Saturday, May 28, 2011

Legs of steel; feet of clay.

“Faith,” wrote Mark Twain, “is believing what you know ain’t so.” And, when you think about it, that’s pretty much what guided the public’s attitude towards Lance Armstrong: faith. Or perhaps the desire to believe, which is certainly faith’s first cousin.

True, we all knew that Armstrong’s improbable story was just a step or two too far. To beat cancer (testicular cancer to be precise—can you think of a worse condition for a professional bicyclist to have?), and then even compete in the world’s most grueling sporting event is incredible. To win a stage, unbelievable. To win the race, implausible. To do so seven times in a row, well that surpasses credibility. Perhaps we should have looked more closely at the derivations of those descriptions: all of them mean precisely the same thing—that the feats described are not to be believed.

We all heard the voices in the back of our heads, the ones repeating things like “if it seems too good to be true, it probably is,” but we ignored them. We ignored them because we wanted to, perhaps even needed to. We ignored them because Armstrong was so, well, inspirational. He triumphed over a disease feared by all of us—especially those of us who have lost a loved one, or quite possibly more than one, to it. He didn’t come back just a little, not to even as good as he was. He came back better. There’s a message of hope for everyone feeling down for whatever reason. And it was an especially resonant message for those who needed a hero, a pathfinder, a beacon to light the way through the dark, malignant days ahead.

Not to mention all the money he raised through the LiveStrong foundation. What was it, over $400,000,000? That’s a lot of cash. True, he made damned sure that everybody knew he was the guiding force behind the organization. True, too, that he is by all accounts a ruthless self-promoter, something of a bully professionally and a jackass privately. His treatment of his first wife was rendered doubly despicable by his subsequently trotting out his children to burnish his all-American hero image. He later split with fiancée Sheryl Crow oh-so-coincidentally at the exact time she was diagnosed with breast cancer. Way to be there when your loved ones need you, dude.

And it’s true the rumors had been around for a long time. But they could always be ascribed to ulterior motives: the testimony of jealous rivals or the French press, who refused to believe that a mere American could so dominate their signature sporting event. Besides, although he was never warm or even particularly friendly, he didn’t have fits of rage like a Roger Clemens or a Lyle Alzado; he didn’t suddenly develop muscles more or less irrelevant to his sport like Ben Johnson’s biceps; his head didn’t grow to the size of a basketball like Barry Bonds’s. And he always denied using performance-enhancing drugs (protesting too much, mayhap?); he’d never tested dirty after all those years. He could be clean, we told ourselves, and we believed it although we knew it wasn’t so.

Now, with a Sports Illustrated exposé in January, a “60 Minutes” indictment this week featuring testimony from former Armstrong teammate (and Olympic gold medalist) Tyler Hamilton, and, perhaps most damaging of all, new revelations by longtime Armstrong domestique George Hincapi, who has more than a little credibility (in part, ironically enough, because of his confession about his own experiences with banned substances), Armstrong’s aura of innocent invincibility is a thing of the past. In the words of Mike Wise, Hamilton and Hincapie “aren’t bitter soldiers from Lance’s army now craving publicity; these are subpoenaed, former world-class cyclists who begrudgingly gave up the greatest champion in their sport because they did not want to go to jail themselves.”

It turns out, if Hamilton is to be believed, that Armstrong had tested positive in Switzerland in 2001, but that the Armstrongistas made that result “go away.” There’s an allegation that Armstrong made a 6-figure “contribution” to a testing center. Note that for this little conspiracy theory to work, it doesn’t even require a falsified test: just an “accidental” exclamation on the part of a technician that although they’ve found a test for X, they still can’t seem to detect Y. Here’s Wise:
Think about that. Imagine generously giving to the company responsible for your employment drug test. Now imagine trying to explain the charitable contribution to your tax guy. You know, Dave, I really thought about Habitat for Humanity, earthquake relief and of course the Homeless Animal Shelter this year. But when it came down to it, those swell folks doing the urinalysis over at Qwest—now that’s a cause I want to get behind.
Armstrong’s piety now rings more than a little false.

