I interviewed Lance Armstrong for attendees of the Triathlon Business International (TBI) conference just ended. I began the interview by saying I’m rarely jealous of anyone, but I’m jealous of Armstrong because he just finished interviewing Neil DeGrasse Tyson and taken with his interviews of Douglas Brinkley and Malcom Gladwell he only lacked Michael Lewis before hitting the superfecta of people I’d most like to have dinner with.
Armstrong’s podcast is called The Forward and I take that to mean the past is behind and he’s taking his listeners with him into his next chapter, which may well have nothing to do with cycling or triathlon. (If you want a podcast devoted to cycling or triathlon, pass The Forward by.) The listener immediately discovers Armstrong has done his homework prior to the interview and because new podcasts arrive weekly – the pace since his first podcast in June of last year – this must be Amrstrong’s day job. I suspect this has left him less time to build layers onto WEDU (this initiative, WEDU, was the main reason I wanted to interview Armstrong). I suspect both he and I discovered that his podcasts were sufficiently compelling that this has slowed the pace of WEDU.
I’m a history buff but no scholar. Still, if you made me name the preeminent presidential historians today they would be Doris Kearns Goodwin, Michael Beschloss and Doug Brinkley. I found out more in 60 minutes about Brinkley (above, with Armstrong) than during the years I’ve been reading his books and listening to him on the television. The podcast began with Brinkley seeing that Armstrong has on his walls the artwork of Brinkley’s favorite artist (whom I’ve never heard of), forming an instant bond that continued to run through music, literature, politics and pop culture. Armstrong got around behind Brinkley and caught the usually-poker-faced historian with his hair down. To be sure, Anderson Cooper’s job is to learn from Brinkley, not about him, nevertheless the session with Brinkley was like a CAD drawing giving me a perspective view of the subject.
Brinkley and Armstrong met through Sean Penn during Hurricane Katrina’s aftermath. The topic veered to Hunter S. Thompson and it’s clear there is one degree of separation between Brinkley and Armstrong on a range of topics and so it is with most of Armstrong's podcast guests. Armstrong is intellectually curious, and if his education was stunted by moving from a teenager directly into professional sport, he’s made up for lost time.
Hunter Thompson lived in Aspen. Armstrong began spending a lot of time in Aspen as well, though after Thompson took his own life. Brinkley is named in Thompson’s will as his official biographer. Johnny Depp is the owner of Thompson’s papers, which Brinkley will liberally use when he gets to writing the biography. Armstrong appears to know everyone in the loop. Brinkley reminisced about Thompson’s friends hitting off the tee in Aspen’s country club as he, Thompson, shot trap (the golf balls standing in for the clay birds). Brinkley revealed on the podcast Thompson’s hidden secret he feared would get out: his clean arrest record. The parallel between Armstrong’s past notorious behavior and Thompson’s was there, like background vocals, and both men as well as the listening audience knew it.
The conversation wound to historian Stephen Ambrose (Undaunted Courage), one of the America’s premier historians during the last generation of the 20th Century, and Brinkley’s mentor. Ambrose was caught in a plagiarism scandal and Brinkley rued the fact that, because Ambrose died within a year of the scandal breaking, he could not survive to see the rehabilitation of his reputation. Armstrong’s own rehabilitation hung there like colored smoke.
Some listeners tuned to endurance sport probably think that Brinkley along with Seal, Jason Isbell, Neil DeGrasse Tyson, et al, have been duped; that Armstrong is using these august names to paint over his misdeeds. Maybe so. I just don’t think you can throw Malcolm Gladwell in with the others. You can’t accuse Gladwell (with Armstrong above) of missing the Big Picture. His metier (Outliers, Blink, The Tipping Point) is seeing the Big Picture. More to the point, he was a very high performing youth runner and has continued as a serious runner through adulthood. He’s a habitué of the Letsrun forum which is the Slowtwitch forum analog for running, and the skin sensitivity to PEDs on the Letsrun forum is every bit the equal of what you read on the Slowtwitch forum. Gladwell knew exactly who Armstrong was when he agreed to the podcast.
