For cancer patients, aspiring cyclists, and the surprisingly large number of kids with an affinity for yellow silicone bracelets, Lance Armstrong was an inspiration, a paradigm of the unconquerable nature of the human spirit. In the words of my personal hero, Boromir from The Lord of the Rings, one does not simply ... survive cancer and go on to win the Tour de France seven consecutive times.
But the thing is, one really doesn’t.
With each new round of allegations over the past decade, I dutifully accepted Lance’s protestations of innocence. I wanted to believe that his key to winning was determination. I wanted to believe that his stubborn, unwavering will to live was wholly responsible for his miraculous recovery and athletic ass-kicking. I even tried to defend him with seemingly indisputable arguments such as, “Well, of course he’s on drugs—the guy had freaking cancer!” (Give me a break here, I’m an English major.) But in the recent interview with Oprah, the truth came out: Armstrong’s superhuman strength was actually more “super” than “human.” With this, the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency stripped him of his seven titles, and I had to radically reconsider my admiration.
It’s been said that we will forgive our athletes for absolutely anything except cheating. However morally twisted this sounds, it is at least consistent with our image of professional athletes as embodiments of athletic perfection. When Michael Vick was convicted for dogfighting, his conduct was vociferously condemned, but bit by bit, fans began to brush over Vick’s ugly extracurricular activities in order to focus on what he does (or doesn’t do) as the Eagles’ quarterback.
But Armstrong falls short on both personal and athletic fronts. For cycling aficionados—really, devoted followers of any professional sport—Armstrong violated rule number one: “Thou shalt not cheat,” thereby desecrating the sacredness of the race. In his cringe-inducing interview with Oprah, Armstrong defined cheating as “gaining an advantage over opponents,” and since “everyone was doping,” he didn’t feel like he was gaining any particular advantage. Well, Lance, if everyone jumped off a bridge...Actually, he’d probably be the one pushing them off in the first place.
Although it pains me, I have to say that Lance Armstrong is a jerk. He’s a big bad bully who might as well kick kittens as part of his morning routine and casually steal candy from children. Cheating may be the most unforgivable crime an athlete can commit, but for someone like Armstrong, a guy whose public image extends well beyond the realm of cycling, his actions are unforgivable on the human level, as well. Not only did he cheat, but he bullied others into cheating, all while mercilessly ruining the lives and careers of those who attempted to expose him.
And yet, I still can’t forget the other side of Lance Armstrong—the part that founded Livestrong, raised millions of dollars for research, lobbied Capitol Hill, and devoted himself to philanthropy. Can we separate the man who heroically battled mankind’s most nefarious epidemiological enemy and lived to tell the tale from the man who systematically tormented those who attempted to expose his dark side? Even as a former devoted fan, I have to say: no. His work on behalf of cancer survivors may be admirable, but Armstrong has a challenging mountain to climb before he can be accepted as the hero he once was.