The Yin and Yang of Lance Armstrong
The daily deluge of articles about the fall of Lance Armstrong in the wake of the 1,000 page report from USADA shows no signs of slowing. It’s barely 9am, and already news has broken about Nike terminating their relationship with Lance and a decision by the now former 7-time TdF winning rider to step down as the chair of his own foundation, Livestrong. Armstrong’s legacy appears to be descending faster than the pro peloton down Alpe d’Huez (sorry, couldn’t help myself).
But Armstrong presents a unique challenge to those of us, especially cyclists, trying to square our own opinions and feelings about where he stands in the pantheon of public figures. Armstrong was hailed as a “person to be deeply admired” for leading the fight against cancer by The Austin American-Statesman newspaper. “The trickier legacy is the one that goes beyond cycling. If admirable work turns out to be built on a lie, is the lie then OK, the cheating excusable?” according to an editorial.
Coming to terms with his cycling legacy would seem to be the easier task when considering the impressive array of evidence presented by USADA. When you look at the top finishers of the TdF during Lance’s 7-year reign, however, does this not represent THE best example of a “new level playing field” where almost everyone (>70% of podium finishers) doped? It seems the only real choice, sadly, is to basically ignore that era and declare no holder of the yellow jersey during those years – that’s what the director of the TdF appears heading toward. Ultimately, of course, the right answer ought to be that no matter where the level is set, cheating cannot be allowed or condoned, and we must accept that not all were doping, therefore his cycling legacy is tainted. Unfortunately, like Barry Bonds before him (another “prickly” superstar athlete), I strongly suspect Lance would’ve distinguished himself as a champion of cycling’s most treasured race without performance-enhancing drugs and techniques (though perhaps not 7-times).
Much more difficult is how we are to view his impact on cancer – the ultimate opponent. Livestrong has received donations totaling almost $500 million since 1997. Like many others, I’ve met, ridden next to Lance (hung onto his wheel more like it), and heard him speak in person. He has inspired countless people, those with and without cancer, to grab (or buy) a bike (ask Trek about his impact) and ride – for exercise, for fun, for life. We he have inspired the same in us without the victories? Probably not. His drive, example and name are clearly the biggest reason for Livestrong’s fundraising prowess. Nevertheless, one has to wonder whether the organization was preparing for this day back in 2004 when it began the slow march to change the Lance Armstrong Foundation to the Livestrong namesake it’s held since 2009 – a rare example of a parent brand being usurped by its offshoot. It’s always risky for an organization to be associated with a single person. Often it’s about what happens to fundraising when the person retires or is no longer in the public eye. In this case, it’s what will happen when the person remains in the public eye but for the wrong reasons. Fortunately, it appears that while Nike is ending it’s relationship with Lance, they have “plans to continue support of the Livestrong initiatives created to unite, inspire and empower people affected by cancer.”
It’s far too early to know the impact of the daily events related to his story. We can only hope that Livestrong will do what Lance himself tells people in his book “It’s Not About the Bike” – “All I wanted to do was tell people to fight like hell.”