Leitura para o fim-de-semana: o purgatório de Lance Armstrong

Quando Lance Armstrong admitiu o consumo de substâncias dopantes, o mundo caiu-lhe em cima. Foi afastado da fundação que criou para promover a luta contra o cancro, perdeu contratos publicitários, chamaram-lhe todos os nomes. O que aconteceu desde então? A reportagem é da revista Esquire.

Foto: Joe Pugliese

Foto: Joe Pugliese


After a great fall, what do we remember? We remember the cheating, and the lies. We remember the cult of personality that we eagerly embraced, and then felt betrayed by. But what of the man who fell? What about the work he didn’t cheat at? What about the 16 years Lance Armstrong spent building a global cancer advocacy? Did it matter? Does it still? Does it matter that Livestrong, the foundation that kicked him out, now wants him back? Do we care what happens to the great work a man has done, after a great fall?

By John H. Richardson

Here in purgatory, the mansion is smaller, but the wine cellar, paneled in rich mahogany and stocked with thousands of bottles, is truly magnificent. The TV will go over on that wall. The lighting system is still being installed but it will be all muted and indirect, like an art gallery.

Upstairs, he leads a tour of his art collection. The work is edgy and full of dark action: a photograph of a dancing couple with giant thorns emerging from their backs, a photorealistic painting of a woman jumping through a window, an empty desert landscape charged with eerie stillness. “That’s by Ed Ruscha,” he says. “He’s a friend.” There’s a giant wooden map of Texas on the wall. If you look close, he says, you see that every single line was burned into the wood with a pyrographic iron. “I like art that makes me go, How did he do that?” he says. “Stuff that is technically amazing.”

Later, he says, he’ll dig out a really beautiful piece made completely out of cockroach wings.

On the desk of his little office nook sits a sculpted arm made out of laminated skateboards that, in a perfect touch, ends in a fist with an upraised middle finger.

The fall from an ordinary perch is a universal story. Few of us get through life without one taste of failure and disgrace. But the fall from a very great height is a different order of experience altogether, because it happens to a different kind of person—the kind who was driven to climb that high in the first place. Should it come as a surprise that such a person—this man right here—makes a lousy penitent?

Depression? Self-loathing? Emotional paralysis? Lance Armstrong will not indulge, thank you. A year and a half after the scandal that ended his career, after being stripped of all his trophies and confessing the ugly truth to his children and losing in a single day an estimated $150 million, these are the circumstances to which he has been reduced.

A glass of wine, perhaps? Or is it time yet to mix up some of his special margaritas—Lanceritas he calls them—with the ice crushed just so? He loves his Lanceritas, and he loves his crushed ice.

Despite his preference for solitary sports, Armstrong also loves a full house. Little children are everywhere, their toys littering the floor of every room. In the kitchen, a coven of beautiful women is preparing dinner. One is his loving girlfriend, a Modigliani blond named Anna Hansen. Her equally beautiful friend teases Armstrong with easy intimacy, bringing a glass of freshly opened wine out to the outdoor sofas by the pool. “Here’s your wine, HRH,” she says. “We call him HRH for ‘His Royal Highness.’ ”

While the food cooks, Armstrong lounges—on this Sunday afternoon in Austin, the sun is bright and the temperature cool—watching a toddler in a Supergirl outfit wrestle his youngest son to the grass. Life is good, he insists. He has five happy children. He’s learned who his real friends are. And he is learning to not fight all the time. Really. A fringe benefit of crushing defeat is learning to accept things.

Except for that leaf scooper jutting up over his wall. The neighbor always leaves it sticking up there. Look at that goddamn ugly thing, man, ruining an otherwise perfect setting. It is most definitely not perfect. Not perfect at all. You can see this incongruity just working on Armstrong, in his eyes, the set of his jaw.

“A couple more glasses of wine and you’ll climb over there,” a friend teases.

Halfway through dinner, Armstrong begins slurring his words. Just a little, barely noticeable. He detaches and focuses on his meal while his friends carry the conversation, chatting about Austin traffic and how the media only quotes the bad things. Some of Armstrong’s kids drift through, a little one sitting in his lap and begging for a sleepover. He masks affection with a pretense of crankiness, or maybe he is actually a little cranky. Either way, tonight every second of his forty-two years shows. Even here, in the afterlife, he manages to make relaxation look remarkably intense.

It bears reminding that before Armstrong became a reviled figure, this same intensity made him Herculean, to none more so than people all over the world with cancer. To those people, he remains a hero, and it is that work, he says, that has given his life the most meaning, even though the global cancer charity he built and seeded with almost $8 million from his own bank account told him not long ago it wanted nothing further to do with him and literally erased his name from memory, changing its name from the Lance Armstrong Foundation to the Livestrong Foundation.

But trail him for a few days and watch how giddy and hopeful the sick and the dying become in his presence, forgetting for a moment their nausea and pain and mortal fears. Amid all the controversy and disgrace, you admit, you forgot just how important Lance Armstrong was and still is to cancer patients everywhere.

“Yeah, you and about seven billion other people,” Armstrong says.

Last spring, he even got kicked out of a local swim meet. This was six months after the USADA—the United States Anti-Doping Agency—issued the lifetime ban against him competing in any sport “under the Olympic umbrella,” which includes pretty much anything anywhere. (The cyclists who testified against him, most of whom were just as guilty, got six months.) But he figured a little Austin swim race would be okay. It’s Austin, for chrissakes, his refuge, and the organizer said it was fine, he could swim—but then one guy had a problem and the calls went from Austin to Florida to Switzerland and finally the answer came back: No, Lance Armstrong can’t even compete in a local swim meet. “Anything I try to do, any sport, even archery and volleyball, I can’t do it,” he says.