Because there is no strategy you could ascribe to Armstrong that Gladwell did not contemplate, Gladwell normalized Armstrong simply by agreeing to sit for the podcast. I knew this going in and so did you and everyone not naïve to competitive endurance sport. This was the colored smoke in the room; there always seems to be colored smoke in the room during an Armstrong podcast and that’s part of what animates these podcasts. Listen to Armstrong and Michael Morten (below), a man who spent 25 years in prison for a murder he didn’t commit. Listen to Morten’s opinion of those responsible for his incarceration, and how his posture toward them changed over time. This is Armstrong’s personal favorite podcast to date. If you listen to this podcast, imagine Armstrong processing Morten's transformation through the prism of Armstrong's opinions on his own past behavior and of those who have been his harshest critics. That's some heavy smoke.
Two takeaways from the Gladwell podcast. First, Gladwell is going to do a triathlon. He didn’t say it; I don’t think he knows it. I just recognize the body language. He can’t run because of an injury so he’s taken up cycling. There were all his questions about cycling, about bike power, about how you get better. And then the swim. Why is it first? Could it be last? What would happen if it were last? Does having the run last unfairly disadvantage pure swimmers or cyclists?
Secondly, Gladwell brought up doping, and noted that in running a world record means a bunch. It stands. It sits out there like a lighthouse for ten years, twenty. In swimming all you need to do is get wet and another record is set. The swim world has already caught up with and surpassed the speedskin era. The swimmers must be doping.
A bitter Armstrong might have said, “Damn straight they’re doping! It's ubiquitous in high-level sport!” Instead – and this surprised me – he explained new techniques of racing, where Michael Phelps not just dolphins out of his turns, it's the exceptionally deep route he takes out of the turns, swimming under the wave of water swimmers push into the wall before he surfaces after that wave has passed. No, Armstrong contended, it is unlikely doping is the cause for the surge of records.
I haven’t listened to the podcast with Neil DeGrasse Tyson but I’m looking forward to it, and for the reasons I think Armstrong would want me to. It’s not that I want to hear Armstrong. I want to hear DeGrasse Tyson in a way I haven’t heard him before, and that’s the value of these podcasts. I don’t know if it’s how Armstrong interviews these people, or the backstories and cast players Armstrong has in common with his subjects, or because Armstrong has been brought so low in modern culture that this disarms his subjects and gives them permission to be transparent and vulnerable. Whatever. The Forward and TED Radio Hour are my must-listen podcasts.
Two points of order. First, about my interview with Lance Armstrong. Am I going to report on it? No. I’m going to publish it. If I can get hold of it. My understanding is that TBI has a video recording. If I can get it, I’ll put this on our Youtube channel, write a front page prompt in which I’ll embed the video, and if you want to watch it you can. During the interview he and I talked about his podcasts, about WEDU, I asked him about the concept of fair play, and the requirement of fair play now that he may be on the other side as an event producer. He took questions from the audience, during which he asked for tougher questions than he was getting. And he got some. He talked about his past behavior through the prism of the way he views his younger self today. Beyond this, the interview will speak for itself.
And finally, does this mean the Slowtwitch Reader Forum ban on Armstrong topics is off? I guess so. Provisionally. When you look on iTunes Armstrong’s podcast listeners give it almost exclusively five stars (a few fours)… or one star. This is a metaphor for how the world sees him. Some give him both one and five stars and I think it's the conflicted who wrestle with all the facts in evidence for whom I have the most sympathy. I read this recently from a writer in Roleur: "I like Lance Armstrong. And I loathe him. It’s the whole package."
I know the great majority of our readers live in the world of two, three and four stars, or hold the discordant opinion of Armstrong voiced by the Roleur author. But many of the most vocal can only hold in their heads the notion of a life warranting one star (or five). This approach tends to drown out the voices of those who commit to the intellectual and moral struggle that comes with a complicated world.