I’m in a quandry.
See, I like Lance Armstrong. I admire his accomplishments (wait for it) and his charity work in keeping a spotlight focused on cancer has been even more admirable.
But it’s all been built on a house of cards, and I’m a little angry about that.
Let’s get the climax of the Armstrong story out of the way so I can focus on the real issue as I see it: No matter what, Lance Armstrong won seven Tour De France titles, the most grueling athletic competition in the world. A man (or woman, as they do race a woman’s race too) rides for three full weeks with precisely two days off, circumnavigating an entire nation and then some, covering roughly the distance from New York to Salt Lake City.
Steroids don’t help all that much in the grand scheme of things, but even a half a percent boost is enough to propel you a lot further faster over 21 race days.
Armstrong beat at least six riders who themselves were found guilty of doping contemporaneously to these Tours. That the UCI (the governing body ofr professional cycling) and Tour de France officials have not seen fit to award any of the forfeit jerseys speaks to me that they have doubts about even the seventh.
He beat cheaters at their own game. Indeed, he cheated better than they did since he was never caught but they all were. In fact, the one race he actually lost, his “unretirement’ in 2009, saw him place behind two other riders who themselves have either been proven or accused of doping.
In short, I can hold the notion in my head that Armstrong is a great athlete and that on any level playing field, he wins seven titles.
Also, I can hold the notion that he’s a shit of a person. After all, this is a man who abandoned his wife and kids, shacked up with Sheryl Crowe and then dumped her just after she revealed her breast cancer (ironic, right?) By all accounts, he’s a pretty mean motherfucker and a terrible teammate, as has been documented in the thousands of pages of testimony the USADA has released from former teammates who talk of being bullied and extorted into silence about doping.
That Lance Armstrong is willing to fess up now and come clean is about one thing, and one thing only: Lance Armstrong. His ego got way ahead of his common sense. After all, he wasn’t born an “Armstrong.” This is a guy who has a very…I’ll be polite…healthy self-image. Confessing to the High Priestess of Confessional Television is one of the first steps in rehabbing a shattered and shabby image.
To what ends? Ahhhhhhhhhhhhhh…that’s the right question!
Let’s talk about the underlying issue here: money.
Steroids in sports. Ponzi schemes. Subprime lending. What two things do they all have in common?
Blatant illegality and money.
Armstrong’s entire cycling legend focuses on his accomplishments on the bike, but its the rewards he got off the bike that speak louder.
Armstrong took a sport that was barely a blip on most Americans’ radar and turned it into a phenomenon, through a combination of compelling story (cancer survivor comes back to LiveStronger) and accomplishment. Either would have had little impact on driving the sport of bicycling in the country (can you even name the last American before Armstrong to win the Tour? HINT: He was the first and won it three times in some of the most exciting Tours ever staged.)
The combination of the two would rocket cycling into the nation’s psyche. Suddenly, the Tour went from something for geeks, with fifteen minutes of summary coverage on ABC’s Wide World Of Sports, to live coverage of actual stages. Cycling became a sport one could regularly find on cable.
In tandem with this, Armstrong formed a national dialogue on cancer and healthcare through his LiveStrong Foundation. Those ubiquitous yellow wristbands started showing up everywhere. I still wear mine proudly as a cancer survivor. I can still be proud of Lance for that work.
In return, Armstrong was lionized around the world (mostly…remember, he’s still a prick.) In an age when superheroes stopped existing, Armstrong towered above us all, like the Colossus of Rhodes. Those of us who biked reverted to our childhood tropes of playing in the pros, and we’d ride against or alongside Lance in our imaginations. He drove us farther, higher, faster, stronger.
In return, the Armstrong brand — LiveStrong — became a commodity. Clothing, equipment, the websites, endorsement deals abounded, and Lance raked it in. Maybe he was not as greedy as Madoff, but he made a nice living.
Fame, fortune, titles, beautiful women…I’ve actually “spoken” to Lance (online, a brief discussion when he was making his comeback) and you could sense his giddiness at it all. When you’re ego is being fed well, you can’t help but be happy.
See, here’s the thing: there’s a flipside to all this acquisitive behavior. You end up destroying people and lives. For instance, Armstrong sued a British tabloid for a story they published about his then-alleged doping, and won a substantial judgement. The reporter who wrote that suffered professional consequences that no amount of rehabbing by Armstrong will restore.
Frankie Andreu, a former teammate of Armstrong, and his wife Betty have been pariahs in the cycling community for years for suggesting that Andreu knew Lance doped.
Life can be a zero sum game if you play it badly. What you win, be it money or power or fame or fortune, comes out of someone else’s pocket. It’s rarely a collaborative, cooperative triumph.
Armstrong will have to do much more than publicly confess his sins against cycling, against the cycling community, and against the American people and people of the world who followed him, if he wants to even begin to restore balance to the world, if he truly wants redemption.
For instance, he can name names. Armstrong was the greatest athlete of his generation, in any sport, but he’s still small potatoes on the totem pole of sport. There’s officials and owners and promoters, the people who made real money off his exploits, and turned a blind eye or even encouraged his cheating.
He can volunteer to help form new doping guidelines and protocols that will catch other people cheating. To this day, Lance has still not ever tested positive for PEDs. How he got around those tests is important knowledge for the governing body of all sports to have. With the kind of money teams and sponsors throw into sports…I’ll get to that in a minute…they can easily stay ahead of the doping cops.
And he can talk frankly about the pressures we put on athletes to cheat. He can talk about how sport is so glamourized worldwide, that games played by children have mutated into competitions where sums of money the size of the GDP of a small nation are at stake, that there is a clear “win at any cost” mentality.
And how we can mitigate this. Like politics, so long as their is big money to be made, there is big money to be spent trying to get an edge.
And maybe in the course of that discussion, you and I can look at ourselves and realize we are the problem. And we have it within ourselves to fix it, and easily.