Has Lance Armstrong Finally Come Clean? (Ep. 342)

Listen now:

How did Lance Armstrong pass every drug test during his run of seven straight Tour de France wins? He timed his doping around the drug’s half-life. “It was just about managing the math.” (Photo: Vélocia/flickr)

Our latest Freakonomics Radio episode is called “Has Lance Armstrong Finally Come Clean?” (You can subscribe to the podcast at Apple PodcastsStitcher, or elsewhere, get the RSS feed, or listen via the media player above.)

He was once the most lionized athlete on the planet, with seven straight Tour de France wins and a victory over cancer too. Then the doping charges caught up with him. When he finally confessed to Oprah, he admits, “it didn’t go well at all.” That’s because he wasn’t actually contrite yet. Now, five years later, he says he is. Do you believe him?

Below is a transcript of the episode, modified for your reading pleasure. For more information on the people and ideas in the episode, see the links at the bottom of this post. And you’ll find credits for the music in the episode noted within the transcript.

*      *      *

Lance ARMSTRONG: My name is Lance Armstrong and I’m — what do I do? That’s a really good question.

Armstrong of course used to be the most lionized athlete in the world. He’s from Plano, Texas. He came up relatively hard.

ARMSTRONG: I didn’t grow up on the street, but I didn’t grow up behind a white picket fence with 2.3 brothers and sisters and an S.U.V. and a mom and a dad. My mom and I were scrappers.

He swam competitively, ran track and cross-country; he rode a bike too.

ARMSTRONG: And then I did triathlons professionally, from the age of 15 to 18.

He specialized in events that placed a high value on the ability to withstand suffering.

ARMSTRONG: You have to train very hard and you just got to be tough as nails.

Armstrong wasn’t good at school, and he wasn’t interested either. But it didn’t seem to matter. He became a professional cyclist and, when he was 27 years old, he won the Tour de France, the three-week, 2,200-mile race that makes the Labors of Hercules look like a walk in the park.

ARMSTRONG: I mean, it is really a brutally, brutally hard sport.

The Tour de France is so famous that it’s known even by people who know zero about cycling — which, in America, was pretty much everyone. That changed with Lance Armstrong, especially when he won again the following year. He put half the nation in spandex. Then he won again, again, again — an unprecedented seven Tour wins, all in a row. He became a hero, then a legend, and then something even bigger. Because he won those seven Tours after having survived cancer and starting a cancer foundation called Livestrong. You know those yellow Livestrong bracelets? He put even more people in them than he put in spandex. Armstrong was loud, cocky, and combative — on and off the bike. But it worked. It seemed he literally couldn’t lose, at anything. He had a rock-star girlfriend. There was talk of him going into politics someday, maybe running for governor of Texas. But there was also talk of him cheating, of doping his way to victory. Cycling — along with most other sports — has a long history of cheating.

ARMSTRONG: You know, the original Tour riders were jumping on trains and holding on to cars and taking cocaine.

Journalists and others came forward with seemingly credible evidence that Armstrong was using, among other things, erythropoietin or EPO, a naturally occurring hormone thought to boost performance. Armstrong aggressively denied the charges.

ARMSTRONG: [From this clip] I have never doped. We’re sick and tired of these allegations and we’re going to do everything we can to fight them.

In some denials, he seemed to wrap himself in the cape of a cancer-survivor superhero — like this one, from his 2005 Tour de France victory speech:

ARMSTRONG: [From this clip] The cynics and the skeptics, I’m sorry for you. I’m sorry you can’t dream big and I’m sorry you don’t believe in miracles.

But in 2012, seven years after his last Tour de France victory, most of the allegations were finally proven true.

HOST: [From this ABC News clip] Some breaking news now on Lance Armstrong: the global governing body of cycling has just announced moments ago that it will ban Armstrong for life and strip him of his seven Tour titles.

Ultimately, Armstrong confessed. But America wasn’t buying it. It wasn’t just that he’d doped; that’s what cyclists did. Nor was it that he lied. It was the way he lied — attacking his accusers; suing them. Even his confession seemed to lack an ounce of contrition. Armstrong had gotten very rich, but between lawsuits, lost sponsorships, and other clawbacks, he now lost something like $100 million. He was sued by, among many others, the U.S. Government, for having defrauded his team sponsor, the U.S. Postal Service. Armstrong also got kicked out of his own cancer foundation. So where does all this leave a person?

ARMSTRONG: My name is Lance Armstrong and I’m — what do I do? That’s a really good question.

