Lance Armstrong was more than a guy on a bike. Indeed, he titled his as-told-to autobiography, “It’s Not About the Bike.” And he wasn’t just a guy who had cancer and lived to tell the tale. He was an inspiration, a role model, an object lesson regarding the power of the human will.
He beat testicular cancer and didn’t just go on with his life. He became bigger than life. He won the Tour de France seven years running. He was named Sports Illustrated’s 2002 sportsman of the year and took multiple ESPYs as the male athlete of the year. Above and beyond all that, he was the guy who gave us the yellow bracelets, the ones bearing the name of his foundation — Livestrong.
And now he stands revealed as … what? A craven cheat? The hypocrite of all hypocrites? The guy who swore his innocence right up until the point where he decided to stop swearing?
“I am … finished with this nonsense,” was Armstrong’s rationale for dropping his fight against the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency, which took his words as an admission of guilt and moved to strip him of those seven Tour de France titles. (Though the International Cycling Union is waiting for further information to take action.) The USADA has vacated, to invoke the college sports word, everything Armstrong achieved in his sport from 1998 on.
And we’re left to do … what? To recall all the good will and admiration we directed toward Lance Armstrong all these years? To feel cheated ourselves? To feel — diving deeper here — that this beacon of hope actually was a manifestation of everything we have hoped against hope isn’t true? That the games aren’t rigged, that sports are indeed a measure of character, that the bad guys don’t always (or ever) win?
If we’d been honest with ourselves, we might have wondered if the Livestrong story was the stirring saga it appeared to be. Armstrong was under suspicion even as he was winning those Tours. (This being cycling, everybody is under suspicion.) He would dispute every allegation, but the weight of the whispers began to give some among us pause. But not, I would suggest, the masses.
Most of us still saw Armstrong as a hero. He had cancer and still he became the world’s greatest cyclist. That was the more gripping narrative, and also the more palatable. Reality, alas, tends to get complicated.
Armstrong insists that he has admitted no wrongdoing, that he has simply chosen not to keep fighting the USADA. In a statement, he said this: “USADA cannot assert control of a professional international sport and attempt to strip my seven Tour de France titles. I know who won those seven Tours, my teammates know who won those seven Tours and everyone I competed against knows who won those seven Tours.”
And now we’re again scrambling for purchase on that slippery slope. Did Southern Cal win the 2004 BCS title or not? (The Trojans were stripped of the title owing to sanctions involving Reggie Bush, who has since returned his 2005 Heisman Trophy.) Who’s the real home run king — Hank Aaron or Barry Bonds? We have reason to suspect that Bonds didn’t generate all 762 homers on the up-and-up, but MLB kept letting him play, did it not? And, for further discussion: Should Mark McGwire be in the Hall of Fame? Should Rafael Palmeiro? Should Roger Clemens? And what of A-Rod, who might well hit 763 home runs?
This is a terrible time to be a sports fan. (Last week Melky Cabrera, this week Bartolo Colon and now Armstrong.) For all the joy that’s supposed to come from following these athletes and their trivial pursuits, we keep slamming into chilling truths, or half-truths, or truth laced so heavily with fiction that it’s not true at all. All any of us can know for sure about Lance Armstrong is that the first part of his stirring saga stands: He did beat cancer. Everything afterward is open to interpretation. Everything afterward could well have been a lie.
And all among us who have, over the years, sported those yellow bracelets? We could have shared his lie. Some feel-good story this is turning out to be, huh?
By Mark Bradley