Possible drug fraud.
One or the other.
What are the rest of us to make of Armstrong? The cyclist has done tremendous human good. He's also potentially the biggest sports sham since Marion Jones. Can we resolve our uncomfortable cognitive dissonance by simply continuing to admire the former while distancing
ourselves from the latter?
No. Not if we're being
realistic. The inspirational pedal-pusher who survived cancer and
started the LiveStrong foundation and the win-at-all-costs competitor
who may have ingested a laboratory's worth of illicit chemicals to win
the planet's most grueling bike race are the same person.
Likewise, Armstrong's anti-cancer work and his cycling accomplishments are inexorably intertwined.
Armstrong has inspired countless cancer patients. LiveStrong
has raised tens of millions of dollars for disease research and
treatment. These things are inarguably good. And they never, ever would
have occurred had Armstrong not returned to world-class cycling
following successful chemotherapy.
A few years ago, I knew a man with early-stage prostate cancer. My
father. Around the time of Dad's surgery, Armstrong was on his way to
capturing another Tour de France. My father took an intense, overnight
interest in the race. Talked about Armstrong all the time. Raved about
his toughness. Marveled at his skill. It was easy to understand why.
Armstrong whipped cancer, and then whipped all comers and a
nay-saying French press in a sport that amounts to the world's nastiest
endurance test. For anyone facing the disease, he was a perfect
metaphor, an ideal messenger, a living, breathing, and name-taking
beacon of hope. If I can do it, you can do it. Armstrong's story of
beating cancer resonated not just because he rode. It resonated because
he won. Over and over.
umpteen cancer survivors in the world. Only one of them has 2
million-plus Twitter followers. Only one has seven yellow jerseys. This
is not a coincidence. Armstrong's triumphant athletic narrative is
essential to his do-good cause; if PED use enabled him to write those
telegenic, happy endings on the Champs-Elysees, then cheating is
essential, too. It can't be minimized. Can't be wished away. Can't be
put in a neat little no-cancer box.
To put things
another way: Armstrong titled his best-selling book It's Not About the
Bike. Which is nice. But not entirely accurate. Because without the
bike, there is no best-selling book.
I understand the
temptation to decouple Armstrong's good works and potentially shady
deeds. It's a way to cope. If Armstrong doped—if his righteous,
aggressive assertion of innocence is as hollow at the extra-large red
block letter phrase I HAVE NEVER TAKEN [DRUGS] AND I NEVER WILL TAKE
THEM that the disgraced Jones wrote in her 2004 book—then everyone who believed in him is going to feel duped. Played for
fools. Teasing out cancer activism lessens the sting, leave us with
something to feel unambiguously positive about.