich again after his fall from grace, but he demurred: “I don’t care about the money. I don’t care if I get anything out of it.” Likewise, when I asked him his feelings about taking down his old antagonist, he said only, “It was never about Lance in the first place. But I had a choice to come clean or not, and if I did, it was going to be me against Lance, because he was going to fight.”
Landis changed, but even he held on to the belief that Armstrong would fight to the bitter end. Somewhere along the way, Lance apparently changed, too. He’s primarily a podcaster now, and he was invited to speak before the 2018 Tour of Flanders — what would have been his first official appearance at a pro cycling event since receiving a lifetime ban in 2012 — but he canceled the appearance.
Whereas even during his confessional interview with Oprah in 2013, he came off as bitter and defensive of his legacy, four years later he was taking the piss out of himself for an HBO screwball mockmentary starring Andy Samberg, John Cena, and Orlando Bloom:
The two most important men of the Lance Armstrong affair had been under investigation and litigation for more than a decade each before the settlement. If they were exhausted by the whole thing — indifferent to the outcome, and relieved to be done — that would be understandable: The settlement finally cleaned up a lot of detritus that had been hanging around from lives they no longer lead.
But that reality is disappointing to anyone who only knew them as firebrands. Even if the trial went forward, there’s a very good chance neither one would have had the heart to make it as dramatic as we’d been hoping it would be. Landis and Armstrong had seemingly moved on long before last week. So why hadn’t I?
It’s not like the trial would have given us any new understanding of Who Was Lance Armstrong. The answer is and has always been that he’s complicated, just like everyone else.
On one hand, he undoubtedly hurt the sport of cycling. American cycling in particular has been in the doldrums at the World Tour level since the Armstrong-era riders left. And champions of every nation can’t seem to outrun the suspicion that Armstrong engendered.
On the other hand, Armstrong was only an acute symptom of cycling’s disease. Everybody was doping, perhaps with tacit support from cycling’s governing body, and the fact that Armstrong was better at it than anyone shouldn’t automatically make him the martyr. (Oh and psssst, probably not much has changed.)
Did Armstrong exploit America’s love and loyalty, embarrassing a nation of 300 million people who had been conditioned to reflexively respond he never failed a drug test if anyone called him a doper? Hyup. He also beat almost-zero odds that he would survive advanced testicular cancer, and then became one of the greatest athletes ever. And he really, truly, made a positive impact on the world through Livestrong and the Lance Armstrong Foundation, which had raised $470 million in 15 years by 2012, the year he resigned from the organization and admitted he doped.
We can rightly call him a mean, unyielding, evil genius, while also rightly pointing out that level of single-minded obsession is something we celebrate in other contexts.
The trial would have largely rehashed a lot of old debates. The comment section in every Lance Armstrong article for the last decade has looked roughly the same: Some guy says he’s a fraud, another guy points out that everyone was doing it, then they hurl rocks at each other for another several dozen replies from across a 1,000-foot difference of opinion.
In the middle, getting pelted with rocks, is Armstrong, a guy who was a dick, but also someone who you could empathize with and say, “Well, I can see how things got away from him.” Once you become America’s darling, you either stay that way or you fall from grace. And in cycling at the time, the only way to win consistently was to cheat like hell. The sport is too cruel and unpredictable otherwise.
Armstrong’s story isn’t easily digested that way, though. Binaries are simpler, and much more fun. And the fact that he was praised just as vociferously as he was scorned demonstrates just how valuable he was to us both as a hero and a villain.
I know this because I liked both Lance Armstrongs equally. I followed his Tour rides then, wore the yellow rubber bracelet for my requisite months on end, and hollered he never failed a drug test if anyone called him a doper. And after he was banned, I was proudly indignant about Armstrong and cycling and what a scourge PEDs were in sports. The only reason I still followed the Tour de France after the rest of America bailed on it was because the race is in July, when school is out, and my mom would always have it on.
(And note, even she mostly watched so that 1.) she could see little towns she recognized on TV, especially near where she grew up, and 2.) Because she has a preternatural gift for spotting when spectators are mooning the cameras, and Tour de France butts are funny as hell.)
The trial was a chance to once again play our parts. In this big ‘ol complicated, decades-long kayfabe, we were both the audience and a major character. And just as Armstrong controlled his teammates with carrots and sticks, Armstrong was seemingly only ever purely good or purely bad to anyone who watched him win those seven yellow jerseys. Which isn’t to say he should be exonerated. At the same time, it is hard being on top.
That, more than anything, may explain why Armstrong gave in. To fight would have been an extraordinary effort to net little and risk a lot — losing $100 million might have been devastating, but $5 million should be palatable for a still-wealthy man who, in 2012, said he was worth “$100 milski.” He had nothing to gain in the public eye. No matter what happened in the trial — good or bad — we’d get out of him exactly what we wanted just by getting anything at all. Maybe he realized that.
Juliet Macur — the New York Times writer who followed Armstrong’s career as closely as anyone — wrote this week that being satisfied with a settlement is “not how Armstrong is wired, at least not the Armstrong I covered for more than a decade.” We know that something changed. And according to Macur, if Armstrong is truly happy now then “he has changed a lot. And that’s a triumph of its own.”
What Armstrong gained is the chance to leave doping behind, finally, without having to face anyone — including us — before disappearing forever if he wants.
And if he did quietly get everyone to shake hands and sign paperwork just so he could slip out the side door of his own story, then that’s perhaps the best, last needling act such a ruthless mastermind could possibly perform. He would have finally found a way to sneak in a laugh at all us rubes who couldn’t wait devour his life one more time, all geeked up for either a victory party or a funeral.
That, of course, assumes he still has it in him to scheme. I hope the answer is that he finally realized he doesn’t need to give a shit anymore.