He’s got five kids — three from his first marriage and two with his fiancé. His offspring are also athletic.

ARMSTRONG: My son, I just took him off to Rice University, where he’s playing football.

Armstrong splits his time between Austin, Texas, and Aspen, Colorado. He was in Aspen when we spoke with him:

ARMSTRONG: I just took my wife and my son over to the CP Burger and had a cheeseburger and some fries, and a chocolate milkshake.

He also hosts a couple of podcasts: a seasonal Tour de France commentary called The Move; and his mainstay, an interview show called The Forward:

ARMSTRONG: Many of the guests that I’ve had on have had these moments in their lives, where they’ve had to establish some sort of a bottom, a low point in their life, and then decide for their own sake and their family’s sake and everybody’s sake that they’re going to move forward.

Today on Freakonomics Radio: you’ll hear a man trying to reinvent himself, and grappling with his mistakes in real time. Has Lance Armstrong finally come clean? You be the judge.

*      *      *

Lance Armstrong spends a lot of time these days trying to reconcile how the world sees him and how he sees himself.

ARMSTRONG: Nobody wants to hear that a certain segment of any population is pissed at them or hates them, or whatever. And for a long, long time that really, really affected me and bothered me. And I just want to be honest with you and the listeners. I understand. How could you not be?

The 2018 Tour de France is finishing up this week. There are still constant doping allegations and, occasionally, penalties. Armstrong still feels he was unfairly scapegoated for all of cycling’s sins.

ARMSTRONG: I raced in a generation and on a team that was amongst 20 other teams that all did the same thing. Every single one of them did the same thing. I went to the American team in ‘92. And I’ve referred to this a lot over the years, I referred to it as low-octane and high-octane: cortisone and things like that are low-octane and then when you get into EPO, the 10 percenters, those are high-octane. And the sport of cycling in the mid 90’s, EPO was like wildfire. And we were holding out, holding out, holding out, just assuming that, “Come on, there has to be a test for this,” and we got to this moment where we looked around and were like, “Oh my god. We don’t have a choice.” Or, well, we do have a choice. Our choice is to go home. We could just quit. Retire. But if we want to stay and fight — we were all walking around with knives, because we were told we were going to a knife fight. And next thing you know, everybody had guns. And we said, “Oh s—, these boys are carrying guns.” And so in the spring of ‘95, we went to the gun store.

DUBNER: Are you surprised at how long you got away with it? And I’m curious what kind of cost or burden it must have been to keep it secret for so long, especially when you’re getting accused of it.

ARMSTRONG: It’s made a lot easier when you have drugs that were undetectable — not even drugs plural, really a drug. Right? That is really all about EPO. Two things. One, a drug that was undetectable for very long time. So, it was the Wild Wild West. And secondly you had a drug, EPO, that had a half-life of somewhere between four and five hours. It’s very easy to monitor that, and if you knew that you were going to be in that window of time you’d be tested, if you could just do some basic math, you could figure that out. And then thirdly, and I did say this — and I’ve got a bunch of criticism for it, which I should have — my line used to always be, “I’ve passed every drug test they’ve ever given me.” And people sort of laughed at that after the fact. But the reality is that that’s actually true. Because every time those tests were given, they were clean. Because if you manage the half-life and you manage the time of year — there’s a window of risk.

I cared about one event. And that’s the Tour de France and it’s in July. So I knew that I had to open up that window of risk for six to eight weeks. And that was it. So come August, September, October, November, all the rest of the months — “Guys, you can come all day long, any day, any time of day. Doesn’t matter.” Of course that doesn’t change anything, right? Most people would say, “Well, just because you managed the half-life and did the math right, that doesn’t mean that the test was clean.” But I guess it’s all to say that there was no other nefarious masking or anything. It was just about managing the math.

But there was some masking. Swapping out blood, for instance, to avoid detection. Here, from the 2013 documentary The Armstrong Lie, is the journalist Daniel Coyle.

Daniel COYLE: In 2000, they developed a test for EPO. So the smart guys — Ferrari being one of them — go back to an older technology which was you take out bags of blood out before the race. During the race you put them back in.

“Ferrari” is Michele Ferrari, the Italian doctor and doping expert who worked closely with Armstrong and has also been banned from the sport.

ARMSTRONG: The transfusion became part of our world once they developed the test. It became a part of everybody’s world. I mean, transfusions is old-school, right? That’s retro. That’s what they did in the 70’s and 80’s. And so people said, “Okay, well, we’ll just go retro.” 

