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Lance Armstrong Says Something Interesting About Players Unions and Doping

Is cycling's problem that it's a sport of freelancers?
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Armstrong in 2009. (PHOTO: MIQU77/SHUTTERSTOCK)

Armstrong in 2009. (PHOTO: MIQU77/SHUTTERSTOCK)

Cycling News editor Daniel Benson landed a one-on-one interview with Lance Armstrong recently, barely a year (has it only been that long?) after the former cycling legend's high-profile fall from grace in a doping scandal. Benson doesn't speculate on why the famously media-savvy Armstrong granted the interview, which is being published in four parts. Surely there's some image-repair or legal advantage to talking—already stripped of his titles and banned for life from the sport he'd ruled for a decade, several lawsuits remain pending. The result is a surprisingly frank, or at least frank-seeming conversation. Whatever you think of Armstrong, he knows the world of big-time sports business and image management, and his insights are informed ones. Part one of the interview is here.

Toward the end of the installment, Armstrong answers a question that few have posed through the whole scandal. Why was the sport of cycling so awful at catching dopers, punishing them, and managing the PR fallout? Other sports—earlier he mentions swimming's world body, FINA—have had similar waves of doping allegations, that failed to taint the entire enterprise, while cycling became somewhat of an international laughing stock.

"Every other sport that has the doping problem is sitting back and laughing, laughing their asses off, getting no attention, no criticism, no exposure and not doing a fucking thing," Armstrong tells Benson. The conversation continues:

DB: Okay, well what do you put that down to?

LA: Well cycling, the Tour is bigger than some cross country race, even the New York City Marathon. It’s bigger than those things.

DB: Okay, but it’s not as big as the World Cup in soccer or the Super Bowl.

LA: Well listen, the biggest difference between cycling, football and tennis is the players’ union, an athletes’ union. We have no voice, no unity. There are guys all over the place. Those sports, major league sports, they’re not letting that happen and the owners wouldn’t allow it to happen. Whereas we’ve [cyclists] just been living in the Wild West. The riders have no rights, ASO [a body that organizes the Tour de France, and other events like the Paris Marathon] continues to make millions, the teams don’t own anything. The only thing a team owns is its current contract, and when that’s up you’re fucking done. You might have a couple of buses and a truck. There’s no equity and value. It’s a fucked up business model.

It's arguable this is just Armstrong blaming everyone but himself for his problems. But the observation is unusual: Cycling is a sport made up of freelancers, where sports like baseball or soccer have a labor/management dynamic between the players and owners. Armstrong seems to be arguing that his sport mirrors a lot of the non-elite international labor market: temp workers, wary of institutions and each other, incentivized toward personal branding over collaboration, and to defending themselves individually, rather than collectively. It made sense, career and business-wise, for Armstrong to try to become bigger than the Tour, even if doping wasn't the way to do that. It doesn't make similar sense for a baseball player, even a Barry Bonds, to become bigger than the World Series. Or so goes Armstrong's apparent logic.

Parts two and three of the fantastic interview have also been published at Cycling News this week. Part four isn't up yet.