FOR YEARS, I ran a blog that was dedicated to poking fun at professional bicycling and the colorful cast of athletes in the pro peloton1. Much like politics, professional cycling offers up a near endless supply of comical fodder. In the peloton, bravado and bluster abound, spawned from a history rich in Italian machismo—all of it clad in colorful spandex and sautéed in an illicit and prodigious use of testosterone. But despite their eccentricities and sometimes unforgiveable brashness, all cyclists are capable of heroic feats on the saddle of a bicycle. Watching a pro cyclist climb the steep roads of the Swiss Alps with the grace of a bird in flight, or descend the treacherous switchbacks of the Pyrenees at speeds approaching 70 MPH, it is easy to idolize him. This was particularly true of one individual: Lance Armstrong.
By now, the story of Lance Armstrong is well known: another athlete who fell from grace after succumbing to the temptation of doping. But there is a story that came before the doping defined his career. And it is a good and compelling story. It is the story that inspired me to become a devoted follower or “fan boy.” In fact, because of my once blind adoration of Armstrong I have a sense of what it is to be a Trump supporter now. And if one follows the full trajectory of Armstrong’s career, other, more disturbing similarities appear between the two men, which bear mentioning.
I was new to cycling in 1998 when Lance had recovered from cancer and was beginning to make his meteoric rise in the ranks of the peloton. Therefore, his story caught me just at the right time. His former team had abandoned him in the midst of his cancer diagnosis. Most wrote him off with good reason. He had undergone multiple surgeries to remove a cancerous testicle and metastatic lesions from his brain, and his body was withered by chemotherapy. Photographs circulated of Armstrong, bald and curled up in the fetal position on his hospital bed. The man was a shell of his former self.
Then, one day, he wasn’t. Like a proverbial phoenix, Lance was back and forming a new, American-based squad sponsored by the red, white, and blue United States Postal Service. It read like a movie script—like Rocky Balboa had shaved his legs, changed his outfit, and threw a leg over a bicycle. Lance was bold and unapologetic in not adhering to the unwritten and nuanced European code molding the sport. In short, he was American. Even his name was larger than life, like a superhero. He was the cup of Americano coffee in an Italian cafe—strong, no sugar. Lance Fucking Armstrong.
He had a singular mission to win the Tour de France, cycling’s most prestigious race, and become the greatest comeback story the world has ever known. But because of his story and his swagger, his singular mission carried tremendous power and appeal for a larger cause. After all, Lance was the boy who lived. The boy who would revive interest in cycling and rescue it from the ravages of numerous doping scandals. The boy who would make America relevant again in a largely European sport. The boy who would drain the swamp of the peloton by winning without doping. The boy who would take a sport largely ignored in America and make it a national obsession. The boy who was an outsider and could make cycling great again.
Lance Armstrong did all of this and more. He won the Tour de France seven times, more than any other cyclist in history. He wore his prize, the maillot jaune (French for “yellow jersey”), like a golden fleece, reinvigorating interest in the sport both at home and abroad. Middle-aged men and women squeezed into spandex and dusted off their old ten speeds. Bike sales soared in the United States. New bike companies emerged, and bike shops started popping up across North America to keep up with the demand. A foundation was formed in his name to help those with cancer. A book was written. The covers of sports magazines that had never bothered with cycling now featured the handsome face of a man from Texas. Multi-million dollar endorsements were given. An empire was built. Money poured in. Lots and lots of money.
But there was a catch. Everything was too good. Investigative journalists started taking a closer look, as they are prone to do. Articles began showing up in newspapers questioning Lance’s performance. How was this man able to accomplish such amazing things after being at death’s door? How was he winning by such massive and unprecedented time margins? Why wasn’t he breathing hard after riding 150 miles up and down three mountains? Something didn’t smell right.
The reporters’ language was cautious and not well substantiated at first, but the message was loud and clear: Lance might be cheating. A handful of investigative journalists risked their careers by swimming against the tide and calling out the golden boy. Armstrong first dismissed their claims. Fake news. Then, when they became more insistent and started presenting evidence and revealing sources, he sued them. And in several cases, he won. Emboldened by these early victories, Armstrong learned the art, not of the deal, but of the “double down.” Deny, deny, deny. He developed a strategy to deal with his would-be detractors that came straight from athletic competition and, in so doing, learned the skills of an autocrat:
- First, when attacked, don’t waste time on the message. Attack and discredit the attacker. And Armstrong did. Through a system of bullying tactics, he smeared the reputation of anyone who dared to tarnish his accomplishments, be they reporters, ex-teammates, former business partners, or spouses of the like. Newspapers were sued for defamation of character, certain reporters were suddenly ostracized and unable to get work, ex-teammates didn’t get the coaching jobs they had been promised.