DUBNER: If we’re talking old-school and doping, you can go back to the early days of the Tour. You can go back to the original Olympics. Performance-enhancement drugs have been around as long as, if not longer than, sports, right?

ARMSTRONG: Well all of that is true. But none of us thought about the ancient Greeks. We were thinking about ourselves and thinking about just how f—ing hard this sport is, and how we’re just getting throttled.

DUBNER: You’d been riding for so many years, you had this unbelievable endurance, physical and mental. And then you started taking EPO. And now you’re riding off in the same courses, the same hills, whatnot. You knew what’d it feel like before. What did it feel like, physically, in comparison when you had EPO in your bloodstream?

ARMSTRONG: It’s very hard to compare. I can try to imagine. I’m 46 years old and 15 pounds heavier than I was then. So, naturally it’s a lot harder. You go a lot slower, you breathe harder, you sweat more, and that’s just that.

DUBNER: Did it feel like you had a little engine helping you out. Was it that drastic, or not really?

ARMSTRONG: It’s interesting. There’s no, that I’ve ever heard of, or seen, or taken — there’s no compound that prevents suffering. Right? So even with EPO or whatever, you still feel all of the effects of — if you’re in a race and you’re over the limit and you’re suffering. I had — the only thing I’d point to is that I had an unbelievable ability to buffer lactic acid. So when you’re on a one-hour climb at the Tour de France, the thing that starts to make you go slower is lactic acid. If you just went running uphill as fast as you could and sprinting, you would start to slow, slow, slow, slow, stop. The thing that stops you is lactic acid. So I had this ability to not only buffer it, but clear it. So once we hit the downhill, then my lactate levels would drop significantly faster than anybody else. That’s really the only thing we could point to. And then I just trained my ass off. I loved it. I thrived on the work in the process, it was my favorite part of it, to be honest. And then when I got in the race I just didn’t want to lose.

DUBNER: But do you think you could have won any Tours de France without doping?

ARMSTRONG: Well, it depends what the other 199 were doing.

DUBNER: Well, considering what was actually happening at the time, considering your opponents.

ARMSTRONG: Say I did nothing?

DUBNER: If you did nothing, could you have won?

ARMSTRONG: Zero percent chance.

The subject of doping occasionally comes up on Armstrong’s Tour de France podcast, The Move. Here he is, at the start of this year’s Tour, talking about the champion British cyclist Chris Froome, who came under suspicion after a urine test showed a high level of an asthma medication. But a ruling by the World Anti-Doping Agency, or WADA, put Froome in the clear to ride in this year’s race.

ARMSTRONG: And so they roll out the teams, they introduce the teams, and they go in reverse order. And all of the articles that I read were just about this unbelievably hostile reception that Chris Froome got at the team presentation, which is not surprising. I mean, I said that’s going to happen. It’s going to be like that for three weeks so, get used to it. But they were all really focused on that. And then I start watching the race, three guys in the break. Yoann Offredo, this young kid; Kevin Ledanois, whose father Yvon Ledanois I raced with for a long time. Long story short, Yoann Offredo, here’s a kid who’s — I’m watching, everybody is clapping and everybody’s happy. They got the French guy out there, and they are loving it. And here’s a kid who missed three tests in 2012, suspended for a year. And I’m just going “Hang on a second. I get it that the tallest trees get all the wind. I know that. But how are we — Is there anybody else in the race that had to sit out a year?” Well I don’t know exactly but—

CO-HOST: I’m sure there are.

ARMSTRONG: That’s just — come on people.

DUBNER: Lance, that was an amazing moment to me. To hear you making that commentary and hear, at the end of it, your frustration that after all you’ve done and been through, and after all the sport has been through — that it feels like it’s more dysfunctional than ever. And I really wanted to get your take on the state of the sport, especially as doping is involved.

ARMSTRONG: And I don’t know if doping is or is not involved. The situation with Chris Froome involved his asthma inhaler. This is a far cry from a gallon of EPO. This is very, very different. So, nonetheless, it was twice the allowed limit which got him in the hot water. And look, Chris Froome has won four Tours. He’s trying to win a fifth. The rider that I kept referring to there, Yoann Offredo, he hasn’t won his neighborhood criterium. So, it’s obvious — we all know that the biggest, as I said in that clip, the tallest trees catch the wind. It may come off like I am, but I try not to relate these things to me, but a huge chunk of my competitors are driving team cars, and working for sponsors, and working for the organizer of the Tour de France. But none of them won seven Tours. And so it’s a very similar situation. And so I do get frustrated with that.