Oh, there will be those who still believe because they have to for their own purposes. And there will be plenty who think he shouldn’t be actually prosecuted for one of two reasons: a). he’s done all those good things, so we should forgive him the bad ones or b). his wealth and popularity coupled with a necessarily complex case would make a conviction difficult and it therefore would be a waste of resources to pursue one. It’s certainly true that convincing 12 out of 12 jurors beyond reasonable doubt that a specific crime was committed is a higher threshold than convincing 90% of us that he almost certainly cheated, and it may be that we as a society will have to settle for that.

But even if we do, we need to reject arguments that he shouldn’t be held responsible for cheating because it was all for a good cause, that he shouldn’t be responsible because “everyone else was doing it,” and that he never asked to be a role model. This latter claptrap is even endorsed by the normally perspicacious Eugene Robinson. But Andrew Carnegie, Cornelius Vanderbilt and Leland Stanford didn’t stop being robber barons by endowing universities (named after themselves, of course), and Lance Armstrong didn’t cease being a cheat and a fraud by using his notoriety to a good end.

As for his not wanting to be a role model: bovine feces. The whole argument that he could accomplish more good things by capitalizing on the fame that comes from winning (and that makes breaking the rules aaaaaaaaall better) is predicated on being a role model. “Don’t give up and you can be like me,” quoth he to adoring kids stricken with a horrible disease. He was lying, of course; lying to the most vulnerable audience you can imagine. But he wanted very much to be the role model. He just wanted us to pay no attention to the man behind the curtain.

This is an especially sad case. There’s no question that Armstrong was—hell, still is—an amazing athlete. He was the undisputed champion of a sport so demanding that most of us couldn’t last twenty minutes, let alone twenty days. I don’t think I ever biked more than about 20 miles in a day. These guys do that in less than an hour. Up the Pyrenees. And then go another couple hundred miles. It shouldn’t shock us in one respect that so many of these guys cheat: Wise reports that only one man on the podium with Armstrong in the seven years he won the Tour de France was never linked to performance-enhancers. There’s considerable argument over what this means: that cycling is the dirtiest sport this side of weightlifting in terms of drugs and doping, or proof that cycling, unlike major American sports, will actually go after current stars with real penalties. Either way, there’s a problem. But, just as the fact cheating in academe is widespread doesn’t mean we should condone it, the “everyone is doing it” defense doesn’t wash here, either.

Lance Armstrong became the face of cycling in this country. He was larger than the sport, and some of the luster of the Tour de France waned, especially in the US, after his retirement. But I, personally, had become a fan of the Tour. That lasted a year. I didn’t get bored; I got disgusted. I quit on the sport when it quit on me: when, in a year decimated by the absence of a number of top stars, all of them disqualified for doping, the eventual Tour winner, Floyd Landis, was ultimately stripped of his title for using performance-enhancers. There was no real sport left, no honest competition. That’s probably still true today. I don’t know, and I don’t care. And that is part of Lance Armstrong’s legacy. His dishonesty and above all his ego have effectively killed a sport he purports to love.

Armstrong’s lesson to those struggling against cancer, too, could have been “persevere, and you will survive. I went on to lead a normal life. You can, too.” But “normal” wasn’t good enough. Not even “extraordinary” was sufficient. Not for his quest for fame and glory. And money; don’t forget money. Now the mantra, or at least the subtext of the mantra, is “conquering a killer disease is child’s play… and you, over there, who are dying: it’s your fault because you’re not cool enough, not focused enough, not tough enough. And, of course, although none of you will ever be as magnificent as I, you can try. Cheat. Lie. Become an attention whore by pretending not to be. And if you raise someone’s hopes only to dash them, so be it. They didn’t ‛live strong.’”

If, as may well happen, Lance Armstrong is not prosecuted, or if he is acquitted on the most serious charges, he and his minions will no doubt bellow in the style of Bill Clinton that he “did nothing wrong.” He might even believe it. That would be the greater tragedy. But his greatest sin, for me, was that for several years he made me believe it, too. Even though I knew it wasn’t true.

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