HLN: How has Lance Armstrong’s reputation changed since he first entered the sport?
Peter Flax: Twenty years ago, Armstrong was a brash kid who seemed interesting to hardcore fans of cycling. Ten years ago, he was a legend in the making -- a cancer survivor, a Tour de France champion, a philanthropic force, a sort of living, breathing miracle. In the last 10 years, that mythology eroded for many in the sport, in the media, and a growing number of fans. But in the past month or two, the whole thing has just exploded. Armstrong still has hundreds of thousands of devotees, but I think outside that core group of followers, his reputation is destroyed -- for now, at least.
HLN: Besides the doping accusations, what else has contributed to the demise of his reputation?
PF : I think it’s mostly the doping accusations, but Armstrong’s arrogance helped deliver him to this spot in life. Of course, his arrogance t--his intimidating and unshakeable confidence in himself -- served him very well as a bike racer. But he made a bunch of enemies and bullied some resourceful people, and that came back to bite him. People don’t seem to learn the lesson that heroes in sports or politics or pop culture are as human and fallible as the rest of us. Lots of people cheat, and now we know that Armstrong cheated, too. On the other hand, few people who cheat to gain fame and fortune use that fame and fortune to do something truly good, to inspire people. Now, people have to make sense of his complicated legacy. This is the most interesting part of this story for me.
HLN: How much of an effect will his poor reputation have on the sport? Do you think cycling will now become less popular?
PF: The next year or two will be difficult and pivotal years for the sport. People need to understand that the sport is way cleaner than it used to be -- far cleaner and more transparent than most other elite sports. People also need to understand that cycling has the courage to face the uncomfortable truths about doping and then move on. Casual fans might be surprised if they can filter out the chatter and watch the Tour de France or other big races next year; now that the sport is cleaner, the racing is actually more exciting to watch.
HLN: Are we seeing Armstrong at his lowest right now? Or is there more bad news to come?
PF: It may sound strange to say this, but I hope this isn’t the low point. This is hardly because I want to see Armstrong or his supporters suffer; I just think people need to hear the truth from Lance himself. So I think this might be the official low point, but it would also be the inflection point, where people could begin to contextualize his actions and mistakes and start to rebuild his legacy -- which, I believe, will ultimately remain that of one of the greatest bike racers of all time. I’m not sure that can easily happen without more bad news.
HLN: So you believe his legacy can withstand the accusations? Can he make a comeback, socially and financially?
PF: Yes, I believe Armstrong’s legacy can withstand these charges, but that’s not at all the same thing as erasing them. People will long remember that his mythology was brought down by a doping scandal. But I think in 30 years, people will think that Armstrong won those seven Tours de France. American culture, especially American sports culture, has repeatedly allowed people to come back from scandals and legal troubles. Look at Kobe Bryant, Michael Vick and Tiger Woods. I’m not saying it’s right; I’m just saying it’s the American Way.
HLN: What does Armstrong need to do in order to bounce back? What’s your advice to him right now?
PF: I think the time has come for Armstrong to tell the truth. I know he has to huddle with his lawyers because he has a lot of legal exposure. In my opinion, cycling would be wise to have a truth and reconciliation committee, where everyone who participated in the wrongdoing had to admit what truly happened, not to yield punishment, but to share the truth and move on. Despite all the ugly attention it’s getting these days, cycling isn’t any dirtier than most elite sports -- anyone who thinks that is naïve. So we don’t need to burn down the institution of cycling; we just need to hear the truth out loud. Armstrong, for his own sake and the sake of the sport that gave him so much, should figure out how to take that big step.