When Lance Armstrong announced that he would no longer fight the United States Anti-Doping Agency’s charges that he used performance enhancing drugs during his seven-year run as Tour de France champion, the fallout was quick and severe. A lifetime ban from cycling? Check. Stripping Armstrong of his seven titles? Check. Implication that Armstrong lied to his fans and to millions who bought his inspiring story hook, line and sinker? Also check.
Obviously, Armstrong’s legacy as a champion cycler is now forever tarnished. However, Armstrong’s legacy has long been about more than just cycling. As someone who battled a severe form of testicular cancer, Armstrong’s run as Tour de France champion very well could have ended before it began. The fact that he battled back from cancer to build a family, a racing career and a life beyond his diagnosis was a source of hope to millions who were scared when they faced cancer.
I know first hand. After all, I am a cancer survivor myself. In 2005, I went to a doctor over a “problem” that seems so trivial now. It was then that I first learned of that doctor’s concern that I might have cancer, and that I might have to have surgery. I didn’t act on that advice beyond getting a second opinion, then a third, for over a year, until finally, I felt severe pain one night and new I had to do something.
Still, the thought scared me to death. This wasn’t some problem that caused me embarrassment. This was my life at stake. I can remember sitting down and hoping against hope that I didn’t have cancer. I can remember facing the thought that my life could be over. I also remember doctor after doctor citing Lance Armstrong in telling me that I had hope. Granted, I didn’t expect to leave world class cyclists in my dust in a race up the Alps, but hearing his name gave me hope that I could reclaim my life and live on beyond the diagnosis and the treatments.
Thirteen years ago, long before I ever faced the prospect of having cancer myself, I wrote a column for my student newspaper in which I cited Armstrong’s first victory in the Tour de France as a triumph over cancer, over self-doubt, and over critics. Even though it would be tempting to eat those words, I still can’t help not wanting to. I still wish that the narrative about Armstrong were merely about overcoming a potential fatal illness, and that all these accusations were merely a bad dream.
After all, cycling is notorious for its reputation that just about everybody cheats. It’s notorious for accusations that the investigations were not motivated by cleaning up the sport, but by politics. The continued accusations went from seeming to be mean-spirited attacks on an American who was lapping the field in a jealous France to seeming to be something far worse. Double-jeopardy, which would directly violate a fundamental principle of the U.S. Constitution.
More important, however, is the effect of stripping Armstrong’s triumphs from the history of cycling on the millions of people who, like me, were inspired by the story. Now that the victories are — in the eyes of many — exposed as frauds, what effect will that have on people who struggle to face the demons of cancer? Will they still draw strength from someone who fought back and raced in the Tour de France, even though his seven victories are now legislated away? Will they be inspired by the fact that he was still able to parlay his clout to raise money for cancer research? Will they look to him as a hero because he was still able to raise a family?
Or will this decision be merely one more death knell for the sportsman as hero? Can Armstrong continue his new life’s work even without the Tour de France titles? I’d still like to think so. Eventually. The stain of this decision is still too fresh for him to do much, if anything, with LiveStrong in the immediate future, but can he again take up the mantle for cancer survivors in the more distant future? It’s hard to say.
This situation isn’t like the Second Mile foundation in the wake of sexual assault charges against former Penn State defensive coordinator Jerry Sandusky. In that case, dozens of boys were harmed by a sexual predator under the guise of a charity ostensibly meant to help them. In this case, the harm is on a man whose individual legacy in the sports world is tarnished. The final story of the long term effect on LiveStrong will have to wait for the future before it can be told.
Ultimately, my reaction to Armstrong’s decision to stop fighting, even though it wasn’t accompanied with an admission of guilt, is one of disappointment, sadness, anger. And grief. Make no mistake: His story of overcoming the odds is a big reason I’m still here. Even if the story doesn’t stand up in the light of day.