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Why we can’t (or won’t) let Lance Armstrong go

The recent ESPN 30 for 30 documentary highlights why we're still fascinated by Lance Armstrong.

The first time I was supposed to do an interview with Lance Armstrong, I got kicked out of the room

We were in Panama City, Panama, preparing for Lance’s first race in his quest to compete at the Ironman World Championship. His agent, Mark Higgins, walked into the room where I was sitting with the camera crew, and started pointing at people.

“I know you, you and you … everyone else, out,” Higgins said.

I was one of the “everyone else.”

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While Higgins didn’t allow me to talk to him before the race, I did get a post-race interview with Armstrong (you can see it below), and over the next three months would get more and more access to him for our coverage on Ironman.com. As I followed Armstrong around the world, things got easier and easier – to the point where Higgins would actually call me to reschedule interviews.

“Kevin, we got held up because of the crowds … can you meet us at the back of the hotel and do your interview on the way to the press conference?” Higgins called to ask before Ironman 70.3 Honu.

After the race, when I was supposed to interview Armstrong at the finish line, my phone rang again.

“It’s a zoo here, Kevin. Can you get somewhere quiet and I’ll get Lance to call you in 15 minutes?” Higgins asked.

I was shocked that my phone rang exactly 15 minutes later.

“Is now a good time to chat?” Armstrong asked.

Photo: Elizabeth Kreutz

That would be the last interview I did with Armstrong. A few weeks later I landed in Nice, France to cover Armstrong’s Ironman debut. I was met at the airport by race director Yves Cordier.

“Lance just flew home,” Cordier said. “He’s not racing.”

The US Anti Doping Agency had laid its charges against Armstrong. While I was in Kona covering the Ironman World Championship Armstrong had hoped to race in, it published the details of its investigation – a report that claimed Armstrong was behind “the most sophisticated professionalized and successful doping program that sport has ever seen.”

Last week ESPN aired a documentary about Armstrong. Watching the documentary brought back a flood of memories from that time.

First off, let me be clear. What Lance Armstrong did was despicable and awful. But what I consider to be his worst sins may be different to what others condemn.

I have always been vehemently opposed to doping. It’s cheating. You might as well cut the course, let the air out of someone’s tires, push an opponent off their bike – whatever other dirty trick you can come up with to win. I have no idea how anyone who dopes or even bends the rules by taking illicit substances that they know gives them an advantage over their competition can live with themselves.

So, while I hate that Armstrong doped, to me, he was part of a nutty world of competitive cycling where it seemed that everyone was cheating. During last week’s documentary more than a few of us were shocked to learn that it was Eddy Merckx who introduced Armstrong to Michele Ferrari, the mastermind behind his doping program. Armstrong points out in the documentary the unfairness of the world view that he’s a pariah in the sports world, while his teammate and fellow doper, George Hincapie isn’t; that Marco Pantani was reviled by Italian cycling fans, but Ivan Basso wasn’t, even though both were caught in drug scandals. That Eric Zabel remains a hero in Germany, while Jan Ullrich was disgraced.

As you can see from my description of my dealings with Armstrong, he was nice to me. He didn’t yell at me when I asked him about drugs – he actually said “I’m glad you asked that, Kevin.” He helped me get my job done and was personable while doing it.

What I always struggled with, though, was what he did to people who threatened to bring down the Lance brand. I had read about how he destroyed Emma O’Reilly’s life (she was a soigneur who told the truth about his doping to journalist David Walsh), how he sued Walsh and the Sunday Times for their stories, how he went after Frankie and Betsy Andreu for telling the truth, and how he threatened cyclist Filippo Simeone during one tour because he’d testified against Ferrari.

In the documentary aired last week, Armstrong expressed some regret for the way he treated those people, but there was no regret for others who he had caused as much, or even more pain. Greg Lemond, who Armstrong managed to put out of the bicycle business for questioning his performances. Tyler Hamilton, a former teammate and rival who had the audacity to go to another team and actually beat Armstrong at an event leading up to the Tour one year. Floyd Landis, another teammate who went to another team and who kept his mouth shut after being disqualified from the tour himself, only to be cast aside by Armstrong and his long-time manager Johan Bruyneel.

Related: Lance Armstrong’s return to triathlon

Armstrong holds a special hate-on for Landis, because it was his email to USA cycling that eventually brought Armstrong down.

I don’t know how Armstrong could live with himself knowing he cheated to win all those races. That said, I can get my head around his justification – because he felt his competition was doing it, too. But tearing apart other people’s lives for simply doing their jobs, or telling the truth? That is both incomprehensible and unforgivable.

Ultimately that’s why I think many of us keep following Lance Armstrong. I want him to be sorry for what he did. Not only for doping, for the terrible behaviour that saw him destroy others so he could profit and succeed.

Based on what we saw last week, I’m not sure that’s ever coming, though.

The last time I saw Lance Armstrong was at the opening of the Giro d’Italia in Israel last year. On the way to a race finish we stopped at a hotel and Armstrong was sitting at a table with a bunch of fans. I walked out to the deck where the other journalists were checking out the view, and asked if any of them had seen Armstrong. No one answered – they ran by me to try and get an interview, but he was gone.

Which is another reason why we remain fascinated by Armstrong – we so rarely get to see him answer questions.

That’s why, whether we like it or not, we’ll keep doing stories about Lance Armstrong. We’re still looking for answers to the questions we wrestle with. Even though we realize we’re not likely to get them, we keep trying.