Tuesday, January 15, 2013

Why Lance Armstrong matters

Stories are out that Armstrong has finally come clean and admitted what everyone even remotely familiar with him and the sport of professional cycling has know for some time now: he cheated, he "doped" to improve his ability to compete in things like the Tour de France:
In an interview with Oprah Winfrey that is scheduled for broadcast on her network on Thursday, Lance Armstrong confessed that he used performance-enhancing drugs during his cycling career, according to two people briefed on the interview, which was recorded Monday in Austin, Tex.
That was typical of the initial batch of stories following the taping of Armstrong's interview and his apology to the people at the Livestrong Foundation. Since then, something of a caveat has emerged:
“He did not come clean in the manner I expected,” Oprah said during a segment promoting the interview, which will be aired over two nights on the OWN Network. “It was surprising to me. I would say that for myself, my team, all of us in the room, we were mesmerized by some of his answers. . . .
As the first story notes, Armstrong is reportedly preparing to name names, himself. He may offer testimony against officials in the International Cycling Union--the governing body of the sport--as well as against people involved with his team, the one sponsored by the USPS, including its owners. This all suggests that Armstrong's "confession" may be one steeped in justifications and excuses, as opposed to a simple mea culpa.

And make no mistake, there are plenty of people out there willing to give Armstrong a pass on all of this. Some argue that doping in professional cycling is so widespread as to make it meaningless to single out Lance Armstrong or anyone else. Of course, this ignores a simple reality: widespread is not equivalent to universal. If even one cyclist competed without doping (and most people in the sport are quick to point to Cadel Evans as an example of such a person), then the argument fails.

Others argue that issues like drug use--for whatever reason--should not even be under consideration, with regard to athletes in various sports. They argue that drug usage is a) simply a personal lifestyle choice and/or b) a choice available to all. With regard to a), there is some validity here when it comes to recreational drugs (some, not a lot), but not with performance-enhancing drugs. With regard to b), that's true about pretty much everything, as given. But the ability to make a choice doesn't mean there are no wrong choices; such a standard is just silly.

Because the truth is that Armstrong was cheating. He knows he was cheating, he did everything he could to prevent people from finding out that he was cheating. Armstrong has consistently lied in this regard, over and over again (until yesterday, apparently). Did other cyclists cheat, as well? Sure. Many have been caught and punished in that regard. Armstrong's punishment was far more severe than those of others, it is true, but then other cheaters didn't win seven Tour de France titles and parlay that success into millions and millions of dollars.

For many years, I looked at Armstrong as something of an heroic figure, even with the doping allegations that swirled around him. His battle with cancer, his tenacity and determination, those are things we can all admire, can all applaud him for. None of that excuses cheating, in my humble (ans some might say naive) opinion. In that regard, Armstrong has essentially completed the heroic cycle, his tragic flaw is now revealed in full. But that's just meta-criticism, because Armstrong is a real-life person and has touched countless lives in significant ways. And his "heroic" nature in sport--by winning--is somewhat secondary, in this regard.

Somewhat.

Because the good deeds, the positive influence of Armstrong on the lives of others, are predicated on Armstrong's larger-than-life persona as a sports "god." The list of such gods is long and full of stories similar to Armstrong's, of falls from grace, of lives gone astray. But it is also full of stories with no such catastrophic falls. Once upon a time, Greg LeMond was the hero of America, when it came to cycling, but was ultimately supplanted by Armstrong. It is worth pointing out that when LeMond questioned Armstrong's victories--believing that Armstrong may have been doping--LeMond was excoriated by many in the cycling world, especially by Armstrong fans, even though LeMond's opinion was that the riders were more victims, than anything else (LeMond blamed the doctors that helped them, along with the ICU). Thus, the "former" hero was painted as non-heroic.

Yet now we see that LeMond had the right of it, all along. Indeed, it is likely--given the above stories--that Armstrong's interview will basically follow LeMond's comments from back in 2009, that "cycling is dying through drugs" and that "the doctors, the management, the officials, they're the ones that have corrupted riders...the riders are the only ones that pay the price."

The problem for Armstrong is his years of denial and simultaneous profit-taking from what was a phony image, a series of tainted wins. If Armstrong chooses to come clean now, fair enough. But he does need to accept his fall from grace; his image needs to be shattered. Because he's a cheater. And while we all know that cheaters often do prosper--in direct contrast to the old adage--we also know that people are ultimately responsible for their own actions. There may be lots of other cyclists equally guilty of the same sorts of things as Armstrong. But right now, we're dealing only with him. And he's more than earned his current woes.

Cheers, all.

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