The cycling star has been stripped of his titles, but does that negate his legacy? Or are those who condemn him hypocritical?
Every week, our panel of sports fans discusses a topic of the moment. For today's conversation, Hampton Stevens (writer, ESPN and The Atlantic), Patrick Hruby (writer, ESPN and The Atlantic), and Jake Simpson (writer, The Atlantic) discuss Lance Armstrong's use of performance-enhancing drugs.
Did you hear the huge news about Lance Armstrong? Nike is celebrating the 15th anniversary of their relationship with the cyclist by releasing their 2012 Livestrong holiday collection of running apparel.
Oh, also? Armstrong totally cheated to win the Tour De France seven times.
The United States Antidoping Agency released their Moby Dick-sized report on Armstrong this week. More than 1,000 pages, the exhaustive volume makes a devastating case that Armstrong was involved in the "use, administration and trafficking of performance-enhancing drugs," like EPO and testosterone. In other words, the Feds say Lance didn't just cheat, he also demanded that his teammates cheat and was the driving force behind supplying the dope.
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Let's be clear, though. The case against Armstrong has nothing to do with his Livestrong Foundation. No human is all good or all bad. Whatever wrong Armstrong may have done as a cyclist, that doesn't negate a bit of his noble work in the fight against cancer. Appropriately, according to ESPN, Armstrong's personal troubles haven't hurt the foundation so far, with donations up more than five percent from last year.
Nevertheless, the damning book of evidence brings a crushing sense of disillusionment. That is, at least, for anyone who still had illusions about Armstrong to diss.
Has there ever been a greater fall from grace? Pete Rose wasn't beloved before the gambling scandals. OJ Simpson was popular, but not revered like Armstrong. Maybe Joe Paterno's fall was farther. It surely was faster. But Paterno was a coach. No athlete in the history of sport has fallen harder and faster than Armstrong, mostly because no one else had risen so high.
The big Texan with a superhero's name, wearing red, white and blue, Lance dominated a quintessentially European sport at a time when anti-American sentiment in Europe was surging because of what another Texan was doing overseas. Lance was our glorious rebuttal. Borg-like, inexorable, yet charming. The guy had it all; enough glory for a thousand lifetimes, movie star looks, and an inspiring personal story that won him the adoration of millions beyond his sport. But it was all built on lies. Allegedly.
Guys, can anything makes this better? Rationalizations are always useful. "Everyone else does it" certainly applies in cycling. Or maybe Lance could just apologize without ever admitting he did anything wrong—the way baseball players and politicians do—then all would be forgiven.
Patrick, how about it? Should Armstrong apologize, and should he start with you?
Lance Armstrong doesn't have to apologize to me. Or to any cynics—read: people with cold hearts and critical thinking skills—like me. Fact is, I've never believed that he rode clean. Not when years of smoldering guns and credible accusations have suggested otherwise. Not when Armstrong's intelligence-insulting, endlessly-repeated line of defense—I have never failed a drug test—is about as convincing as Denise Richards as a nuclear scientist. (Quick review: drug testing only catches the lazy and the stupid. Nobody in the BALCO scandal flunked a test, either). And not when common sense suggests that Armstrong likely was drugged to glow-in-the-dark-Third-Ear levels, given that all of the other world-class cyclists he was beating were doped up, too. Indeed, I'm not convinced that Armstrong should apologize to cycling, any more than the 2005 Carolina Panthers should apologize to professional football. Both sports are irredeemably reliant on the pill and the needle; both sports likely wouldn't be possible, let along survivable, without performance-enhancing drugs.
That said, there is one group of people Armstrong ought to apologize to. A group of people he ought to grovel before, supplicants-of-Zod-style. I'm speaking, of course, of all the people Armstrong and his highly-paid legal help viciously and self-righteously smeared, threatened and harassed to keep his coughallegedcough doping under wraps. Journalists. Teammates. His former personal assistant. His former masseuse. Armstrong didn't just use his power and influence inside and outside cycling to raise money for and awareness of anti-cancer efforts; he used to enforce a nasty code of ass-covering omerta.