But let’s just get straight to the point here of what is wrong with the system, and if the aim in 2012 was to finally fix the system, they didn’t. They absolutely didn’t. And we still see it today. And it’s a disservice to, not just Chris Froome, or the fans. It’s a disservice to all of the stakeholders: the riders, the teams, the sponsors, the media, the fans. Everybody involved. And listen, you and me could talk. We don’t have enough time to talk about how dysfunctional cycling is and the structure of the sport.

DUBNER: Right. Just get to the good part at the end. Let’s pretend for a minute that you were made czar of global cycling for a year. What would you do?

ARMSTRONG: The first thing that I would do— That’s a loaded question. It’s a fun side project to take on, but just off the top of my head, the first thing that I would do is: I would leave the Olympic movement. I would get out from under the control of the International Olympic Committee. Be your own sport. Structure your own sport. Manage your own sport. Have your own anti-doping regulations, but don’t be beholden to people like the I.O.C. and to WADA and to these organizations that are not interested in the success or the health of the sport of cycling. They’re politicians. And so get as far away from that as you possibly can, as quick as you can.

And then from that point on then, you have to decide, “Right, how do we structure this thing? Who has equity here?” I guess the second thing I would then do is back up just half a step. The only entity that makes money in this sport is A.S.O. And that’s the parent company that owns the Tour de France. If you look at the N.F.L., you look at MLB, you look at the N.B.A. Guess what? All of those players, all of those teams, even if you look at the Premiership in England, the teams and the team owners, they get one very important thing and that is a share in T.V. revenue. I’ll give you a guess at how much revenue the riders and the teams in cycling get from the Tour de France. It starts with a zero and it ends with zero.

DUBNER: Wow. You’re kidding me.

ARMSTRONG: I’m not.

DUBNER: Is that because — there are other individual sports, you don’t have to be unionized like the N.F.L.P.A., you don’t have to be unionized to get a cut. Do you follow U.F.C. much?

ARMSTRONG: A little. I know there was a fight the other night for example, but I don’t know —

DUBNER: So the athletes in U.F.C. apparently get around 8 to 10 percent of total revenues. Whereas in the N.F.L. it’s about 50 percent, it’s been as high as 60 percent. So, you could argue that you need the union to make it happen. What is the story in cycling, why have the athletes never been able to get enough leverage to get any cash off the top?

ARMSTRONG: You really have to have that union. And the union has to be united, has to be strong, and has to be well-led. And when I say “united,” I mean that nobody can cross that line. If we go to A.S.O., the owner of the Tour, we don’t have to go in and say we want 50 percent today. I don’t care where we start. Let’s start at 10 percent. Let’s be strategic here. I’m not trying to lay out a playbook here, because none of this is going to happen.

DUBNER: No, I like it.

ARMSTRONG: So let’s be reasonable. Right, let’s come in with the trojan horse. Let’s give what we can and then, every two years or whatever, we’re going to come in and redeal you, and if you don’t, well guess what, we’re not coming. They can put other people in the race, scabs, but it’s not going to be the same race. And listen, there is a union, just so you know, there’s a union in place that’s called the C.P.A., but it is completely ineffective. They have no power, no stroke, no influence. And the people like A.S.O. and the Tour, as great as that event is, boy they sit there every day and go, “Thank God. Thank God these guys are not organized.”

And then just one final thing, because this one really speaks to investing in the game. So the way that cycling works today is almost akin to NASCAR, right? You have team owners, you have different teams. They go find sponsors, they go find Lowe’s, they go find Home Depot, they go find Target. That’s exactly the way it works in cycling. That’s very different than Jerry Jones and the Dallas Cowboys, the Steinbrenners and the Yankees, John Elway and the whoever. There, they actually own the team, and when they’re done or when they want to be done they can sell the team. We see it happen, quite frequently now.

In cycling, once that sponsor, once the last day of that contract is up and you do not find a new sponsor, you just go home. The only equity you are left with — and this is so sad — you could have had a team with a budget of $25 million a year for four years, so you just had $100 million come through the sport. At the end of it all, here’s what you own: Because you don’t have a stadium, you don’t have a franchise. All you have are all the old bikes, the team bus, maybe some team cars, a whole lot of apparel and that is it. You do not own a thing.

DUBNER: And for the athletes then, you’re totally susceptible or vulnerable, right? You’re barely controlling your own fate, and you’re certainly not controlling the fate of your employer, which I would think would create an incentive to do whatever you can for yourself at that moment.

ARMSTRONG: It’s like you’ve been tapping my phones for the last five years. You are exactly right. Because when an athlete, especially a young athlete, from maybe from a rough background, uneducated — you put that kid in that place. I was that kid. I know exactly what that kid is thinking. And they look around and they’re like, “Okay, what’s my option set here?” I can tell you what they’re going to do. We’re talking about the business of cycling. You can also talk about the anti-doping movement. It is where the two meet.

By the way, if the union is strong and unified and well-organized and well-led and there is incentive, because we’re making money off the T.V. revenue, or the T.V. rights worldwide, if we’re all participating in the upside of the sport, you would think that the athletes then start to self-police. Because look, they look across, there’s 200 guys in the group. They look over there like, “Hey man, if you’re doing what I think you’re doing, just keep in mind that we’re all participating in the upside here and that is potentially damaging to our revenue.” And so it just all is so frustrating because it will just never happen.

DUBNER: If you look at the post-career resurgence and public embrace of Alex Rodriguez, here’s a guy who doped at the highest levels and also performed at the highest levels. Do you look at someone like him and wonder why he gets more of a pass than you seem to be? And what are the differences?

ARMSTRONG: The answer is absolutely. But I just want to be really clear that when I ask the question to myself and really, really want an answer, it’s not because I’m jealous or envious. I’ve met Alex many times, he’s been perfectly nice to me and my kids. I wish him the best. The reason I ask is — I just want to know why. Like what, what is the difference? And I actually, this is so funny. It’s f—ing crazy, like you’ve been tapping my phone. Six months ago, I woke up one day, and I was in Austin alone and I woke up and it was on my mind. And I went crazy. I was literally running around the house. And I said, “Okay, I’m going to ask five of the smartest people I know what they think the difference is between Alex Rodriguez and myself.” And the answers were pretty consistent. The one key thing is that Alex Rodriguez was allowed to come back and play. And Alex Rodriguez was part of a team sport. And, thirdly, Alex Rodriguez never stood for anything else other than baseball.

So, I was never allowed to come back to my sport at any level, and most people viewed it as an individual sport. And I stood for much more than just cycling. You want to hear this crazy little side note of that day? I was running — I’m not s—ing you, I was running around the house and it was a Sunday. And I was watching the N.F.L. on Fox, because I love watching football. And the lady says, “And we’d like to introduce our newest cast member on the desk here on N.F.L. Sunday on Fox: Michael Vick.” And man — and then I just lost it. I was like “Okay, you know what, I don’t — f— it. I don’t know what’s going on.”

DUBNER: Well, let me offer a fourth possible explanation. As everyone has said throughout history, the cover-up is way worse than the crime — usually, right? The situation as I see it is that: a) you were the tallest tree in the land, you win seven, that’s going to be number one; and number two, even though your argument and the argument of a lot of people is everyone was doing it, when you were confronted with it and charged with it all along, you didn’t kind of duck it, but you denied it with a vigor and a venom and sometime really viciously against individual people, that when it came out that it was true — to me, that’s what people don’t want to forgive. And if that’s what it is, the difference between you and a Mike Vick and you and A-Rod — I’m curious whether you think that maybe is a worse infraction.

ARMSTRONG: If you believe what you read — and, believe me, I’m the last one to believe everything I read — but if you believe what you read, and let’s just use for the purposes of this discussion, there was not just one offense, there was two, which is worse. There was an extremely litigious nature to his action and reaction. And so not to debate it with you, but there is no difference.

DUBNER: So must just be that he’s better-looking than you or something. It’s got to be cosmetic.

ARMSTRONG: Listen, that is not very hard to do. I was at the back of the line when they were handing out the looks. Look, and the only thing I’ll say just to my fans, or maybe fans or no fans is, I know I did that. I know I treated people the wrong way. I know I sued people. But I’ll tell you what I have done. This thing’s cost me $111 million dollars. Everybody’s been paid back. The people that were treated poorly, I have traveled the world to sit with, to talk to, to apologize to, to make amends and to try to move forward.

*      *      *

Even today, Lance Armstrong isn’t one to shy away from a fight. Whether it’s talking about his career, his fall from grace, or his current self-reclamation project, he’s willing to be accountable to some degree. But you get the sense he’s also constantly eyeing the horizon, to see who’s coming after him. He was, remember, a scrapper as a kid, raised by a single mom; he didn’t have much pedigree or advantage. He went pro as a teenager and then, as a lead rider on a cycling team, he was surrounded by other riders whose job, essentially, was to shield him: from the wind; from opposing riders; from unwanted scrutiny. But now, Armstrong is pretty much without a shield. It’s been a big adjustment. Like a lot of world-class athletes, he got walled off, early in life, from the real world. When you finally get dropped back into reality, the rules of engagement aren’t clear. This was evident back in early 2013, when Armstrong sat for a long interview with Oprah Winfrey. It was time to finally admit what he’d been denying for years; he called his cycling career “one big lie.”

Oprah WINFREY: [From this clip] Let’s start with the questions that people around the world have been waiting for you to answer. And for now I’d just like a yes or no.

ARMSTRONG: Okay.

WINFREY: Okay? This whole conversation, we have a lot of time, will be about the details. Yes or no, did you ever take banned substances to enhance your cycling performance?

ARMSTRONG: Yes.

WINFREY: Yes or no, was one of those banned substances EPO?

ARMSTRONG: Yes.

WINFREY: Did you ever blood-dope or use blood transfusions…

DUBNER: You went on the Oprah show to confess, finally, after a lot of round and round. I’m curious: a lot of people criticized what seemed to be a lack of contrition, and I’m curious to know if you came to regret that, and I’m also curious to know why and how you chose that forum, the Oprah show, to do that.

ARMSTRONG: I’ll work backwards. So, she had been a friend of mine for a long time. She is, obviously, who she is. I trusted her to do a tough, yet a fair interview. And there were a few other options, Tom Brokaw’s a good friend of mine. I had discussions with him. And, look, no matter who I talked to, be it you, be it Jesus Christ, be it whoever, it was not going to be good. It was only going to be bad. But I had to do it. And I had to do it for this very reason: I knew that I was going to get sued six ways to Sunday. And we all know what happens when you get sued. When you get the papers, next thing you know they notice up your deposition. Next thing you know you’re sitting in that chair with your hand in the air and you’re supposed to tell the truth and you’re on video. You’re on audio. And those questions would have been the hardest-hitting, most mean-spirited, unfair questions. And the next step after that was going to be the leak to the media.

So, I was faced with a situation where, do I do this on my terms, or do I do it on some opposing attorney’s terms across the table. And so I chose to do it my way with her. And look, it didn’t go well. It didn’t go well at all. But it couldn’t have gone well right? I mean this is just — my buddy said it the best. He’s a really bright guy. He said, “Lance, for cycling fans it wasn’t enough. For the casual fan it was too much.”  And so that leaves you with a room where nobody’s happy.

DUBNER: Right. Including yourself, it sounds like.

ARMSTRONG: You know oddly enough, Oprah and I, we were high-fiving after that. She thought I did a great job, and I thought I was completely honest and sincere. I was, I mean I tried at least as hard as I could to be. But it just didn’t — there were some technical things. They broke it up into two shows. The first show, which had the admission and talked about all of the drugs, was the bulk of that show. The second show I talked about my family, and when I talked about my son, I cried — but once people saw show one, they’re like, “Well, s—, I don’t need to see show two.”

DUBNER: I wonder if it’s also just contrition — maybe you weren’t there yet. You were caught. You had to do this.

ARMSTRONG: But time out. Maybe I wasn’t there yet? No, there’s no maybe. I definitely was not there yet. But, again, I made the decision to do it because I didn’t want to do it on the terms of a mean-spirited opposing lawyer that was going to leak it to the media. So I chose that setting and time and venue. And no, I wasn’t there. I wasn’t there at all. It took me a good three or four years to get to this place.

You know what it took me? It took me enough instances of having somebody come up to me that were fans. They had my back. They defended me, and they were absolutely devastated by the revelation. And their sense of betrayal was so high. But, and this is one that came to me a year and a half ago, I had a longtime employee at Livestrong finally reach out to me after, oddly enough, she rode the whole wave of this thing and then absolutely hated my guts. Somebody came to her and said, “Let’s listen to his podcast. I don’t know. This guy sounds a little different.” And so she listened to a couple and she started to come around and then she reached out and she said, “Can we go have coffee?” and I said “Absolutely.”

And so she’s walking me through — I asked her about the process of what was happening at Livestrong while all the accusations were there and there was a lot of smoke. And then eventually there was fire. And you know, she walked me through the whole thing, and she said, “You know, at the end of the day we all felt really complicit.”

DUBNER: That must made you feel really good, huh? Now you drag everybody in.

ARMSTRONG: Well, it changed my life.

DUBNER: How so?

ARMSTRONG: Look, “betrayal” is a terrible word. It’s a word that nobody wants, a child to their parent or friend to another friend, a spouse to a spouse, a C.E.O. to — whatever. It’s a very heavy word. Complicit is 100x. For me, I had already started to get my mind and my heart around the fact that people had suffered this tremendous amount of betrayal, and then I was hit with complicit. And it just — it rocked me to the core. But it was, I tell you, it was the greatest — her name is Melissa — it was the greatest gift that anybody has given me the last six years.

DUBNER: You sound like you’ve forgiven yourself. Or are on the way to forgiving yourself. Is that the case?

ARMSTRONG: I don’t know. You know, I don’t think about that much, but I guess I have. I still —.

DUBNER: I mean, you can’t undo it.

ARMSTRONG: No, of course not. But I can learn from it. And I think I have. I’m not — certainly not perfect, and by the way I wouldn’t change a damn thing. I wouldn’t change a f—ing thing about any of this. 

DUBNER: Why?

ARMSTRONG: Well, let me first say, I mean if you’d asked me — I spent three-and-a-half, four years, just talking about how screwed I got. And post-coffee with Melissa and realizing that so many many people felt complicit, because of me, because they trusted me. But when I look around my life, I know who’s on the team right now, I know why they’re on this team. And I can believe in them, and trust them in many ways. And so I spent many, many years like any athlete does, whether it’s 5 years or 15 years, where you’re at the top of the game and you’re at the best parties, and you own a private jet, and you’re making a bunch of money and there’s champagne, and there’s girls, and there’s everything. You know, everybody likes that party. But not many people have liked the parties of my life the last six years.

DUBNER: You recently settled this Department of Justice civil lawsuit, paying out $5 million to the U.S. government. There was the possibility you had to pay out much more, which would have maybe, I don’t know, financially ruined you. Betsy Andreu, the wife of former teammate Frankie Andreu — she says that the $5 million settlement means you essentially got away with it. I’m curious if it feels like that to you.

ARMSTRONG: I actually don’t think it has anything to do with who got away with anything. I think it has everything to do with two opposing sides coming to the start of the game and having to look at their whole card. The reality is that the Postal Service was not damaged. And I say that with 100 percent confidence because the Department of Justice and their lawyers freely admitted, every time that they were asked, in any hearing, any proceeding, they freely admitted, “Your Honor, we cannot prove any damages.” So the way the law and the structure of qui tam cases work is you have to actually prove damage to get any sort of penalty. And so we were a month from trial, and I think that the other side looked at their hand and said, “We got to get out.” And so it’s not about getting away with anything. It wasn’t five, it was $6.5 million. That is a lot of money.

DUBNER: How are you fixed for money, generally. Are you fine?

ARMSTRONG: Life had to be adjusted and the burn rate had to be taken down. Kids are expensive, raising five kids are expensive. We like to do nice things and I got very lucky on a few unbelievable investments many years ago through smart people.

DUBNER: Uber was one of those I understand, is that true?

ARMSTRONG: Yeah, Uber was one. Docusign was another. And by the way, I had nothing to do with those decisions, other than the decision to trust somebody else with your money to invest it. Which they did amazingly well. And a large chunk of that was put into a small company valued at $3.7 million, called Uber. I had no idea.

DUBNER: And now it’s $60 billion, somewhere like that?

ARMSTRONG: It’s silly. 60, 70, It’s a lot. And so, you know, that’s just lucky.

DUBNER: Right, so on your podcast The Forward, you were interviewing Bryan Fogel, who directed this amazing film Icarus, which is about doping in sports. And Fogel — you’re talking with him about how he gained the trust, and even the friendship, of the head of the Russian anti-doping, this guy Grigory Rodchenkov, I think.

ARMSTRONG: That’s right.

DUBNER: And you said to Fogel, “Why on earth did he trust you?” And then you said to him, Fogel, just kind of as an aside, “I don’t really trust anybody in my life these days.” And I was really curious whether you meant that, and if you did, what it means.

ARMSTRONG: It’s a good question. You know, of course there are people I trust. But those are people that have been in my life for a long time, and they made a choice five years ago: do we stay, or do we leave? And they’re the ones that are very close, your best friends, your wife, your fiancé. But I definitely am very careful — I’m just careful with people. You know, at this point my lens and filter is just different than it was, and I don’t think that’s bad. I think that’s a positive for me.

