A Tale of Two Lance Armstrongs

Many fans want to separate the recent doping allegations from his admirable cancer work. Why that's impossible.


Reuters/Eric Gillard/Lucas Jackson

Sorry, America. You can't have it both ways. In the wake of the most recent—and most damning—doping allegations against Lance Armstrong, there's a desire to compartmentalize. A rush to split the celebrity cyclist into two distinct entities.

Cancer hero.

Possible drug fraud.

One or the other.

On 60 Minutes last Sunday, Tyler Hamilton accused Armstrong of being the latter, claiming that his former teammate used performance-enhancing drugs en route to seven consecutive Tour de France victories. The news program also reported that another former teammate, George Hincapie, gave similar testimony to a grand jury, adding to previous allegations and evidence that Armstrong cheated.

In an indignant—and perhaps Nixonianresponse, Armstrong's representatives denied the charges, attacked Hamilton's credibility, questioned the ethics of CBS News, and assailed the federal government's investigative forays into sports doping. Meanwhile, Armstrong himself tweeted that he was enjoying a "happy hour w/ the whole LiveStrong team here at the house. For those who think we'll be distracted, think again. We're here to serve."

Cancer hero.

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.

There are 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.

We need that. We need the emotional clarity. Clarity is a big part of why we create cultural heroes in the first place, and a bigger part of why we often pluck those heroes from athletics. The real world is complex. Outcomes are muddled. Relationships are confusing. Shaky ground is the norm. By contrast, sports are simple. They're designed as such. Wins and losses. Faces and heels.

Good Lance, bad Lance.

Life is easier for a fan. You always know where you stand. Not so with Armstrong. He can't be divided, despite our best efforts. Cancer hero. Probable drug fraud. One and the same. What are we to make of him? If really we're being honest, maybe it's time to ask a better question.

It took a guy on a bike to galvanize us about cancer. What are we to make of ourselves?