- Second, control the message. Sportscasters and reporters who spoke favorably of him were rewarded with extra access to the man and his team and garnered exclusive interviews. They, in turn, lauded him with praises while wearing yellow rubber Livestrong bracelets to demonstrate their loyalty. For every one article that cast a doubtful eye on his performance, there were twenty stories of his amazing achievements. Armstrong also utilized the age-old code of silence known as omerta, which exists within the peloton but hails from the mafia. It is a well-known cliché among pro cyclists that what happens in the peloton stays in the peloton. Most of Armstrong’s teammates and many of his rivals doped. Everyone knew it was the truth, but no one spoke of it. To break with this code could mean dismissal from the team and pro cycling for good. Nobody likes a snitch, whether it be cyclists or a political party.
- Third, create a diversion. The best way to limit the damage from a negative narrative is to flood the environment with other narratives. In Armstrong’s case, it was the Livestrong Foundation, a nonprofit organization designed to assist those suffering from cancer, and thus seemingly beyond scrutiny. Who could deny the intentions of the man who created such an entity? This was called the “cancer-shield,” and its strength was immeasurable.
I come from a medical scientific background. Thus, my interest in Armstrong went beyond the superficial story aspect (as compelling as it was) and dove deeper into his physiologic achievements. As I read more and more from sports physiologists who were studying Armstrong and how his body responded to the exertions that cycling imposed upon it, I gradually realized that what the skeptics were saying was true. Without the assistance of doping, he could not achieve such feats. It was physiologically impossible. When this data was combined with the other substantial evidence documenting illicit transfers of funds and relationships with shady characters, it all made sense. I read and studied a wide variety of sources, and though I didn’t want to admit it, the answer was there. Armstrong was a liar and a cheat. Telling a child that Santa Claus isn’t real is one thing, but telling a grown man that the poster in his basement bike room/shrine depicts professional sport’s biggest fraud is a lot trickier. It stings to learn your hero is a liar, a harsh reality best summed up by a quote from the main character in the cycling movie, Breaking Away: “Everybody cheats; I just didn’t know.”
Fast forward to January 2017. The parallels and similarities between what has now emerged as Donald Trump’s presidency and Lance Armstrong’s former reign as the world’s greatest athlete are eerily similar, but with important distinctions:
- Both men are highly charismatic and engaging, with larger-than-life personalities. I’ve never met either but have read descriptions of the magnetic personalities both possess.
- Neither man is afraid of hard work. It’s been said often that even without the doping, Lance would still have been highly successful in bike racing. He was willing to train harder and longer than others and possessed a laser-beam focus on his goals. Similarly, Trump demonstrates remarkable tenacity in his pursuit of building his business and is tireless in looking for new opportunities. One might argue that his Presidency is yet another investment opportunity, and an exhausting one for someone his age.
- Both men seem to be motivated by a constant need for validation. Lance’s father left him and his mother when he was very young, and never demonstrated much desire to be involved in his life. This spawned an anger in Armstrong, driving him to work harder than anyone else and win at any cost. Trump, by his own accounts, did not possess a warm relationship with his father and even joked about him being a potential competitor in the battle over real estate in Manhattan when penning his obituary. But the frequency and emotional tone with which he mentions his father since his passing in 1999 makes one wonder if Trump also is still seeking some type of fatherly approval.
- Many armchair (and some professional) psychoanalyists have diagnosed both men with narcissism in its various forms. But if we consider a non-medical usage of the term, it does ring true for both: an excessive interest in one’s own being which persists at the detriment of self-awareness and sensitivity to others. On the cusp of Armstrong’s demise, when a mountain of evidence and numerous testimonials were circulating of his doping, when punitive action was about to be imposed by cycling’s governing body, Lance posted a photo of himself in his Austin home, reclining beneath the seven framed maillots jaunes he had illicitly won in the Tour de France, with the caption, “Back in Austin and just layin’ around…” At the moment of his impending failure, he literally surrounded himself by what he regarded as his greatest achievements and remained defiant, photographing it for the world to see. Trump is far more obvious in his narcissistic tendencies, and a comprehensive list of examples would be never ending. To date, he has publicly met with three world leaders and has used all three occasions to remind the world that he won the Presidency of the United States by a large Electoral College victory.