He’s sorry, he swears, for the lies and the bullying and the lawsuits against journalists. “It was indefensible,” he says. “Pure hubris.” But he’s not going to be a hypocrite, either. The doping charges were bullshit. “Nobody has stepped forward and said, ‘I really won those races,’ ” he says. “They didn’t award those jerseys to somebody else. I won those races.”

This we can stipulate: Lance Armstrong cheated death, and then he kept on cheating. And he was no run-of-the-mill cheat. Sublimely American in his ambition, he became the best cheater, greatest cheater of all time, turning a European bicycle race into a gaudy, ruthless, and unprecedented demonstration of American corporate prowess and athletic hegemony. He doped and bullied other bikers to dope and sued or harassed people for telling the truth about him, which is hard to forgive. But he wasn’t the evil genius who invented evil. At twenty-three days and twenty-two hundred miles, the Tour is so hard that cyclists have always sought some kind of performance enhancement. In the 1920s, they took cocaine and alcohol, and in the 1940s, amphetamines. In 1962, fourteen of them dropped out because of morphine sickness. Between 1987 and 1992, use of the blood-oxygen booster called EPO may have killed as many as twenty-three riders. But even that didn’t stop them. In his testimony to the antidoping agency, testimony that helped ruin Armstrong, a former teammate named Frankie Andreu told investigators that when they first met on the European circuit in 1992, both of them quickly realized that “it was going to be difficult to have professional success as a cyclist without using EPO.” This was, in fact, the “general consensus” of the entire team, Andreu added.

And that’s how things stayed. The year before Armstrong won his first Tour, seven entire teams left the race after an assistant for the Festina team was caught with massive quantities of EPO, testosterone, and human growth hormone. The year after he left, the first-place winner got disqualified because of a bad test. The handful of idealists who refused to take anything at all, men like Darren Baker and Scott Mercier, quickly learned they couldn’t compete and dropped out. Everyone in cycling was aware of this history, and everyone knew the charges against Armstrong—the first book-length exposé came out way back in 2004. Nike even made them the subject of one of its most famous ads, a montage of swooping bicycle attacks matched to Armstrong’s confident narration:

Everybody wants to know what I’m on. What am I on? I’m on my bike busting my ass six hours a day.

He was a spectacular product, a very winning brand, and as long as he kept protesting his innocence and a shred of doubt persisted, anyone remotely associated with him continued to profit. Trek Bicycle doubled its sales, Nike washed away the memories of its sweatshop scandals, his teammates shared the profits from his victories, and his foundation pulled in hundreds of millions in charitable donations. The rest of us profited in more subtle ways. In the dark days that followed the 9/11 terrorist attacks, Armstrong was a living American myth, the troubled and cocky natural who fought testicular cancer and came back to win the hardest sports event in the world seven times in a row. Seven times in a row! It was a resurrection, a modern miracle. He appeared on Wheaties boxes, starred in those iconic Nike ads, presented a bike to Bill Clinton at the White House, hung out with Bono and Sean Penn, dated Sheryl Crow and Kate Hudson, and wrote a best-selling memoir calledIt’s Not About the Bike that inspired cancer patients like nothing had ever inspired them before. He replaced the phrase “cancer victim” with “cancer survivor” and made it so hip to wear a yellow Livestrong bracelet, ninety million of them sold at a dollar apiece. John Kerry wore one on the campaign trail. John McCain talked about cancer at a Livestrong event. There was serious talk about a campaign for governor of Texas.

Armstrong believed in this story as much as anybody. He came out of a shabby little Dallas suburb like a snarling dog, son of a scrappy teenage mother who still hasn’t forgiven the dirty looks of her classmates and a stepfather who cheated frequently and beat him with a fraternity paddle. “As bad as he says his childhood was,” one old friend says, “it was worse. And the lesson he took from that was that people will fuck you, and you have to fight for everything you get.” In sports, he transformed that lesson into a warrior’s code. “Did you ever hear about how when you stab somebody, it’s really personal?” one coach told him. “Well, a bike race is that kind of personal. Don’t kid yourself. It’s a knife fight.”

Armstrong treated the doping charges like a knife fight too, playing the cancer card shamelessly—in one Nike ad, racing along narrow roads in his iconic yellow helmet, he sneered at his detractors:

The critics say I’m arrogant. A doper. Washed up. A fraud. That I couldn’t let it go. They can say whatever they want—I’m not back on my bike for them.

Cut to a cancer ward, where the camera panned over the chemo-ravaged patients to teach those silly critics a lesson in what’s really important.

And he got away with it. Despite all the rumors and accusations, Armstrong retired in 2005 with a clean record. His fatal mistake was trying to make a comeback four years later—and that is where his story goes into a deeper level of myth. As in a prophetic tale, he remembers one particular night of grim foreboding in Fort Davis, Texas, when he sensed his comeback was going to bring down the furies. He and Anna were at a café. “Every part of my being said, I gotta fucking stop this right now—I can’t do this. And Anna, bless her heart, was saying, ‘What are you talking about? What’s the problem?’ ” But he couldn’t stop. The sponsors were chomping at the bit for a comeback. The foundation and the fans were excited. Fate was beckoning him, and he couldn’t turn away. “I would do anything to be sitting back in that small café with Anna, and make a decision to just call it off.”

Then it all vanished in an instant. Cornered for transgressions that surprised absolutely no one inside the sport, Armstrong suffered one of the most astonishing and brutal reversals of fortune in American history, a level of punishment so extreme it raises the question of what was really being punished.

A year and a half later, Armstrong is still trying to figure out the answer.”

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