What do you say about a man who conquered cancer, won seven world championships, used his profile as one of the world’s greatest athletes to raise and donate millions of dollars to cancer research, and had the most crippling fall from grace perhaps any American athlete has ever had? What do you say about a man who is an outstanding narcissist in an industry full of narcissists, but cared enough about the awful disease that nearly took his life that he devoted the rest of his to making other lives better?
Is he a fraud, a self-serving cheat, a professional scam? Is he a tragic hero, a flawed champion, an inspiration to millions of people who might follow him out of the depths? Is he both?
We may never get a bigger admission that Lance Armstrong cheated his way to his seven Tour de France titles than we got today, when he stepped down from Livestrong, the cancer foundation he started, and lost his contract with Nike, a company that stood by beleaguered superstars like Tiger Woods and Kobe Bryant and even Lance Armstrong. That even Nike, the company with the biggest financial stake in maintaining Armstrong’s innocence, has given up the cause makes it seem that this is real, and that believing in Armstrong took the same level of naivete it took to believe in Barry Bonds.
According to the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency, Armstrong was part of “the most sophisticated, professionalized and successful doping program that sport has ever seen.” Armstrong is not just a cheater. He may be the biggest dope in the history of sports.
But what about all the people Armstrong helped? According to its web site, Livestrong has raised more than $470 million since it started in 1997. It has donated to 550 separate cancer research organizations, and 81 cents of every dollar it gets goes toward services for survivors. A third of its fundraising comes from individuals, another fifth comes from merchandise, the ubiquitous yellow bracelets and Livestrong branded gear. That money has undoubtedly helped millions of people fight cancer and deal with its effects.
Would any of that have been possible without Armstrong, without his success, however tainted it was? And is that a bigger, somehow a more moral, question than how many lives Armstrong affected in cycling?
After all, while Armstrong was raising money to fight cancer, USADA says he not only used performance-enhancing drugs but distributed them as well, and that the scheme he was a part of “was professionally designed to groom and pressure athletes to use dangerous drugs.” Improper usage of EPO, the drug Armstrong allegedly used extensively, has been linked to heart disease, stroke, embolisms, and immunodeficiency disorders. While he was helping people fight one disease, Armstrong was putting himself and his teammates at risk of others.
So is Lance Armstrong a fraud, a cheat, and a villain, the worst example of how the quest to win at all costs can distort our priorities? Or is Lance Armstrong is a friend, an inspiration, and a hero, the best example of how success can be used to change the world around us. Can’t he be both?