- Trump has also practiced the same autocratic skills that Lance employed during his career. Trump attacks the attacker. News organizations with valid questions and reports are ignored and their legitimacy questioned. Reports of his intent to deceive the American people are supplanted by the greater injustice that there are leaks in the White House. This rational is widely accepted among the population because, outside of the beltway, he controls the message via alt-right media outlets. Meanwhile, inside Washington, the GOP exhibits great skill in the practice of omerta, like natural born mafioso. As Michael Corleone said to his brother Fredo, “…don’t ever take sides with anyone against the family again. Ever.”
- Lastly, Trump enjoys creating diversions. In fact, verbal diversions dominate nearly every response to every question he has been asked during the campaign and while president. His responses lack clarity and brevity and meander to the point that they are frequently nonsensical. It can be argued that this is unintentional, which is likely given his lacking intellect. But the effect is nonetheless the same. If the media are reporting more about the incessant retelling of his inauguration crowd size, then they aren’t covering allegations of Russian hacking.
So then, what distinguishes Lance Armstrong from Donald Trump? Armstrong’s greatest asset was his analytical acumen. During his comeback, when he had decided he would win the Tour de France, he made a science out of every single aspect of bike racing. Training regimens were developed, equipment was re-engineered, the future route was studied and memorized, nutrition was calibrated, his physiologic parameters quantified and yes, doping protocols were screened and tweaked until one was found that would perfectly boost his performance and yet go unnoticed by the testers. This devotion to preparedness in every detail was why he was so enormously successful. In his defense, those individuals who rounded out the top 10 in each of his victories were also likely doped. But they didn’t prepare like Lance. His team made a science of cheating like the cast of Ocean’s Eleven made an art of thievery: with tremendous preparation and panache.
Trump, on the other hand, is slovenly in business and has stumbled into as many lucrative deals accidentally as he has fostered on his own. He is notorious for squandering vast amounts of money on bad investments because he is ill-prepared. Similar has been his approach to the Presidency. Throughout his campaign, he had no policy positions, and remained largely ignorant on most topics. He had to be corrected by reporters on Russia’s military actions within the Ukraine and his campaign rivals had to teach him what the nuclear triad was. If a qualification examination was given to any candidate seeking the position of President, Trump would most certainly have failed spectacularly. Yet he brags about how he knows more than generals and analysts.
Given his supreme ignorance, his simultaneous overconfidence can only be explained by something called the Dunning-Kruger effect, “a cognitive bias in which low-ability individuals suffer from illusory superiority, mistakenly assessing their ability as much higher that it really is” (per Wikipedia) 2. In other words, individuals with low ability (such as Trump) have a complete inability to recognize their own ineptitude and thus tend to over-interpret their own competency. Trump is painfully unaware of the immensity of what he doesn’t know, and worse, makes no effort to learn. Not only did Trump neglect any attempt to prepare for the Presidency, so too has he ignored the necessity to conduct his elaborate scheme of cheating with any kind of real sensitivity. By all accounts, Trump has cheated the United States of a legitimate election by making risky and tenuous deals with the Kremlin. Whether or not this will ultimately prove lucrative for Trump remains to be seen, but at present, the Trump empire has already received financial reward specifically because of his position as President. But his ham-fisted foray into nefarious international dealings has left a trail of evidence that has been discoverable in a manner of months. Contrast this with Lance Armstrong’s ability to largely conceal his acts for a period lasting more than 15 years.
Related is another critical difference between the two: their temperaments. Armstrong prided himself on being emotionless – especially during times of great duress. Whether it be pain, anger, or happiness, he remained remarkably even-keeled and stone faced. When met with adversity in press conferences, his responses were always calculated and measured. His analytical nature wouldn’t allow anything but. To be in control was to possess power. In stark contrast, however, is Trump’s frequent erratic and rambling behavior. He is incapable of containing his emotions. It is ironic that the worst poker face in the history of the American presidency could have authored a book called The Art of the Deal.
