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.

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  • “He cheated better that anyone else because they got caught and he didn’t.” Except that he “didn’t get get caught” by means of being the meanest most lethal sob in the house when it came to covering up, terrorizing anyone who asked questions, and in the end he did get caught.

    And his cancer foundation is all about the fact that he himself had cancer.

    I ses nothing, absolutely nothing to like or admire about the guy. He is 100% self-serving loser.

  • Al Capone style scum. He elected to become enforcer for the doping practices of the sport. He figuratively took a baseball bat to the heads of anyone who challenged him on his own doping. He ruined the lives of several people, and he even got the system to work for him, by winning legal judgments against former colleagues and a British tabloid. We were all compelled to believe his innocence because it was affirmed several times over in the courts. Even Al Capone could not accomplish that much.

    The man is about as complete an amoral bastard as you can come across in public life, and in this age of Madoff, that is saying quite a lot. He belongs in jail. He should not be allowed to redeem his reputation by quasi-confessing to Mother Oprah, and he should not be permitted anywhere near his charities or cancer foundation. They were all fronts to give him an image of respectability, just as charities served that same purpose for Jimmy Savile so he could perpetrate sex crimes. I see no difference morally between Madoff, Savile, Sandusky, or Lance Armstrong. Savile avoided jail by dying before his crimes were known. Two of the others are facing life sentences. Armstrong should join Madoff and Sandusky in prison.

  • I’ll leave one other comment about steroids, human growth hormone, and other drug usage in sports. I watched the Alabama – Notre Dame blowout for the college football championship. The size of the arms of the defensive line of Alabama was a wonder to behold. Freshmen in college don’t get this big by just working out in the gym. It seems perfectly obvious what is going on with the Alabama football program. Notre Dame may be using anabolic steroids as well, but apparently just not as potent. Watch professional NFL football, and it is perfectly obvious there as well what is going on, in a sport that is already known for abuse of pain killers and other practices that cause long term injury to the players.

    Do an internet search on “NCAA football doping scandals” and you’ll find nothing. There haven’t been any, because the NCAA isn’t really serious about it (they pre-announce their visits to campus to check on doping), or the programs have so much money they find ways to get around it. When you have a college football program that has an annual budget from $50 to $100 million, of course there is enough money to elude any inspections.

    One other little observation. What are the odds that a tiny gym in Jamaica is able to produce three Olympic track and field record holders? Close to zero, unless cheating is involved. How many years do we have to wait to learn that Usain Bolt’s medals are being taken away from him?

  • That threshold by which sports wishes to risk the legitimacy of the win/loss record. It’s bad enough that some sports already have to compare themselves unfavorably to the past when the records being set were relatively unimpeachable (think professional baseball). If steroids are allowed unlimited use in a sport, the victory can easily go to the team with better chemistry at their disposal. Every other consideration becomes secondary, such as the relative athletic capabilities of the players. Sport becomes chemical warfare.

    I think if sports were so eager to embrace drug enhancements openly and freely, Mark McGwire, Barry Bonds and Sammy Sosa would now be Hall of Famers.

    • That threshold by which sports wishes to risk the legitimacy of the win/loss record.

      I fantasize about a future with many more and much smaller stadiums and ballparks, lots more teams, a de-emphasis or elimination of national or “world” championships, cheap tickets…. In football, a huge reduction in the amount of padding allowed might help, too. Maybe, too, the Olympics held in as many countries as want to, in a given year, with as many gold medals in each event as their are venues hosting that event.

      Don’t expect it to happen but it might be nice. Look at all the real estate money (and public policy corruption) in big stadiums and broadcast rights.

      • And this doesn’t even begin to address the fact that, without steroids in sports, ALL sports, there would be no ESPN, no CBS Sports Network, no NBC Sports Network, no Fox Sports, no…

    • But is there a difference between the teams that can afford the best chemists and the teams that can afford the best trainers, nutritionists, sports doctors, etc?

      My own view is, legalize them, let them be used publicly, with the proviso at all levels, down to Little League, that instruction be given on the long term effects of steroids (tumours, brain myopathy, loss of fertility, and so on).

      Educate, and then legitimize. It’s pointless to try to ban them since enormous resources go into the cat and mouse game of steroid use/discovery, much along the lines of the war on pot. You may as well say “Look, you want a chance at a fleeting and temporary record that won’t last the next drug-addled kid, be our guest, but you’ll spend your retirement in hospitals, doctors’ offices and wheelchairs and hospices.”

      My suspicion is, they’ll go away faster than any witch hunt could possibly rid them from sport.

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