With the 100th edition of Tour de France underway Lance Armstrong is back in the news.
To begin with let me make a couple of things perfectly clear: the guy is a liar, a bully and a cheat, to say nothing of an arrogant SOB, and he shouldn’t be allowed to get away scot-free. Now that we have stated the obvious let’s see if we can dig a little deeper, because the truth is that things are rarely as simple as they seem.
First of all, to blame him for the culture of doping that is/was/whatever prevalent in cycling seems a little disingenuous as far as I am concerned. Yes, he was part of it, in fact he was a major player in it, and that is something I suspect everyone knew at some level all along… but the sad fact is that pretty much everyone that was ever in the podium with him has been suspended for a doping offense at one point or another. That is why, when he was disqualified, his former victories were declared vacant rather than being credited to the guy who had come in second as is usually the norm. In that regard he is not wrong when he says that at least in those days it would have been impossible to win the Tour without doping.
Second: yes he is an arrogant SOB, but then again that –along with a ruthlessly competitive spirit– is pretty much par for the course for most top tier athletes. No one can make it to the top in that fiercely competitive environment without being utterly convinced that s/he is unquestionably the best… and without them being determined to do whatever it takes to prove it.
The thing is that while I am not defending what Lance Armstrong did as an athlete –or what he did as a human being in his attempts to cover up for what he had done as an athlete– I think that the question of what he did with the bully pulpit his success granted him is one that should also be taken into account, and the answer is that he was the impetus behind a multi-million dollar foundation that was dedicated to the fight against cancer. Let’s be clear about that: even with his personal history, he didn’t have to do that, and it was in his work with that foundation, not in the roads of France, that he earned my respect… and it is also here that the extent of his downfall bothers me.
That he should be disqualified is undeniable –that is a matter of fairness– and the same is true of his being deserted by his sponsors. In fact I will even go so far as to agree that, as far as role models go, he makes for a pretty questionable one, but at the same time I can’t help but to feel that the extent to which he is being demonized is excessive and unlike anything we have ever seen before. As I said, most of the guys he ever shared the podium with were caught doping at one point or another, and none of them has been hounded to the extent that Lance Armstrong has been.
Now, I understand the principle of the higher they rise, the harder they fall, and I realize that few have risen as high as he did, but at the same time I feel that things got a little out of hand in that regard. I mean, to have sponsors demanding their money back ten years after the fact? Sorry but as far as I am concerned those sponsors got their money’s worth. They built successful marketing campaigns based on his image for well over a decade, those campaigns kept being produced because they basically paid for themselves, and if those sponsors were so blinded by their greed and the comeback kid narrative that the man seemed to embody that they chose to look the other way when it came to the widespread allegations of doping that have surrounded the guy all along, then they have no one to blame but themselves. The race organizers are well within their rights when they say that they want their prize money back, but as far as I am concerned they are the only ones… after all, I don’t see those sponsors rushing to offer a refund to those customers whose purchase choices may have been influenced by their campaigns (I mean, try to return a worn out pair of sneakers that you bought some ten years ago arguing that Lance Armstrong’s image influenced your purchase and see how fast you don’t get your money back).
As for where I stand on Lance Armstrong and this whole sordid mess as a whole, the truth is that I (and I suspect a good chunk of the population) care a lot more about the fight against cancer than I do about either cycling, the Tour de France or doping, and –like it or not– the man was one of the most visible champions of that fight. It is that champion that has been sacrificed in an attempt to clean up sport, and while I agree that putting an end to doping is a worthwhile goal, with millions of people dying of cancer every year I can’t help but to feel that Lance Armstrong’s downfall is something of a Pyrrhic victory.