Of some importance then, is to remember what finally led to Armstrong being caught. Understanding this may help to predict how President Trump might ultimately be brought to justice for conspiring with a foreign country in manipulating our election and profiting from its outcome. In the end, Armstrong famously confessed to his crimes publicly. Why? Certainly the facts supporting allegations of his cheating had become overwhelming and existed in many forms. But the most compelling evidence was eyewitness testimony from former teammates whom he tried to repeatedly discredit. These individuals broke with the omerta code and cemented Armstrong’s fate. Once the press started widely reporting on these observations, Armstrong knew he had lost control of the narrative. It was no longer his story. He had no control of it. In my opinion, that is when he saw his situation as untenable, leading to his confession. Maintaining control via confession was more important to him than letting others get the limelight by speaking of his deceit.
Can we draw conclusions from Armstrong’s story to predict what Trump’s downfall might be? Perhaps. Certainly, testimony by those complicit in knowledge of his Russian dealings would be a smoking gun. But what motivates someone to talk? In Lance’s case, many who came forward provided testimony in exchange for reduced sentences as these athletes were still actively racing but admitted to illegal doping for portions of their own careers. Might we see the same with Trump? If the FBI has enough evidence on those who were involved, it might certainly use this to leverage confessions in exchange for reduced sentences. We’ve already heard that the FBI will not press charges against Michael Flynn despite his admission to lying, probably because he’s cooperating now. And could Trump himself ever confess? I’m not sure. But like Lance, he loves to tell his own story. Take the press conference on February 16th in which Trump himself met with reporters for over an hour. This was announced with very little advanced notice and seemed to come at an odd time as the White House was in the midst of much turmoil and scrutiny. As ever, he was ill-prepared. His answers were obtuse and contradicted themselves. So, why would he want to face the press at that time? In my opinion, this was a move right out of the Armstrong playbook: be the teller of your own story, don’t allow others to tell it for you.
Assuming Trump is eventually caught and removed from the Presidency, how do we live with the aftermath? I followed the Armstrong story for years, first as ardent fan and later as angry critic. I came to terms with the existing evidence that he was cheating after his fifth Tour de France victory, in 2003 – a full 10 years before he confessed. For 10 years, I carried around a lot of indignation. The majority of the public still believed he was clean and being poorly treated by the media and his ex-teammates. Some of those who confessed and told of his cheating were labeled rats and faced public scorn. I felt largely alone in my opinion. I find myself in a similar boat with Trump today. Like Lance’s story, I’ve become obsessed with the story of Donald Trump’s political ascension and the role Russia has played. And although my social media outlets have become echo chambers of my own opinion, I must remember that no less than 40% of the population believes Trump’s accusers (me included) are being supported by a shadow government as part of a massive left wing conspiracy. And this 40% believes this as strongly as I believe that Trump is compromised and a puppet for the Kremlin. Thus, even if Trump is eventually impeached and proven guilty of sedition or not adhering to the emoluments clause, 40% of the population may question the veracity of that outcome. So too is Lance Armstrong still unquestioningly adored by many today.
Armstrong and Trump are just men. Their early deification fuels the emotional angst of their ultimate demise. But they are neither angels, nor demons. And when Lance Armstrong finally confessed, I felt little satisfaction, despite having spent 10 years laboring over the evidence that supported the theories of his cheating while trying to convince others to accept the same conclusion. His admission was a victory for the sport and for all of those clean athletes who spent their careers competing in races they could never win. And should Trump get caught, it will be a victory. It will be a victory for all of those of us who want a fair and balanced executive branch of our government, and want to see a return of the democratic values upon which our country was based. But 40% of the population will be told by the alt-right media that, ironically, the President was undermined by a vast conspiracy. That deception may be sadder than the election of Trump in the first place. Thus, I fear that any victory will be Pyrrhic in nature. In other words, if nearly half the country cannot ultimately see through their own bias that Donald Trump is a charlatan and thief, even after impeachment, then any victory gained through his removal may feel quite hollow.
- A peloton is a pack of cyclists riding in close formation, but can also be used to describe the group of cyclists that comprises the professional rank of the sport. ↩
- Kruger J, Dunning D. Unskilled and unaware of it: how difficulties in recognizing one’s own incompetence lead to inflated self-assessments. J Pers Soc Psychol 1999 Dec; 77 (6) 1121-34. ↩