I was a cyclist long before I first heard the name, Lance Armstrong. Yet it was the buzz around this single-minded Texan that lured me, and thousands of others, into watching the Tour de France, the penultimate race of a sport most Americans thought of only as exercise.
As Armstrong’s trips to the podium miraculously continued, we reveled not only in his success but in the backstory: raised poor by a single mom; found a passion for cycling; diagnosed, treated and defeated aggressive cancer; began a legacy as Tour de France winner and celebrity philanthropist.
It was a story Lance himself described in his 2000 autobiography, It’s Not About the Bike, a work meant to inspire his new-found fans and to properly frame the spiritual underpinnings of his success. I lapped it up, including this gutsy, typical Armstrong quote:
“Pain is temporary. It may last a minute, or an hour, or a day, or a year, but eventually it will subside and something else will take its place. If I quit, however, it lasts forever.”
Love, hardship, pathos, grit and, especially, miracles. It was all there in the book. Except that now, of course, we know there was something missing.
Drugs. Blood-doping. Lying.
In May of 2011, I wrote a column about Armstrong’s doping controversy following a 60 Minutes interview of his former teammate, Tyler Hamilton. One of the last to believe my hero would lie, I had just begun to reconcile myself to reality when I stated, “Maybe over the course of time Lance’s success as a champion against cancer will eclipse his cycling successes.”
Now, I know the truth. We all do. What willl be the long-term fallout of Armstrong’s admission? Hard to say. In the short term, however, the “cheater” label has created a backlash that even some staunch followers of his Livestrong foundation have turned their backs on him. For them, Armstrong’s message of courage and determination, of the hope implicit in even the worst moments, belong in the trash heap already filled with his lies and deception.
Now, instead of a lycra-wearing, endlessly pedaling, yellow-jerseyed superhero, the image is that of a suddenly mortal man answering uncomfortable questions in a staged interview, displaying the body language of a slightly repentant truant.
Now that the truth (or whatever passes for it in this sideshow) is out, the media has jumped on the topic of Armstrong’s eventual legacy. This is not a question that interests me, however. Here’s mine: Who the heck is this guy we thought was Lance Armstrong? I’ll take a stab.
He is the amped man we see on Oprah’s couch. He is a fighter, an athlete and, also, a former player in the sometimes devious sport of professional cycling. He is single-minded and aggressive to a fault and sharp enough to recognize that, world-class skills or not, he likely would have only seen the podium from a distance were he not to join many (most? all?) of the other Tour winners in their clandestine game of doping. He is a cautious, calculating competitor who kept his secrets well. He is a skilled deceiver who, having perjured himself, was patient enough to hold his tongue until the statute of limitations expired.
That’s the man I see now, a tragic figure from Shakespeare undermined by his petty and all too human failing. Did he feel guilty? I’d like to believe he did, that he considered this current future when he wrote in his book,
“At the end of the day, if there was indeed some Body or presence standing there to judge me, I hoped I would be judged on whether I had lived a true life.”
Good luck with that interview, Lance.
Still, we did love your spirit. You fired us up with your competitive drive. We gushed at your cancer story and admired your philanthropy.
But, oh, that cheating heart.