top of page
  • Writer's pictureMatt Himsworth

Lance Armstrong: cancer survivor, champion, cheat, father … human being

Updated: Mar 9, 2021

Why we are all redeemable and should not rush to judgement or to define others by the errors of their past

On 2nd October 1996 Lance Armstrong, a young American cyclist, was diagnosed with stage three testicular cancer. He couldn’t have known it at the time but it was a diagnosis that would start a chain of events that would lead to him becoming an inspiration, the greatest athlete of all time and then the most notorious cheat there’s ever been.

But which of those three things defines who he is? All of them? Some of them? A bit of all of them?

I have worked with people in the public eye who have had their private lives laid bare, been castigated over the mistakes of their past or present. Been defined by the human errors they have made. It has always fascinated me how society can often be so categorical in judgement when people do things wrong (and there’s a lot of talk of “cancel culture” now). But human beings are complicated and they are also susceptible, profoundly so, to the impact of being exposed and judged publicly.

Some will say that Armstrong is one of those cases where there are no shades of grey. He is a bully, a serial cheat and a liar who used his power and influence to negatively influence his sport and those around him. That may be true, and many will hold those views on him for the rest of his and their days, but he, like every other human that has ever existed, is more complex than that.

I’m fascinated by this contradictory character. The terrible things he did. The wonderful things he did and the extent to which he has recovered, redeemed and, from my amateur outside perspective, perhaps come to terms with who he is now maybe better than he ever did as a pugnacious seven-time Tour de France champion.

It’s at this point that I should point out that I have, to a small degree, skin in this game.

My small part of the Lance Armstrong story

In 2002 I started as a trainee solicitor at the media law firm Schillings and, during 2004, the firm was approached by Armstrong’s advisers. They wanted the firm to bring a defamation claim against the Times newspapers over allegations, contained in a review by David Walsh of a French book by Pierre Ballester called LA Confidentiel, which alleged that Lance had used performance enhancing drugs. I was a junior lawyer on the team that took the case on.

In hindsight the brass neck Lance had in suing over allegations he knew were true is extraordinary. What is all the more remarkable is that we achieved a settlement, having tangled with the Times for some time, and that the settlement involved a published apology in The Times and a substantial payment to Lance.

From my personal perspective, what is particularly striking, is that I believed in Lance, wholly, truly and without hesitation. This was a case that dominated my life for well over a year. I knew little of cycling when the case came through the door but soon I had immersed myself in the sport: the personalities, the enduring courses, the history, the controversies but, most particularly, in the incredible story of this granite-like tough American who had faced his own mortality, survived, and then written his name into immortality.

During the Summer of 2005, with the case ongoing, we reached the disclosure stage where all of the parties would need to disclose all of the documents that were relevant to the case. There was a lot to do and a lot to review. Lance and his representatives suggested that the team fly to Austin, Texas to meet him, quiz him, and review documents. Oh, and the Austin City Limits music festival is on during September, why don’t you come along to that too and bring your partners?

So we did.

I brought my girlfriend and on the first night there, before the work started in earnest, I proposed to her. She said yes. The following evening we all had dinner with Lance and we celebrated our engagement. He then said that we should go to a bar but, before we do, we need to pop to a gig in town because he’d agreed to introduce a friend of his on stage. We pulled up alongside a football stadium. The friend was Willie Nelson.

It was a story I would always be proud of – and my father-in-law would refer to it in his wedding speech – that we celebrated our engagement with the greatest athlete of all time.

And here we both are. I’ve aged a lot since.

There wasn’t a time during the whole case that I doubted that Lance was telling the truth. Looking back, I feel sure that he had convinced himself that he was telling the truth, or at least doing the right thing. Cycling is a sport which has been beset by doping scandals for decades. Lance no doubt believed he was just the most successful in that rigged game – and there might be some truth in that but there is no doubt that he systematically doped, encouraged (quite forcibly it seems) others to do the same and was a significant part of a culture that damaged the integrity and safety of his sport.

Anyone associated with Lance from that time will be tarnished in some way. It’s my only entry on Wikipedia and I’m reminded of this quote I gave to the Independent in June 2005: "Our client remains confident that this defence will fail and that he will receive the vindication from the court which he has been entitled to since the publication of these false and damaging allegations in June 2004". Ugh.

At the time Lance did have one enormous positive influence on me. Both of my grandads have been a real inspiration to me in different ways. In 2005 one of them, Lt Col Ray Pye, contracted lung cancer. It was a death sentence but I went out immediately and bought a copy of It’s Not About the Bike and sent it to him. He’d read it in a couple of days. Inspired, he fought hard until the end and was buoyed also by a message I managed to get from Lance imploring him to Livestrong.

You can see from that, that there is plenty of conflict in me when it comes to Lance.

Does someone like that deserve redemption? A second chance?

Redemption and rehabilitation is something I’ve always felt strongly about. I hate rushes to judgement. We’ve all messed up. I’m reminded of the words of Justin Langer in Amazon Prime’s The Test when Steve Smith and David Warner return to cricket in England and are roundly booed: “I hated it. I think it is ignorant. I think it's disrespectful. It made me really angry to start off. Everyone booing Smith and Warner out there has done mistakes in their lives. What the crowd is doing is a reflection of them and not Warner and Smith's.

What Smith and Warner did was cheating, it was cynical and it deserved to be punished. Should they be allowed their redemption story? Absolutely.

Lance’s errors were repeated, deliberate and cynical. But my overwhelming feeling, with the exception of those that commit the most awful crimes, is that everyone deserves to be rehabilitated and no one should be defined by the mistakes they made.

The opening words of Lance’s Twitter bio stands out for me: “Father of 5”. 99% of the population will always define him as a doping cheat. He defines himself as a father of five. He’s right, they’re wrong.

Something my Dad once said to me resonates to this day. He’s proud of my brother and I and what we have done professionally but what makes him so much more proud is that we are good men. Lance’s performance as a father means so much more than his performance as a cyclist and it always should do.

We are, in my view, entitled to redemption, entitled not to be defined by our errors and mistakes, and should always self-define based on the things that matter most to us. My Dad’s view of my moral fibre is good enough for me and the junior Armstrong’s adoration of their Dad is rightly enough for him.


bottom of page