Tuesday, May 31, 2011

The myth of Lance Armstrong

I went riding once with Lance Armstrong. It was about six years ago, just months before I was diagnosed with melanoma and he was still basking in the glow of his latest Tour de France victory.

Livestrong ride in 2005 began
 at the Nike campus in Beaverton
We were in the company of hundreds of cyclists who turned out that day for a Livestrong bike ride over 100 hilly miles to raise money for cancer research. I never once glimpsed “Juan Pelota” from my position at the back of the pack. We took it on faith that he was up front in his yellow jersey, reveling in the adulation exclusively reserved for an athletic golden boy turned cancer fundraising hero. We learned later that he only pedaled a few miles, and then doubled back to huddle with Phil Knight.

(If you don’t know what “Juan Pelota” refers to, consider Armstrong’s history with testicular cancer.)

Like a lot of cyclists, my feelings about Armstrong have become more problematic since that glorious day in September 2005. His survival and recovery from cancer in the late ‘90s was inspiring. I don’t tend to read biographies about sports jocks, but his was an exception. How could you not root for a guy who took two years off from racing to treat stage III cancer that had metastasized to his abdomen, brain and lungs, and then come back to win seven consecutive Tours? He was given odds of only 40% that he would even survive. His chances of ever winning a bike race again were dimmer still.

And now we have the grotesque spectacle of Tyler Hamilton going on “60 Minutes” last week to confess to doping and to implicate his former Tour de France teammate in the process. I believe Armstrong doped, and it didn’t take a sleazeball like Hamilton to convince me. I’ve followed the coverage in the cycling media close enough to conclude that the evidence is overwhelming. The intensity of the investigation against Armstrong grows daily, and I suspect he’ll eventually be forced into some kind of modified limited hangout. No one expects professional cycling to be pure; great athletes all seem to have feet of clay these days. That a renown cyclist injected himself with a banned drug called “EPO” is sad, but should not be especially surprising.

Proof of Armstrong’s guilt, however, would finally reveal one of the greatest shams in sports history. In the pantheon of cheats and liars, it would make even Barry Bonds look like a minor-leaguer. What angers me most about Armstrong is that the mythology he’s perpetrated of Lance the Survivor is no accident. It’s the result of deliberate effort and careful marketing. We all got sucked into his book (“It’s Not About the Bike”) and the defiant Nike ads. If it turns out he was doping and lying about it to preserve that mythology, anyone who’s ever donated a nickel to Livestrong will feel duped. To use the experience of being a cancer survivor to promote a falsely valorous image of yourself to reap great fame and fortune is beyond repulsive: It is corrupt to the core.

There are people in the cancer community who love this guy for all the good he’s done and turn a blind eye to the doping scandal. They tend to see you as being either pro-Lance or pro-cancer. Believe me, I’m neither, but I know where they’re coming from. Watching someone survive a potentially lethal cancer go out and crush his competition in bicycle races is a fitting metaphor for what we all dearly wish we could do to our cancers. But if that achievement was enhanced by illegal substances, and then covered up, what does that say about the whole Livestrong enterprise of raising money to fight cancer? Armstrong associated himself with this cause by choice; he didn’t have to do it. But it was because of his star power that the hopes of many have been raised that cures will be found. Now what? If Armstrong is discredited, will Livestrong also go down in flames?

I hope I’m wrong about this. We're told that Armstrong has never tested positive for any drug test he’s taken. There is so far no smoking syringe. But I’m not waiting for his denouement to conclude the man is a fraud. It’s bad enough that we have to follow professional cycling with a jaundiced eye, but far worse that we can’t trust the guy who’s personified the hope that cancer can be beaten. This is treachery, and there will be no winners when it all comes to light.


Anonymous said...

Whether or not Armstrong is guilty of doping and fraud seems to me now irrelevant. I’m not a great sports fan but am disgusted by the fact that cancer patients, sports fans- everyone, has another reason to view inspirational people with suspicion. Perhaps “Livestrong” will be used a trope for athletic doping.

Alan said...

I agree, Peter. I always looked up to him as a great athlete that had overcome a major obstacle to achieve so many things. So I was disappointed when these allegations began to surface. I wanted to give him the benefit of the doubt, but I'm starting to realize that I can't My question now is, what is the motivation of all these people that are coming out against him? Good post. I admire your writing.

Steve said...

I guess he either did it...or he's too unprincipled to continue fighting for his reputation. Very sad story, but then is it sad?