Why Lance Armstrong has my sympathy

Consider this: You and I have now won the Tour de France as many times as Lance Armstrong.

In case you need a quick recap: After more than a year of investigating, in June 2012, the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency (USADA) charged Armstrong with using illicit performance-enhancing drugs. In August, it stripped Armstrong of all competitive results from August 1998 on, and announced that he was banned from competitive cycling for life. In October, the sport’s governing body, UCI, accepted USADA’s recommended sanctions. By early November, nearly all of his sponsors had dropped him (including Nike, Anheuser-Busch, RadioShack and Oakley). In mid-November, Armstrong resigned from the board of directors of his foundation, Livestrong. Yet despite all this, and even though 26 of his former teammates have offered damning evidence against him, including several who admit to doping with him, Armstrong hasn’t publicly admitted to taking performance-enhancing drugs.

But that’s about to change because of — who else? — Oprah. The AP is reporting that Lance Armstrong admitted to using performance-enhancing drugs in his recent interview with Oprah, which airs Thursday night on OWN. I’ll be watching not just to see an admission of guilt, but to see an admission that he’s an addict, just like me, and needs help, just like I did.

I met Lance Armstrong several years ago at the Indy 500. I asked to take a picture with him and he kindly obliged. Though at the time I didn’t think he’d cheated, part of me had always wondered if he had. It’s not that I’m particularly cynical; it’s just human nature to question stories as incredible as Armstrong’s, especially after we’ve seen so many athletes, in particular Olympic swimmers and runners and MLB players, admit to using performance-enhancing drugs or steroids years after the fact.

When I first heard the news that Lance Armstrong had decided not to fight the charges leveled against him, I felt a bit sick to my stomach. As it became clear that the evidence was irrefutable, I became angry and indignant. A friend of mine said she felt personally cheated. Another called Armstrong a multi-syllabic name I can’t repeat here. Plenty of talking heads and regular folks have said that what he did was unforgivable and even disgusting.

And then there’s Bryant Gumbel’s invective. On his outstanding Emmy Award-winning HBO program “Real Sports,” Gumbel had this to say:

“Lance Armstrong … seems to have been little more than a liar, a cheater, a doper and a briber. Even though we’ve witnessed the disgrace of Pete Rose, the exposure of Tiger Woods and the incarceration of OJ, it’s hard to think we’ve ever seen any athlete in any era fall so hard so fast as Armstrong. The guy who bullied his way past any and all accusations for years while hiding behind his lawyers has now been understandably cowered into silence.”

Lance Armstrong has been universally excoriated, pilloried and condemned. Perhaps rightly so. This whole experience has been very painful — like watching a dream die. The USADA report called Armstrong “a serial cheat who led the most sophisticated, professional and successful doping program that sport has ever seen.” But while his denial and lies may be stunning in their audacity, let’s look deeper.