In his first major interview since his infamous sit-down with Oprah Winfrey just over two years ago, former seven-time Tour de France champion Lance Armstrong spoke with the BBC about doping and the scandal that stripped him of his Tour victories and banned him for life from cycling.
During the interview, Armstrong was asked if he’d ever use performance enhancing drugs again, to which Armstrong replied:
“It’s a complicated question, and my answer is not a popular answer,” Armstrong said. “If I was racing in 2015, no, I wouldn’t do it again, because I don’t think you have to. If you take me back to 1995, when it was completely and totally pervasive, I’d probably do it again. People don’t like to hear that.”
But, of course, the headlines circulating the internet totally stripped the 1995 context out of the quote and made it sound as if Armstrong said he’d dope again today or into the future — a critical distinction given how there’s a push to have his lifetime ban shortened.
Yahoo! Sports: Lance Armstrong: I would dope again
Los Angeles Times: Lance Armstrong says he’d cheat again if doping remained pervasive
USA Today: Lance Armstrong: I would probably dope again
None of these headlines include the context of the 1990s when nearly all riders in the professional peloton were using drugs, making the competition a relatively even playing field. None of the headlines said anything about the part of the quote in which Armstrong said he wouldn’t dope today. And surely few of the reactions online took such an important aspect of the quote into consideration before using it as an excuse to bash Armstrong for, in most cases, simply being a jerky jerkface.
But just to illustrate the pervasiveness of doping and the atmosphere in which Armstrong competed in the 1990s and early 2000s, here are the other top five finishers in the Tours in which Armstrong won the yellow jersey.
2. Alex Zülle (SUI) — Caught doping in the Festina scandal
3. Fernando Escartín (ESP) — Caught doping, association with Dr. Ferrai
4. Laurent Dufaux (SUI)– Caught doping in the Festina scandal
5. Ángel Casero (ESP) — Caught doping in the Fuentes scandal
2. Jan Ullrich (GER) — Caught doping in Operation Puerto.
3. Joseba Beloki (ESP) — Caught doping in Operation Puerto.
4. Christophe Moreau (FRA) — Caught using steroids.
5. Roberto Heras (ESP) — Caught using EPO in 2005.
2. Jan Ullrich (GER) — See above.
3. Joseba Beloki (ESP) — See above.
4. Andrei Kivilev (KAZ)
5. Igor González (ESP) — Caught doping.
2. Joseba Beloki (ESP) — See above.
3. Raimondas Rumsas (LIT) — Caught using EPO.
4. Santiago Botero (COL) — Caught in Operation Puerto.
5. Igor González (ESP) — See above.
2. Jan Ullrich (GER) — See above.
3. Alexandre Vinokourov (KAZ) — Caught doping.
4. Tyler Hamilton (USA) — Caught doping.
5. Haimar Zubeldia (ESP)
You get the idea (more here). All-in-all, only three riders in the top five during those seven years weren’t caught doping, but that doesn’t mean they weren’t using PEDs, which they probably were.
There’s a reason why the ASO didn’t promote the second or third place finishers into the yellow jersey for those Tours and instead vacated the first place slot in Armstrong’s absence. In some cases, they’d have to dig down into the teens to find a clean rider to assume the top spot. To be sure, this doesn’t exonerate Armstrong or the other riders, but it provides context and insight into the era and the nature of the competition. (By the way, it’d be naive to think any of those riders, had they operated in a spotlight as bright as Armstrong’s, wouldn’t have bullied other riders or acted like jerk to protect his reputation and his winning streak.)
At the end of the day, it seems Armstrong is hated regardless of whether he lies or tells the truth.