Why Lance Armstrong has my sympathy

Laurie Dhue TV News Anchor
Font Size:

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.

Lance Armstrong is a flawed human being who did some really stupid things. He is also most likely an addict. As we know, addicts will do whatever it takes to get high: intimidate, deceive and coerce. That’s exactly what Armstrong did in order to win. Addicts often engage in pathological behavior, as Armstrong arguably did. Lance Armstrong faced an almost unimaginable amount of pressure from various global cycling entities, his sponsors, his foundation, his legions of fans, cancer survivors — the whole world, really. After all, no one remembers second place, right? The set of expectations was enormous. And so what did he do? He used and abused substances to give himself an edge in order to fulfill those expectations and win, time after time. I also abused a substance to “improve” my life. Mine was alcohol, but the effect was the same. And of course there’s the denial, which most of us addicts engaged in for years before getting help and which in Armstrong’s case seems rather epic.

“The intense amount of pressure and the thrill of victory combine to feed people’s narcissistic side to the point where they will do whatever it takes to continue performing at that level, no matter the cost,” Dr. Scott Bienenfeld, a psychiatrist, addiction specialist and medical director for The Core Company in New York City, told me recently. “They know intellectually that they’re doing something illegal but denial kicks in and they convince themselves that they’re still superstars, no matter what.”

Many people assume that steroids and performance-enhancing drugs are not addictive because there is no “high” associated with their use. But there is, according to Dr. Bienenfeld. “Once you try it and it works, you’re expected to perform at a higher level,” he told me. “You taste success and victory and there is definitely a high that comes with it. You realize that you need to keep employing that external enhancer in order to keep winning, otherwise you’ll just be with the herd.” Dr. Bienenfeld says that using these substances is like taking a beta-blocker before speaking to a group of a thousand people or auditioning for the New York Philharmonic, or taking Adderall to stay up all night studying so you get an A on that biology exam or finish that dang Power Point presentation.

The ritual, the deceit, the secrecy, the getting away with it — isn’t that all part of addiction? While going to the fridge to pick out a vial of EPO isn’t the same as meeting your heroin dealer in an alley or going on a 48-hour bender, the result is the same. For more than 15 years, I was addicted to the daily escape that alcohol provided. I would argue that for nearly that long Lance Armstrong was addicted to the results he got by doping. He was addicted to winning.

Some experts I’ve talked to in the addiction and recovery community consider steroid and performance-enhancing drug abuse a process addiction that’s similar to bulimia. Bulimics think, “If I just lose another five pounds, I’ll get the job I want” or “If I can fit into a Size 0, I’ll finally get the man of my dreams.” So it’s not really a stretch for a competitive athlete to tell himself: “If I can shave another couple of seconds off my time, I’ll win this time trial,” or “My sponsors are counting on me” or even “We all need a hero and if I keep winning, I’ll be hero material.” The self-deception is the same. Now, does this mean we should accept Lance Armstrong’s behavior and rationalize it as “his disease”? Certainly not. Without accountability, none of us is helped, and so he must be held accountable. But demonized? Shamed? Ridiculed?

Lance Armstrong lied, he cheated, he let us all down. I also let down countless people, no one more so than myself. But does blame really get us anywhere? Has it ever gotten us anywhere when discussing the epidemic of addiction? Why don’t we use this as an opportunity to discuss our relationship with drugs in this country? You could argue that the “Just Say No” mentality of the last 30 years has created such a culture of shame and secrecy that we can no longer be honest about what’s happening around us.

It’s no surprise that the media has self-righteously condemned Armstrong, but what about those of us in recovery? Have we been just as judgmental? Shouldn’t the glass house principle force us to feel empathy for Armstrong? If he is in the throes of addiction, then of course he lied and cheated. Most of us did too.

The truth is, steroids or not, winning the Tour de France isn’t easy. Any of us mere mortals could take steroids and use performance-enhancing drugs and not be able to win a local bike race against junior high kids. Lance Armstrong is an exceptional athlete. His competitors were doping too, but Armstrong won, time after time. Doesn’t that mean he was the best? Can we entirely negate his accomplishments?

Lance Armstrong is a sick man. A sick man who, like many others before him, has done more than a fair amount of good. It’s hard to criticize the staggering amount of money Lance Armstrong and his Livestrong Foundation have raised for cancer research: half a billion dollars since 1997. And according to Forbes magazine, the foundation has helped 2.5 million cancer survivors with free patient navigation services. He also raised awareness about all forms of cancer. Think about how rarely testicular cancer was publicly discussed before Armstrong hit the scene. And think of the thousands upon thousands of public appearances he has made. He has demonstrated the enormous swings that addiction-addled people are capable of.

In his HBO commentary, Bryant Gumbel ranted, “I can’t think of any single athlete more undeserving of empathy.” As a recovering addict, I take umbrage at that comment. People suffering from the disease of addiction do deserve empathy. I have empathy and compassion for Lance Armstrong because I know what it’s like to use external substances to bring satisfaction and relief. While you may loathe what Armstrong did, and may not feel like wearing your yellow wristband for a while, pause for a moment to consider that he’s not a perfect person. He may not even be very likable. But perhaps if we look at him as someone who’s not just a liar and a cheat, but someone who’s sick and suffering, we can make this a teachable moment.

Honesty is not always easy. It took me many years to get honest about how my addictions were slowly killing me. But ultimately, isn’t being honest infinitely easier than being dishonest? Lying is never worth the price you must pay. With every lie, you put yourself in a corner from which, eventually, there is no escape. Lance Armstrong’s lies eventually caught up with him in spectacular fashion. Maybe one day he will admit that he has a problem, get honest with himself, accept responsibility for his actions and move forward into a life that’s free from shame. That’s what I’m hoping will happen.

Laurie Dhue, a veteran TV news anchor and media consultant, has been alcohol and drug-free since early 2007. She is editor-at-large for Renew, one of the country’s leading recovery websites (www.reneweveryday.com). Dhue is also a member of the Caron Foundation’s New York Advisory Board and a board member of the National Youth Recovery Foundation. She travels coast-to-coast as a recovery advocate giving motivational speeches, moderating panel discussions and emceeing events.