Late in the evening of August 24th the United States Anti-Doping Agency announced it would sanction American cyclist Lance Armstrong for using performance enhancing drugs (PEDs) and orchestrating a team-wide doping scheme during the course of his career. A consequence of this sanction is the stripping of his unprecedented seven Tour de France titles along with his Olympic bronze medal, any other awards, event titles, and monetary rewards earned during his career. Additionally, the USADA leveled a lifetime ban on the already retired Armstrong. The punishment comes at the end of what was officially a four-year investigation by the USADA. Unofficially, the rumors of drug use began way back in 1999 after Armstrong recovered from life-threatening testicular cancer to win the most grueling stage race in the world, the Tour de France.
Perhaps most interesting of all is the way in which the investigation ended. No positive tests were found. No syringes with Armstrong’s DNA were recovered. No new witness testimony was recorded. In an unbelievable turn of events, Armstrong himself dropped his fight against the USADA. He gave up. In the eyes of the USADA and its governing body, the World Anti-Doping Agency, this was an admission of guilt.
“He [Armstrong] had a right to contest the charges. He chose not to,” Said John Fahey, WADA president. “The simple fact is that his refusal to examine the evidence means the charges had substance in them. Under the rules, penalties can now be imposed.”
However, before any actual penalties are enforced the International Cycling Union (UCI), The International Olympic Committee and the Amaury Sport Organization, which is responsible for the Tour de France, will need to review the USADA’s announcement. The UCI, cycling’s governing body, ended its own inconclusive probe into Armstrong’s doping when he retired and has even questioned the USADA’s ongoing investigation. Most likely the UCI will appeal the sanctions, ultimately bringing the case to Switzerland where it will be heard by the Court of Arbitration for Sport, sport’s highest court. Assuming the numerous cases in line to be heard by the court it could be years until we finally have any inclination as to what Armstrong’s legacy will look like in the record books.
A big question still remains: What do we make of it all? Sports reporters have, now and for over a decade, sided with Armstrong or against him. He’s had numerous biographies and in-depth pieces written about him. Sometimes the authors’ came away saying the cyclist doped and other times they said he was the best athlete to ever live.
In a sport marred by drug use, such as cycling, it is sometimes hard to condemn those who cheat (If Armstrong’s titles are vacated it will be interesting to see who then claims the titles, as almost all of the runner-up cyclists also have been sanctioned for doping). Factor in Armstrong’s cancer come-back story, his national celebrity and transcendence in a sport entirely “un-American,” and the priceless amount of awareness he has raised for the cancer community and it gets even harder to condemn him for “probably” cheating.
Armstrong’s situation is entirely different from Barry Bonds or Roger Clemens, two domestic athletes with regional allegiances and much less street cred in terms of social awareness. Even Marion Jones, an internationally adored track & field athlete still lacked something the magnitude of cancer survivor when she was caught using PEDs. There are people who have never even sat on a bike, yet still count Lance Armstrong among their heroes because of what he means to them or someone they know with cancer. For all his faults and doping allegations, this cyclist has done plenty of good.
Like so many stories preceding his, Armstrong’s is one of a man who is both likable and loathsome. A good man who does a bad thing. We often glamorize these sort of characters in fiction, yet seem to break them down at first chance in reality. Tony Soprano, a sociopath mob boss wormed his way into the hearts of many Americans because we got to see that he would rather eat onion rings with his family. Dirty Harry Callahan was a lawman ruled by no law and we considered him a good cop doing whatever it took to protect the people. The antihero exists in fiction, film, and television so we may accept our flaws, short-comings, our human nature to make mistakes while still believing in our potential for good works.
It is difficult, if not impossible, to justify the use of PEDs in sport. Along those same lines, can we really justify creating heroes, or the idea of heroes, only to break down those who achieve this model in reality. Lance Armstrong’s proposed doping was a reflection of himself, of the high-pressure sport he participated, and of the society for which he is a part.
My dad used to sit in the den of our old house, watching men with funny names ride bikes over wooded mountain passes and through sunflower glazed countryside. Then one day an underdog from Texas with a name pulled out of a comic book, foiled death and rose to glory as a true champion. But it was all for not as the hero made a deal with death. He sold his soul in return for power, hope, love, and life for many others. Think of him what you will. Remember him in any way. Lance Armstrong may not be the truth we seek but he certainly is the hero we’ve created.
Update Jan. 14, 2013: Armstrong has since admitted to doping, in an interview with Oprah of all people. This confession has no bearing on the words I previously wrote here. In fact, I commend Armstrong for having the courage to admit his error. Unlike many PED users, namely Bonds and Clemens, Armstrong was willing to face the spotlight once again and come clean. Some will see this solely as a PR move, and that’s exactly what it is on the surface. Armstrong could have easily taken his millions and rode of into the sunset as a disgraced, but rich, athlete. Instead he chose to rewrite his legacy. He put himself out there for all to judge, and admitted he was a liar and a cheat. I’m willing to bet this was way harder than any bike race he’d been in.