The first half of Oprah Winfrey’s much-anticipated interview with Lance Armstrong aired Thursday night. Armstrong admitted to using performance-enhancing drugs while winning his record seven straight Tours de France.
Armstrong’s admissions, which came after years of denials, are stirring conversation inside and outside the world of sports, including on KQED’s Forum, which on Wednesday featured Daniel Coyle, coauthor of “The Secret Race: Inside the Hidden World of the Tour de France: Doping, Cover-ups, and Winning at All Costs.” Coyle described Armstrong as “a kind of Tony Soprano character”–the one who orchestrated his teams’ doping.
“He’s the one who had the best connections, he was the one who made the decisions, he was the one who decided what they were gonna do, worked out the program, hired the doctor,” said Coyle. “So for him to say that ‘I was just simply going along,’ is not true.”
Coyle said Armstrong was able to shut down the media, even after working openly with Dr. Michele Ferrari, an Italian physician widely suspected of being a doping mastermind.
Coyle said Armstrong’s open relationship with Ferrari “sent a big message. But so powerful was Armstrong at that point, and so powerful was the myth, that it sort of wasn’t really investigated. Armstrong fought back. In a famous press conference, he had a confrontation with (investigative reporter David Walsh) where he said ‘Are you calling me a doper or are you calling me a liar?’ And with that aggression, with his ability to try to control the press, with the press’s unwillingness or inability to dig beneath that, the myth kept rolling down the tracks.”
According to Coyle, Armstrong’s doping saga–its intricacies, denials, and lawsuits–is a “perfect window in the way Lance’s mind works. A lot of people would say, and his lawyers would say, ‘Don’t put yourself at risk– it’s potentially tens, maybe even more, millions of dollars.’ But he looks at everything in a very binary way, he sees a path forward, he sees a goal and he just does it.”
Coyle also said he believes a unique set of character traits drove Armstrong.
“It depends how much risk you want to take, how entrepreneurial you are, how aggressive you are, how competitive you are,” Coyle said. “Lance was a guy who ticked all those boxes, he was the guy who was built to succeed in this world, and who pushed it. It’s one thing to just dope because other guys are doing it. It’s another thing to say, ‘We’re going to invent the wheel every single year. We’re going to push it every year. We’re like Silicon Valley.'”
But as much as Coyle views Armstrong as the doping ringleader on his teams, he is equally adamant that doping has been part of the culture of cycling.
“There’s not that much difference between what happens on Wall Street and what happened in cycling during that era,” said Coyle. “You have very little regulation, you have very competitive people. … It’s easy to lose your way, especially when you’re determined to win at all costs. You know, that’s a phrase that we throw around a lot, but cycling in that era, and this story, shows us exactly what that means.” According to Coyle, his co-author Tyler Hamilton–himself a disgraced cycling doper–estimates that “90 percent of the guys on the Tour were doing something [illegal].”
In fact, says Coyle, “It was an honor to dope.”
Coyle described Hamilton’s experience:
“Tyler [Hamilton] said that it felt like he was being picked for the A-team,” said Coyle. Hamilton says a friendly, white-haired doctor who had worked with champions told him, ” ‘You have to do this for your health. Don’t take this pill. Don’t take it tomorrow because you might get tested and get busted, but this will help you.’ And [Hamilton] did, and that was the start. And I’m sure that’s how Armstrong started, I’m sure that’s how all these guys started,” said Coyle.
“It’s not just like these guys are taking an occasional syringe, this is an entire tapestry, it’s a whole secret world, it’s a soap opera,” said Coyle. “It’s sort of a mix of sports and some Jason Bourne movie. You’re transporting blood bags in a dog kennel to get during the race, and they’d go into a room and put plastic wrap over the toilet in case there was a microphone in there. They would tape up the smoke detector in case there was a camera in there. And they would do the transfusions. It was incredibly risky, it was incredibly lucrative, it was incredibly frightening. And that’s the world they were living in.”
Coyle suggested that you shouldn’t get your hopes up for Armstrong to show all his cards in his Oprah interview.
“Telling the truth is difficult for these guys,” Coyle said. “It’s not like you can flip a switch and simply remove 15 years of denial…. So it’s sort of difficult to say, ‘Hey Oprah, I’m gonna tell you everything,’ because your brain doesn’t work that way.”
Let’s just hope for everyone’s sake, the interview is more conclusive and more satisying than the Tony Soprano’s black screen.
You can listen to the Forum episode with Coyle and Lance Williams here: