Why Lance Armstrong May Be a Psychopath

Were I Floyd Landis or Alberto Contador, and I picked up the 2013 Official Tour de France Programme, I would be seriously irate. I would have immediately noticed, in the ‘Roll of Honour’, that my name had been removed, along with the names of my other fellow pariah doper-winners, and that other names had replaced mine. I would have noticed also that for the years 1999-2005, Lance Armstrong’s name had not been removed. His name is still there – albeit with a line struck through and a small asterisk floating beside –an asterisk that is not explained or referenced in any way elsewhere in the ‘Roll of Honour’, nor anywhere in the publication as a whole. It is as if the asterisk, in and of itself, contains meaning, and acts not as a guide to a reference table, as is commonly its use.

Whereas the name of Lance Armstrong maintains its distorted place within the annals of history, the names of Floyd Landis and Alberto Contador – their podium finishes, for the years in which they were caught doping – do not exist.

In Floyd Landis’ case, his appearance in 2006 on the podium in Paris, with the Champs Elysees as backdrop – wearing the yellow jersey and holding up in his arms the golden lion teddy bear object that has somehow become more prestigious than a solid statue – has been utterly negated in the history books. The ‘Roll of Honour’ has Oscar Pereiro as 1st, Andreas Kloden as 2nd and Carlos Sastre as 3rd. Landis’ name has been utterly removed, and the organisers, ASO, have simply deleted that top row, as one would do in Microsoft Excel, thereby elevating each and every other rider by one position.

In Contador’s case, in spite of the fact that he too appeared on that podium in Paris in 2010 in the winner’s yellow jersey – his name also has been permanently removed from the Roll. This meant that Schleck won without actually receiving the fluffy lion teddy bear object. Denis Menchov, another confirmed doper, got 2nd officially, whereas he actually stood in the spot reserved for the person who came 3rd. And the incredible descender, Samuel Sanchez, possibly one of my all-time favourite cyclists, got 3rd position, being elevated onto the podium from his previous official finishing position of 4th.

The 2013 Official Tour de France Programme is not the only sanctioned publication to demonstrate this enigmatic form of double standards in dealing with doping ‘winners’. In a beautifully bound coffee table book called Le Tour 100: The definitive history of the world’s greatest race – released just prior to the start of the Tour this year – the yellow, green and polka-dot jerseys of each year for the last 99 races are listed. The relevant section is titled ‘The Atlas of 100 Tours’ and is replete with a mini-map of France and the route for each year, as well as with a short précis of the action. For the period 1999 through 2005, Lance Armstrong is listed as the ‘winner’, albeit with the little asterisk against his name, but this time with no line struck through. The book is certainly ‘definitive’ – it includes a foreword by Bernard Hinault, a previous five-time winner himself, and currently an employee of ASO, the owners of the Tour. There is also a preface written by Stephen Roche, the winner of the 1987 edition, the year in which the Irishman also won the Giro d’Italia, the rare double. This time the asterisk at least is ascribed a degree of meaning. This asterisk, in the entire history of the Tour de France, is specifically meant for Armstrong’s wins. Written beside the asterisk in small print at the bottom of the page is found “Title stripped in 2012. No replacement winner declared.” This seems to me to be a couple of degrees more honest than the 2013 Official Tour de France Programme, but still leaves the obvious question as to why the same is not true in the case of Landis and Contador.

It should not be assumed however, that this irony is lost on the organisers and owners of the Tour. Christian Prudhomme, the Tour Director, and perhaps the most senior public official within ASO, said last year, when making the announcement that Armstrong’s Tour wins would be stripped, “We wish that there is no winner for this period. For us, very clearly, the titles should remain blank. Effectively, we wish for these years to remain without winners.” This naturally makes sense, since within the sport of cycling, unlike pure individual endurance sports, team tactics and competitive tactics make an enormous difference. To say that the person who came 2nd would have won – in some parallel universe in which the person who came 1st does not exist – is absurd. However, this is precisely what ASO decided to do in the case of Floyd Landis and Alberto Contador.

One has some sympathy, however. To announce that, unfortunately, for one particular year, a row has been deleted from the ‘Roll of Honour’, is very different to doing it for seven years. If someone, for whatever reason, keyed my car door, for example, I would get the door re-sprayed. But, if the entire external carapace of the car were vandalised, I would want to get rid of the car altogether. The Tour de France is a valuable asset, and so a sort of sad denial of history, a catch-22 situation, now exists. Armstrong has effectively annulled the Tour’s history. It can apparently only be written with a line struck through it. It cannot be deleted – the crime is too great.

This annulment of the ability to write a clean history, even one that includes doping, is by no means a new invention. It was not until the early 1990s that Russian authorities released material proving that Joseph Stalin not only rewrote the history of Russia, Marxism, and Bolshevism, but actually rewrote his own history, most of which was constructed in the 1930s once he had risen to power. The nature of his childhood, his being expelled from a seminary in Gori, Georgia, his relationship with Lenin, his relationship with his father, his mother, and his role in a series of ‘revolutionary’ uprisings at the turn of the 20th century, were all retold in the 1930s, decades later, in official documents. Stalin, possibly the greatest murderer of all time, would have anyone whom he wished to have removed, arrested, and he would then make up the charges. Russian history in the 20th century has needed to be rethought following a state sanctioned effort over many decades to keep the story that Stalin told to be the official one.

It may seem a trifle unfair to compare Armstrong with Stalin. Armstrong has murdered no-one, he has merely placed a great deal of confusion over the matter of who won the Tour de France for seven years – not comparative to destroying an entire nation’s cultural identity and fifty million lives or so. To even raise the comparison seems cynical and contemptuous. But, if one asked whether the characteristics that made Iosif Vissarionovich Stalin, the person, into Stalin, the monster, were characteristics shared by Armstrong, then there may be something to talk about – a sort of thought experiment, so to speak. Imagine, if you will, if Armstrong were the one born on the 18th of December 1878 – not Armstrong the Texan, but the essence of Armstrong – rather than the person of Stalin. Would he, in this thought experiment, also exhibit the psychopathic tendencies to power, the insatiable paranoia, the lack of empathy for all others – would he too have what it takes to graduate from psychopath to historical monster. Before dismissing this experiment as libellous and incendiary, please note that in my view this is in fact a question we should all ask ourselves of ourselves. Were our circumstances different, could we have become Stalin?

To start with, however, before circumstances are taken into account, you would need to be a psychopath. That is – you would need to have the necessary raw material inside of you already. That Lance Armstrong is perhaps a certifiable psychopath is a great assumption in and of itself, and its mere contention is probably libellous. However, as another thought experiment, it is worth considering. In Jon Ronson’s weird and fascinating book The Psychopath Test, he cites a conference organised by Bob Hare at the Les Arcs hotel in St-Moritz, on the question of testing for psychopathic behavioural characteristics. The conclusion of the conference has become known as the twenty-point Hare PCL-R Checklist. I have chosen just a few of the Checklist points to illustrate: grandiose sense of self-worth; pathological lying; cunning / manipulative; lack of remorse or guilt; callous / lack of empathy; poor behavioural controls; failure to accept responsibility for own actions.

Once again, as with the Stalin thought experiment, one should not isolate the question to Lance Armstrong, but one should probably point the question towards oneself as well. Whether or not Lance Armstrong is certifiably a psychopath is probably irrelevant to most people, even those who have been deeply affected by his lies. Whilst it would be relatively easy to demonstrate in his public statements and behaviour over the past fifteen years the characteristics that Hare isolates as typical of psychopaths, it is also true that a psychopath, in the general mindset, is a person who is actually dangerous. Armstrong did sort of shove Tyler Hamilton around in an Aspen bar, according to Hamilton himself, but then one must remember Hamilton is of a slight build and may have been intimidated by just about anyone. Armstrong does not seem to be someone dangerous in the sense that Ted Bundy was dangerous, but then one never really knows.

That Armstrong is potentially capable of violence is likely, but that is true of many of us. I would rather have Armstrong than Hamilton on my side in a bar fight – that is for sure. But then, in a bar fight, I would rather have many people on my side rather than Hamilton – even Oprah Winfrey.

There are two or three stories, amongst the many stories that have been told about Armstrong, that demonstrate in a more subtle, yet more palpable way, the extent to which Hare’s twenty points may actually apply rather well. The first is the infamous moment in which Armstrong, absolutely dominant in 2004 Tour, decided to hunt down Filippo Simeoni, who offered no threat to Armstrong’s General Classification position. Simeoni had broken away from the peloton to gap to a breakaway bunch in an effort to gain individual stage glory. The pursuit of a rider, lying far down in the order, by the yellow jersey, made no sense whatsoever. Only to Armstrong – who had heard that Simeoni had testified in the case against Michele Ferrari, the ‘coach’ to Armstrong’s doping programme. It was a frowned-upon incident and made for much media chatter, but was effectively ignored and tacitly forgiven by the media and general public, like many of the iniquitous things that Armstrong said and did, as the whining of a small group of irritating naysayers and unbelievers in the great mythology of Armstrong the Recoverer, Armstrong the Beater of All Things.

There are in fact so many of these moments over the past fifteen years, and they have been documented sufficiently well to sway even the most naïve of Armstrong’s ex-admirers, that there is no further need to repeat them. It greatly irked me that Armstrong gave no response to Oprah Winfrey’s question as to whether he had apologised to Betsy Andreu – after he had effectively ruined her life – after explicitly promising in his staged interview to answer all questions honestly and openly. It irked me too in listening to the speech he made on the podium in Paris after his seventh win, when he said that it saddened him that we don’t all believe. It was upsetting that he fired teammates for not cheating. But I am sure that I was not the only one irked by these things. I am sure that everyone feels the same way – that he was just a nasty doper.

The point at which I started to think that the Bob Hare psychopath test way well be appropriate was more recently, when Armstrong decided to weigh in on the 2013 Tour, and on the Tour’s history. Not sufficiently satisfied with the fact of his being the only rider to have been disqualified and yet still have his name blemish the history books, he decided to give interviews to the very journalists he slandered for fifteen years. He told a journalist from the French publication Le Monde: “It is fine to erase my name from the record book, but the Tour was held between 1999-2005, wasn’t it? It was held and there was a winner. Who was he? No one has manifested to claim my jerseys.”

Lance Armstrong is not a psychopath because he doped and cheated. Nor is he a psychopath because he lied to his friends and teammates and to his wife and his children for a decade or more. He is not really even a psychopath for chasing down Filippo Simoeni. Nor even is he a psychopath because he ‘confessed’ what everyone already knew on The Oprah Winfey Show, or for knocking Tyler Hamilton about in a fancy Aspen bar. He is most likely a psychopath because he believes, truly, in the depths of his soul, that he really won those races.

In the very same publication that has the asterisk strip Armstrong of his wins – a publication sanctified in having Bernard Hinault write the foreword – there are a series of profiles of key figures from the Tour’s history. Of Armstrong they write the following: “Lance Armstrong is an amazing athlete and a formidable person. His story boosted the Tour de France’s worldwide profile.”

To my mind there is a far better, far more succinct manner in which to describe Lance Armstrong and the contribution he has made to cycling. I appeal simply to the words Winston Churchill once uttered in impatient reference to Joseph Stalin, “He is an unnatural man.”

To the organisers of the Tour de France, to ASO, and to the publishers of Le Tour 100, I appeal to the words of Robert Conquest. In his superb book titled Stalin – Breaker of Nations he describes the great fallacies of Marxism that became apparent to Marx himself. “Even Marx, before his death, had seen that something had gone wrong. But he put it aside for further study.”

by David Buckham – 7 July 2013

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5 comments

  1. Johan(Skip) · · Reply

    Dave, good article. I just think that everyone knows that most people in the tour doped in those years and that they accept that Lance did it best.

  2. I enjoy your articles. Makes for good reading. I think you hit the nail on the head that Lance is basically a nasty person. This is partly what made him so formidable but also what makes him so unsavoury.

  3. Thank you Scott and Johan for the comments. What fascinates me is the question as to whether one needs to be a psychopath, or at least to care about nothing other than winning, to be a 7-time tour winner. Or, for that matter, to be a leader of men and women. Is there a quality of lack of empathy that is correlated to success?

  4. “… in the depths of his soul, that he really won those races.” That was chilling.

    1. His recent tweets just before this year’s Tour seem absurd in light of his position – they can only be explained if one views him as delusional!

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