I asked Armstrong why he wanted to make a podcast like The Forward, about people living out their second chances.

ARMSTRONG: Many of these people — whether you’re Michael Morton who spent 26 years in prison for a crime you didn’t do, whether you’re Mia Khalifa who made a regrettable decision in her words and did porn for three months and is branded a porn actress for the rest of her life — there’s just a lot of these stories where people have just moved on and move forward, and my life was, actually is, still going through that. And so for me there were a lot of interesting people. I really tried to take only people that I really cared to listen to. I don’t like to read a bunch — I never did homework in school so, for me to sit down and do homework on these people — I was a terrible student. But this is actually the most homework I’ve ever done my entire life. And it’s been really fun to dig in and learn about other people’s lives and then sit across from them and talk for an hour.

And then, I had this thing just in my own sports life where 2012 happened. My world came crashing down, largely due to my own actions and bad decisions. And the sport, the industry, the media, the fans — everybody turned and so, I basically said, “Okay well, f— you all too.” And I didn’t ride, put the bike up. I didn’t ride. I owned a bike shop in Austin. I never went to my own shop. And I started running — I started doing a lot of other sports except cycling. And fast-forward to a year ago. I got injured from running, had to find some sport that I could do just to stay sane and stay fit. And went back to the bike. And, without sounding hokey, found myself falling back in love with cycling. Just as a sport, just as an exercise.

DUBNER: Well, I’ve taken the time you promised, and I really enjoyed the conversation. I learned a lot. I’ll be honest with you, I didn’t really know what to expect. Listening to your podcast I get a pretty good sense of where you are as a human right now. And I know a lot of people are probably still very pissed at you and still feel very betrayed. But I think probably a lot of people will hear in your words and in your voice that you realize what you did to yourself and other people and that you’re on to the next chapter.

ARMSTRONG: And can I just say one thing on that, just because at this point, there’s no sense in me fighting that. I’ve never had a really aggressive reaction to me, until last summer. I was doing The Move down in Denver for the Colorado Classic, and I walked out of my Airbnb, and there’s all these little cool brewpubs. And I always know when somebody is like, “Ah, here’s Lance.” You just kind of get that sense. And so I see across the way, these people notice me. I call an Uber because I got to get to the race and my Uber is on the other side of the street, in front of the bar. And it’s a patio scene.

And I walk out I’m getting in my Uber and there’s one guy goes, “Hey Lance,” and I fully expected him to go, “What’s up, dude?” and you know, “Right on man, love you,” you know? And I go “Hey what’s up?” He goes “F— you. F— you! F— you!” and he wouldn’t stop. And the next thing you know, the entire patio is screaming “F— you, f— you, f—.” I’ve never had that happen. I was like, “Oh.” I was shaking.

So I got in the car and it was a very short drive to the race. But I’m sitting there, and I’m not saying a word, but I’m saying to myself, “You’re Lance Armstrong. You have to do something. You can’t take that.” So I called the bar. I said, “Put the manager on the phone.” Manager gets on the phone. I explained to him everything that happened. And he said, “Oh man, I’m so sorry. Dude that’s really regrettable. Hope it doesn’t happen again.” I said, “Okay, I need you to do me a favor. Here’s my credit card number. I want you to walk out there and you buy everything they’re eating and drinking. And tell them that I understand.”

Me of 10 years ago, I would have jumped across the railing and start throwing punches. But this is 2017 in summer, sitting in the car saying “I have to act. I got to do something.” And that’s the best thing that I could come up with. And just to say to those people “Look, I get it.” And so that’s the only time it’s happened. It might happen tomorrow. It might happen a hundred times. I don’t know but that’s the way I live it now. 

DUBNER: I think you’ve come a long way, Lance Armstrong. It’s pretty impressive. I’ll be honest with you.

ARMSTRONG: Thank you. Thanks for having me on.

Freakonomics Radio is produced by Stitcher and Dubner Productions. This episode was produced by Derek John. Our staff also includes Alison Craiglow, Greg Rosalsky, Greg Rippin, Harry Huggins, and Andy Meisenheimer. The music you hear throughout the episode was composed by Luis Guerra. You can subscribe to Freakonomics Radio on Apple Podcasts, Stitcher, or wherever you get your podcasts.

Here’s where you can learn more about the people and ideas in this episode:

SOURCES

EXTRAS