One is that even if he doped, Armstrong was still a truly exceptional athlete, so naturally gifted and determined that he could have won the Tour de France without drugs.
The other is that Armstrong must have been the best rider in a bad bunch, because so many of his Tour rivals were also doping and yet he always came out on top.
Perhaps the promise and natural physical ability Armstrong demonstrated as a teenage triathlete, when one assumes and hopes he was clean, were always going to shine through and lead to some degree of success in professional sports, although surely not to the record seven Tour titles that have since been stripped from him.
Or perhaps it was only drugs and blood transfusions that made a serial winner of Armstrong. Perhaps he would have been far less stellar without them, not quite a donkey but not a world-beater, either.
The sad truth, one of many with Armstrong, is we will never know either way.
After years of insisting that he competed clean, Armstrong stunningly reversed course in his interview this week with Winfrey. It will air in two parts on Thursday and Friday.
More forgiving souls will continue to argue that since so many riders were cheating, the playing field in Armstrong’s era was more or less level and perversely fair.
Phooey to that, too.
Some riders refused to join the chemical warfare that cycling became. People like Christophe Bassons, a French cyclist shunned and told to pipe down by his peers after he punctured the silence about doping and spoke out at the 1999 Tour, the first Armstrong won.
To now still cling to the idea that Armstrong was always going to beat riders like Bassons is grossly unfair, because it cannot be proved.
“Christophe Bassons was a talented rider, for sure,” Jonathan Vaughters, one of Armstrong’s U.S. Postal Service teammates on the 1999 Tour, said in a phone interview this week. “How would he have done in the Tour de France had it been an equal playing field? We’ll never know.”
Bassons himself said: “In the top 30 or 40, you had a bunch of riders who could have been on the podium or challenged those at the top” if doping hadn’t skewed the competition.
Just as some people get drunker than others after a bottle of wine, dopers don’t all get the same performance benefits from drugs they take. Some could afford more or better doping than others, or more devious doctors and more reliable suppliers. Some are willing to take bigger risks, larger or more frequent doses and try products or methods that others wouldn’t.
Christian Vande Velde, a teammate of Armstrong’s on the 1999 and 2001 Tours, testified to the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency that he disliked needles and injecting himself and fretted about getting caught and the health risks of doping. So he didn’t adhere religiously to the doping program drawn up by the team medic; “I was not a model patient,” Vande Velde testified.
And Armstrong? Did he win because he was simply a more accomplished and organized doper? Winning the Tour isn’t purely an individual achievement but also a team one. The systematic doping program his U.S. Postal teammates detailed to USADA gave them and their leader, Armstrong, a performance advantage over rivals who weren’t so organized and dishonest.
“It’s got to be man versus man not man plus drugs versus man plus drugs,” said Vaughters, who runs the Garmin-Sharp cycling team and is one of the sport’s most vocal advocates for clean racing. He testified to USADA about his own and Armstrong’s doping when they rode together at Postal.
“Different bodies adapt differently to drugs,” Vaughters said. “I can’t say one way or the other whether Lance benefited more or less than his competitors. But what I do know is that there’s absolutely no way you can just say, ‘Well, it was fair.’ Because you can’t actually dig in and determine that.”
USADA annulled all of Armstrong’s competition results from Aug. 1, 1998. Very few people, perhaps only Armstrong, can know whether any of those results were achieved clean. Even if he said some of them were, would you believe him?
And what about before that date? Was Armstrong clean when he won the world championship in 1993, aged just 21? And how about when he rode in but failed to finish the Tours of 1993, 1994 and 1996, and placed 36th in 1995?
In 2006, in retirement from cycling having won his seventh Tour, Armstrong ran the New York City Marathon. He called it “without a doubt the hardest physical thing I have ever done.” He had sore shins and said he didn’t train enough. He barely broke his goal of three hours, with 800-plus runners finishing ahead of him. It was pretty impressive for a marathon debut but hardly world class. If Armstrong did that run for fun drug-free, is that a good gauge of his natural athletic abilities?
“I think his New York marathon results are the closest we can get to understand how he’d perform alongside other non-doped athletes when he races without a needle. Good result, but definitely not someone you’d regard as the world’s greatest endurance athlete,” Australian anti-doping scientist Michael Ashenden said by email, responding to questions.
“Sport has thousands of athletes who succeed at under age or national level but who fail to emulate that success on the international stage. Everyone also realizes that winning a one-day world championship is not the same as winning a three-week major Tour. We have some insight into Armstrong’s physiological limits from published results and those indicate he is a good athlete, capable of making a living as a pro. But his lab results definitely don’t suggest he was great.”
The waters have become so muddied by Armstrong’s cheating that it is no longer possible to say with certainty what he would have made of himself without it. Maybe he did have the physical attributes to be a Tour champion. Maybe not. That’s now nothing more than speculation. What a waste.
John Leicester is an international sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him at http://twitter.com/johnleicester