Armstrong was a bully. Small and petty and vindictive and ugly. Plain and simple. I don't care about Armstrong's self-justifying refusal to ever give up on anything. I don't give a damn if helped him when bicycle races, or even if it helped save his life. It made him cruel, and it led him to abuse others for the awful crime of telling the truth. Besides, I hate bullies. Especially ones who take advantage of vulnerable people—cancer victims, fighting life or death battles and looking for inspiration—to wrap themselves in bishop's robes.
Speaking of those: Hampton, I completely disagree with you, and with everyone that says this has nothing to do with Armstrong's cancer-fighting work. Armstrong's doping has everything to do with it. Without doping, there is no Lance Armstrong, international celebrity Cancer Jesus who eats the Pyrenees for breakfast and picks his proud, All-American teeth with the sad, jealous bones of bitter little French journalists who probably miss Vichy rule. Without doping, there's just lance armstrong, lower-case, a bike-riding guy with a heartwarming story who finishes somewhere in the anonymous Tour de France pack. And that guy doesn't have Nike commercials, or yellow bracelets, or best-selling books, or Livestrong. You know how I know? Because lots of people beat the odds and survive cancer all the time, including people in my family, and while all of them are heroes, nobody else in America cares. They're not famous. Sorry, but that's the way it is.
So yeah: go ahead and pretend there are two Lance Armstrongs. You're wrong.
Despite all of the above, there's one aspect of this story I do have mixed feelings about. Sports doping. I'm not sure it should be a crime. I think we're all a bit hysterical and hypocritical about it. And I absolutely, positively don't think the federal government should be wasting its time and resources on the matter. Armstrong—or maybe it was his lawyers—always liked to call investigations against him "witch hunts." I think he's probably right. But I'd be a lot more sympathetic if the man in the crosshairs didn't come off like such a witch.
Jake, I feel dizzy. What's your take?
My take, Patrick, is that there is so much I disagree with in your post that I hardly know where to begin.
Of course there are two Lance Armstrongs—there are two everybodys, more than two actually, because nobody can be pigeonholed into as small a box as you've created for Armstrong, as much as you wish it were so. You think the kids who were visited by Armstrong in the hospital, got a pick-me-up (during an experience no child should ever have to go through) and survived to tell the tale now care 10 years later that Armstrong did what every elite cyclist—Floyd Landis, Alberto Contador, I don't think I need to go on—did over the past 20 years? Spare me. And what about the additional funds raised by Armstrong to fight cancer, which we can all agree is a battle worth spending money on? I don't know what Armstrong did you personally to make you hate him with a vitriol usually reserved for dictators or Alex Rodriguez, but to suggest that everything about this man and his story is tainted is simply ludicrous.
Second of all, you buried the lede in your post. The story here is that once again, the federal government is spending an inordinate amount of time and money on post hoc moralizing that basically amounts to scapegoating the most prominent players who cheated. Joe Blow middle reliever who used HGH for five years doesn't get Jeff Nowitzki rooting through his garbage for years upon years of federal litigation. But is he any less guilty because he was less successful overall? Face facts, guys—people are going to look for a competitive advantage, i.e. cheat, in any large system. Watch The Wire if you don't believe me. Is it just? No. Should we as consumers shrug and be OK with it? No. But should the government spend untold millions on making sure we all know just how much these bad, bad people cheated at a form of entertainment and got away with it in the moment? ABSOLUTELY NOT. God forbid we spend that money on, you know, investigating widespread financial shenanigans on Wall Street or something.
You can hate bullies all you want, Patrick—it's a laudable thing to do, and I'd like to believe most everyone hates bullies. But the real witches of the world are being left to plot dastardly destruction while we bloviate about a guy who rode a bike. In the grand scheme of things, the best thing to do would be to figure out how to reform cycling going forward and get the federal government out of the business of Sports Cheating Cop.