The public loves nothing more than a comeback story, and Lance Armstrong's is one of the greatest: he survived testicular, lung, abdomen, and brain cancer, then went on to win the Tour de France a record seven times. Americans have a tendency to confuse victims with heroes, but Armstrong's triumphs have made him both.
Yet I've long had the impression that he is one of the most contradictory figures on the public scene, with an unblemished public persona which is hugely at odds with his real personality.
People will often excuse the bad behavior of champion athletes by saying, oh, that's just his competitive nature coming out. But it is one thing to be competitive, another to have a narcissistic personality.
Armstrong is evidently happy to hang with famous guys and romance famous women. But when it comes to his family, his fans, and eventually, even his famous girlfriends, they all just become secondary adjuncts to The Lance Show, minor moons orbiting his greatness. Time after time former friends and teammates say that when they were around Lance, they were effectively expected to scrape and bow, and run errands for him.
Only extreme narcissists will try to create a cult of personality around themselves. Armstrong has even named his foundation (Livestrong) partially after himself. (The really greedy narcissists want a reputation for goodness as well as greatness.) And he guards that reputation jealously. Anybody who dares to criticize him in any way immediately becomes his enemy.
As always, the most interesting question is why. Why did Armstrong turn out this way? Wikipedia is usually a reliable source for this type of information, and sure enough, the "Family and Personal Life" section of Armstrong's entry was quite illuminating:
Armstrong was born to Linda Mooneyham, a secretary, and Eddie Charles Gunderson of Norwegian ancestry, a route manager for The Dallas Morning News. He was named after Lance Retzel, a Dallas Cowboys wide receiver. His father left his mother when Lance was two and has two other children from another relationship. His mother later married Terry Keith Armstrong, a wholesale salesman, who adopted Lance in 1974. Linda has married and divorced three times. Armstrong refuses to meet his birth father and has described Terry Armstrong as deceitful.
There's certainly enough dysfunction there to explain Armstrong's personality. He never really knew his own father, and now refuses to speak to him. His mother has married and divorced three times, an indication that she may not have been that easy to deal with herself. Armstrong even describes his adoptive father as deceitful.
Deceit is something that Armstrong knows well. For years it's been obvious that he's been doping, an allegation he denies. But there are too many people who have leveled that charge at him, people who claim to have actually witnessed him doping, or been asked to store his vials of blood, or even been encouraged to dope themselves by him, for there not to be some fire behind all that smoke.
Armstrong continues to deny all of this. This past summer, while competing in the Tour de France, news emerged that federal subpoenas had been issued in connection with the current investigation, in particular allegations that Armstrong had gotten his teammates to dope as well. Armstrong's response: "As long as I live, I will deny it. There was absolutely no way I forced people, encouraged people, told people, helped people, facilitated. Absolutely not. One hundred percent."
For most people, a simple "No I didn't" would have sufficed. But a certain personality type tends to vehemence. Armstrong's denial is reminiscent of OJ Simpson's murder plea: "I plead absolutely, one hundred percent not guilty." It is also reminiscent of the way Bill Clinton wagged his finger at the assembled reporters and angrily declared, "I did not have sex with that woman!" (As Shakespeare once said, "The [gentleman] doth protest too much.")
It's harder to hold doping against an athlete who competes in a sport notorious for it. But at same time, it makes it all the more unlikely that a clean athlete would be head and shoulders above the others in that same sport. The Tour is the toughest of athletic contests; it has been likened to running a marathon every day for twenty straight days. (One would almost need drugs just to survive it.)
What is easier to hold against Armstrong is the pristine image he has cultivated, and the vehemence of his denials. Armstrong often refers to the number of doping tests he has passed. But dopers always seem to be a step ahead of the sports police. Michelle Smith always passed her tests (until well after the '96 Olympics). Marion Jones always passed her tests. Barry Bonds always passed his. The long list of athletes who've tested clean despite being dirty makes those results seem somewhat irrelevant.
People who believe in Armstrong attribute his success to his work ethic, and there is no denying that he is an extremely hard worker. But most top level cyclists push their bodies as far as they possibly can while training. What is it that allows one cyclist to train that much harder? Desire may be one factor. But an extraneous source of rejuvenating male hormones could easily be another.
It is mere coincidence that Armstrong once rode for the US Postal team, and thus got government funds, which he certainly didn't need. But that taxpayer money will probably prove Armstrong's downfall: it is what has prompted the current federal grand jury investigation into his drug use and possible fraud.
Lying to a grand jury is a serious crime. Martha Stewart didn't get sent to prison for her insider trading, which was minor; she was sent away for having lied about it to a grand jury. Likewise, Marion Jones wasn't sent away for having juiced, but for having lied about it to a grand jury. The Feds don't like it when you lie to them.
The people who have recently been subpoenaed by the grand jury convened for the Armstrong case must be aware of that. Floyd Landis, the recently disgraced and disqualified Tour winner, has already testified against Armstrong. More recently Greg LeMond, a longtime critic, has been called in. Many of the lesser names will undoubtedly sing when it is their turn to testify. And many of these people, who have been ridden roughshod over by Armstrong in the past, will be only too happy to do so.
FDA criminal investigator Jeff Novitzky, who is in charge of this investigation into possible doping conspiracies in cycling, has a reputation as a pit bull: he is the one who led the BALCO probe. This can only have a further tongue-loosening effect among those he questions.
Armstrong's public image, like Tiger Woods', has been at such a high level for so long that the sound of its crash will reverberate through every publication in the country. But unlike Tiger, Armstrong will be guilty when it comes to his sport, not just sloppy in his personal life. He's undoubtedly got enough money put away to live well for the rest of his life, but he won't be getting the endorsements the way he used to. (Tiger himself may have further to fall should it turn out that his steroid use can be proven as well.)
Sociopaths, when accused of something they are guilty of, react with all the outrage of the unjustly accused innocent; this is exactly how Armstrong has reacted. And it is one thing to dope oneself; it is downright sociopathic to manipulate one's teammates into doing the same. And it is sociopathic to treat those around you as expendable servants.
(Side note: one thing I've noticed over the years is that a large percentage of sociopaths, at least the Caucasian ones, seem to have thin lips, like Armstrong. I don't know why this would be so, and it's probably just coincidence. But, spurious or not, I have noticed a correlation.)
I have to admit, I've been watching the net close in around Armstrong with some glee. (This is just ordinary schadenfreude, not sociopathy.)
Addendum, 1/20/13: Two more recent posts about Lance's sociopathy, here and here.