Doping and cycling

Lance Armstrong’s admission could instigate culture change

As perhaps the most visible and widely known icon in the cycling world, Lance Armstrong is a bit of a bellwether for the sport’s status and culture. His coming clean – with another cultural icon, Oprah Winfrey, in an interview aired Thursday night – settles for the record an open question about his use of performance-enhancing drugs and other banned practices. It is a low moment for cycling, but one that ultimately could set a course for the sport’s redemption. It will not be an easy journey – for Armstrong or the larger cycling community.

And as much as Armstrong’s confession is a broader statement about the culture and practices widespread among cycling’s elite, it is first an admission of his own missteps – actions that left too many friendships and trusted relationships shattered, all so Armstrong could maintain his claims of innocence, as well as the dollars that came with his success.

He has many amends to make in his attempt at accountability. And given that so many of his monetary gains were, as it turns out, ill-gotten, those amends are rather high stakes.

“It was a concerted effort to make a pot of money, and those of us who called him out were destroyed,” said Mike Anderson, a former personal assistant to Armstrong, in an interview with “Good Morning America” on Wednesday.

That personal betrayal, though, was part of a larger problem, Anderson said.

“He made the mistakes, but there were guys behind the scenes who built him up, who sold that lie to the public,” he said.

That is ultimately the bigger problem, but in being the poster boy for professional cycling – and an adamant denier of any wrongdoing – Armstrong’s confession and involvement with doping carries significant weight for his credibility. It is a significant breakthrough, though, in addressing a larger problem.

“A lot of riders said that this was really never about Lance to begin with. … Cycling has really been rife with doping for many, many years, especially in the ’90s,” said Juliet Macur a New York Times reporter in an interview on PBS News. “This could be a huge opening to cleaning up the sport of cycling if Lance comes out and tells everybody where he got the drugs, who helped him hide his positive drug tests and all those things, the sport could actually turn over a new leaf. But he has to come clean first to the officials.”

Indeed, Armstrong still has some distance to travel in his attempt to come clean. Fessing up to Winfrey is a very public and very symbolic first step. How he follows up and the extent to which he is willing to air the sport’s collective dirty spandex will determine just how quickly and wholly Armstrong and his beloved sport are able to rebuild their respective but intertwined reputations.

For now, cycling fans and aspiring professional racers must digest the deception that Armstrong carried out for more than 15 years, vehemently denying any wrongdoing and viciously attacking those who attempted to tell the truth.

It is demoralizing for all who wanted to believe in Armstrong’s superiority as an athlete who overcame all odds to achieve astonishing success. Hearing his admission is a step toward healing, but the wound will remain raw for some time.