Twenty years ago, Lance Armstrong won the Tour de France for the first time. He’d just triumphed over cancer, and stood as a testament to the power of will, hope and desire.
Or so it seemed. Armstrong built his championships on a foundation of lies, feigned outrage, character assassination and — above all — illegal doping. Seven years ago, after years of vicious battles both in the media and in courtrooms all over the world, Armstrong was stripped of his seven Tour de France titles. He remains a pariah, still vocal but forever stained. And unlike Tiger Woods, another icon who fell — or, more properly, leaped — from the public’s good graces, Armstrong doesn’t have a clear path to redemption.
Armstrong sat down with NBC Sports’ Mike Tirico recently for “Lance Armstrong: Next Stage,” a longform interview airing on NBCSN that delved deep into Armstrong’s past and his regrets over what Armstrong concedes is “the most colossal meltdown in sports.”
And speaking of those regrets — which included deceiving sports fans and cancer victims, uprooting friendships, costing himself and his sponsors millions, and incinerating his own legacy — Armstrong has a bit of a curious answer.
‘I was asking for them to come after me’
"I wouldn’t change the way I acted,” he says in the interview. “I mean I would, but this is a longer answer. Primarily, I wouldn’t change the lessons that I’ve learned. I don’t learn all the lessons if I don’t act that way. I don’t get investigated and sanctioned if I don’t act the way I acted. If I just doped and didn’t say a thing, none of that would have happened. None of it. I was begging for, I was asking for them to come after me. It was an easy target.”
Armstrong spent years denying allegations that he was using performance-enhancing drugs, and couched his denials in self-righteous outrage and vengeful vendettas against anyone — media, friends, fellow riders — who questioned him. But it was all a front, and he admitted as much in a 2013 interview with Oprah Winfrey.
‘I didn’t want to go home’
In the course of the interview, Armstrong concedes that his nature was to keep fighting, even if he knew he was fighting for a lie. “I knew there were going to be knives at this fight," he said, speaking metaphorically about the increasing use of performance-enhancing drugs in cycling. "Not just fists. I knew there would be knives. I had knives, and then one day, people start showing up with guns. That's when you say, do I either fly back to Plano, Texas, and not know what you're going to do? Or do you walk to the gun store? I walked to the gun store. I didn't want to go home.”
The question, of course, is how much of this interview is Armstrong trying to re-frame his story and reshape his legacy.
"I don't want to make excuses for myself that everybody did it or we never could have won without it,” he said. “Those are all true, but the buck stops with me. I'm the one who made the decision to do what I did. I didn't want to go home, man. I was going to stay.”
USA Today’s Christine Brennan, for one, isn’t buying it. “You built the lie,” she writes in an article directed at Armstrong, “then used it to make yourself epically rich and famous. You said you weren’t taking performance-enhancing drugs, but of course you were. You ruined people who dared to tell the truth about you. Your actions in defense of your constant lies were despicable then and are despicable now.”
Tirico presses Armstrong on a key question — if a kid came up to him and asked Armstrong should he or she cheat to get ahead, like Armstrong did, what would he say?
“I don’t ever want a kid to come up to me and ask me that,” Armstrong says, dancing around the obvious answer for an uncomfortably long time. “I don’t think I’m the right person to ask. I would advise them … My advice has to be, I don’t think that’s a good idea.”
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