Allan Rock is president of the University of Ottawa and a former federal minister of justice and of health.
Have you followed the career and accomplishments of Lance Armstrong, in cycling and in life?
With great interest. In fact, when I was recovering from my own cancer surgery 10 years ago, I read his book It’s Not About the Bike and it was an inspiration.
You admired the man?
Oh yes, indeed.
Despite the cloud of suspicion hanging over him for most of his career?
I believed him. Like a buffoon.
How do you feel about him now?
Well, betrayed. I feel very deeply disappointed. I was impressed by what appeared to be the genuineness and certainly by the strength of his denials. He was just absolutely clear and adamant he never did that, didn’t have to. And I also thought that they tested him all those years and found nothing, so why were people continuing to harp on it? I began to feel sympathy for the guy.
Why? He’s a multimillionaire athlete. What’s it to you?
More than that. He was a role model and an inspiration. [I recall] lying in bed recovering from surgery, reading about how he had gone through his own [cancer] nightmare, much worse than mine, and thinking, “That is inspiring.” He was not just a cyclist, not just a public figure, he was someone who inspired respect and emulation because of the way he handled adversity.
What about respect and emulation over the way he has handled coming clean?
I don’t think there’s scope for that. I have the impression his acknowledgment of wrongdoing has been grudging, calculated and strategic. I’m sure that, if it wasn’t necessary by virtue of his calculation and the calculation of his legal and financial team, then we wouldn’t have had him on Oprah.
What about his philanthropy? Doping aside, his foundation, Livestrong, continues to do great work in combatting cancer.
It was built on a lie. He was able to leverage an image that was false to produce these successes, even if the ultimate aim was laudable. And don’t forget the people who signed on to it, who wore his wristbands, went to his meetings, contributed their money, were in large part motivated by a belief in him – a belief that he induced and perpetuated dishonestly.
What of forgiveness? To err is human; to forgive, divine?
There’s always scope for forgiveness, yes. But how is that expressed in a case like this? Not by buying his damn products, I’ll tell you that.
It wasn’t just the dishonesty. It was also the fact that he used the power of his position to crush those who came out and tried to tell the truth. And that’s particularly despicable, isn’t it?
Would you call yourself an honest man?
I call myself an honest man. One who does his best.
There’s a phrase, “As honest as the next man.” How honest is the next man?
I always assume people are telling me the truth. Generally, in society, there’s a basic level of honesty. Yes. I think so.
Are those standards being lowered over time?
No, I don’t think it’s any worse than in my parents’ time.
Society seems now to be overburdened with negative role models: cheating, doping athletes, disgraced politicians, movie anti-heroes to whom an end justifies the means. We didn’t have those in the John Wayne days.
Does the name Shoeless Joe Jackson mean anything to you? Pete Rose, back in the 1960s and ’70s? I think this has been there always. The Teapot Dome scandal in the United States. I think it’s no worse today than it has ever been. It may be that more of these things are coming to light. If John A. Macdonald had been subjected to the scrutiny that the Gomery commission imposed, there would be a lot more incidents that would have come to light.
Our society loves winners and rewards them with fame and fortune. Does that not foster a “win at any cost” mentality?
Lance Armstrong is evidence of the fact that, even if you come first seven times in a row in the world’s most exacting bike race and it’s established that you have been cheating, then you will lose those titles and pay the price.
Do we esteem athletes to impossible levels? See them as exemplary human beings, not just exemplary in their field of endeavour?
I don’t think we do. I follow tennis very closely. I know that [Roger] Federer is regarded as the best in the world, or among the best. I always read past that, read the article about his character, how he behaves toward other people, how he behaves under adversity, and think he’s genuinely admirable. That could not be said of all the top players. Some of them are quite obnoxious, and the media report that. The truth gets out.
Is a win a win, no matter what?
No. The win should go to the person who achieves the objective through natural ability, not through artificial enhancement.