If we’re to believe what “sources say,” Lance Armstrong’s interview with Oprah Winfrey will have him admit to blood doping. A lot of evidence has been previously presented that would seem to leave all but his most ardent supporters without any doubt that he used performance enhancing techniques to win so many Tour de France cycling races over the years. But with Armstrong’s forthcoming admission, it’s more “official.”
The rumors have been swirling around for years, but there was a time when Armstrong’s story was one of the most amazing in sports. A stout cycler at a young age, he was diagnosed with testicular cancer, which had later spread to other parts of his body. He survived the cancer, came back to competitive cycling and was, for many years, the most famous, successful and dominant endurance athlete on the planet.
But we now know (if we weren’t sure before) how he achieved that status. By blood doping, he infused his body with extra red blood cells that supercharged his muscles in ways that allowed for higher performance and quicker recovery, not to mention increased strength at altitude, which is pretty important during the Tour’s notorious mountain stages.
A lot of people will excoriate him even more with this admission. He faces legal battles that will cost him money. And there is worry that his Livestrong Foundation, which assists cancer patients and survivors with recovery, will be further damaged by the scandal.
I’m going to steer clear from a lot of the common arguments about Lance Armstrong’s sins. There are some other issues to consider.
To me, Armstrong is a lot like the big-hitting baseball players from the 1990s and 2000s. Before we call Armstrong a complete fraud, you have to realize that doping was (is?) very common in competitive cycling. Floyd Landis was nailed for it and lost his Tour championship. Some of Armstrong’s teammates also admitted to it. Some may say that they raced clean, and this may indeed be true. But the reality seems to be that Armstrong was the best blood doper in a field of blood doping competitors, much like Barry Bonds, Mark McGwire, Sammy Sosa and Alex Rodriguez were the best of a whole slew of Major League Baseball players who were loading up on performance enhancing drugs en route to batting titles, home run records and World Series appearances.
If we crucify Armstrong, then erect more crosses for the cycling federations and organizations which allowed such rampant cheating to take place. I know that’s a broad brush, and there are people who are trying to keep the sport clean. But obviously the proverbial blind eye was being turned in large numbers.
Should Armstrong be allowed to compete again? I don’t know. There is a chance that he can in eight years, when he’ll be a half-century old. By that time, he might be able to win age group races in competitive running and triathlons. But nothing that would help him regain the fame and fortune that he achieved during his heyday.
There is also the question of righting old wrongs. Armstrong was aggressive in suing those he said had defamed him. He won some of those suits, including one in which he was awarded $500,000 in damages from the Sunday Times of London. I’m sure that newspaper will be eager to haul him to court to get that money back.
There is a two-fold tragedy here. One is that we lost his amazing comeback story, that of beating back cancer to regain his life. I’m sure a non-doped Armstrong would still have been a compelling story back in the day, but not nearly as powerful as it was when he repeatedly crossed the finish line wearing the yellow jersey in Paris.
Two is what may become of Livestrong. While Outside Magazine criticized the foundation for providing little in terms of funding for cancer research, the publication missed the point of the foundation – that of helping cancer patients and survivors find ways to regain their lives. Exercise, physical therapy and other measures are what Livestrong specializes in, and it does these things very well. He’s tried to mitigate the damage the scandal has done to the foundation, but it’s not certain what the future holds. Hopefully the work of the foundation and the testimonies about the people it has helped can overcome the bad press.
My earliest memories of Armstrong were those in restaurant in Crested Butte, Colo., with some backpacking buddies. A TV was showing the Tour, and they were intently watching the progress Armstrong was making, swallowing up the competition in the mountains, breaking their will in Terminator-like fashion.
It’s sad that such greatness was a bit of an illusion. I hope Armstrong can make things right with those he’s hurt, and that maybe he can find ways to feed his tremendous competitive drive. I hope Livestrong can survive and thrive.
But I hope that this story can become Armstrong’s new testimony. His history of being an overcomer is being overrun by the reality that he cheated. His current testimony is different, a cautionary tale of how doing everything to win short-term glory can cause you to lose everything down the road.
On Twitter @RMHigh7088