Guilty or not, Armstrong will always be a hero to me
The noose has been tightening, tightening, then snap. Today, Lance Armstrong gave in. He didn’t admit he was guilty of systematic doping over the years, or any doping at all, but he’s had enough of the fight.
Some fights you can win, some you can’t. In a way it’s offensive to class any struggle with cancer as a battle, as it unfairly implies a certain weakness among those who die. That said, Lance won his battle with Testicular cancer, and he won it with honour.
No sooner had he hopped out of hospital for the umpteenth time than he started raising money to find a cure, then hopped on his bike and rode his international rivals into the ground. There’ll be some hard-bitten French sports journalists popping champagne corks tonight, while a few in the Australian press will uncork chardonnay. Let them gloat. Lance Armstrong is still a winner to me and to so many of us.
The clue to Armstrong’s current state of mind comes in the first and last paragraphs of his 871 word statement issued today. In the first paragraph he writes:
“There comes a point in every man’s life when he has to say, “Enough is enough.” For me, that time is now. I have been dealing with claims that I cheated and had an unfair advantage in winning my seven Tours since 1999… The toll this has taken on my family, and my work for our foundation and on me leads me to where I am today - finished with this nonsense.”
Then at the end he says:
“Today I turn the page. I will no longer address this issue, regardless of the circumstances. I will commit myself to the work I began before ever winning a single Tour de France title: serving people and families affected by cancer, especially those in underserved communities.”
Again, not for a minute does Armstrong admit guilt of any kind. What he does say is that his peace of mind and his life’s work is more important than trying to preserve both his place in the record books and his record as an athlete untainted by drug use allegations.
Armstrong is almost certain to be stripped of his seven Le Tour titles. Reports in the US business press say he could lose millions of dollars and that his brand will forever be tarnished. It’s always a little vulgar to speak of individuals as “brands”, especially when the individuals do so themselves, but the point is, these reports will likely be proven wrong.
There remains, and probably always will no matter what the US drug agency USADA eventually finds, an enormous public reservoir of goodwill towards Armstrong.
Partly this is the cult of personality. When you meet Armstrong, you find yourself face to face with an intense guy who is intensely competitive and driven in everything he does to the point of obsession. He honestly believes the half billion dollars he has raised will go a long way towards eradicating cancer forever. If you asked the guy for a thumb fight, he’d probably rip your thumb off.
What you suspect he wouldn’t do is sneakily use his fingers to help him win the thumb fight, because Lance Armstrong doesn’t strike you as a man with a taste for an unfair fight. He wants to crush you on his merits, then use your bones for lawn fertiliser.
That’s the other half of the Armstrong popularity equation. People understand and respect just how tough an athlete the guy was and, at 40, still is. And they understand that if he was doping – big unproven “if” there – then it’s incredibly likely that the majority of the field was too.
In other words, he’s no worse than anyone else.
Armstrong won his seven Tours de France in cycling’s dirtiest era. Even if guilty, he is no Ben Johnson. Johnson, you’ll recall, was the Canadian sprinter who had his 100m title stripped at the 1988 Seoul Olympics for steroid use. That case outraged the public because Johnson appeared to be one of the few athletes from the free world who was blatantly breaking the rules at the time
You can’t say that about Armstrong, nor will you ever be able to say it..
Cycling in the 1990s and 2000s remains a much more tainted commodity than Armstrong could ever be. The winner in the wake of today’s statement is not Lance Armstrong’s peloton of doping pursuers, but the sport of cycling, for surely no one of any substance or intelligence would try to bend the rules now.
Armstrong may end up erased from the history books but he’ll live long and live strong in the hearts of the cancer survivors he helped, as well as those who succumbed to cancer after a battle which he made infinitely more tolerable.
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