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Lance Armstrong has given us a new standard for a fall from grace. A cancer survivor and seven-time champion of the most grueling athletic event in the world has now confessed that he was no different than the rest of the contenders, he rode dirty. It just seems he rode dirty better than the rest. He was a cheat, a liar and a bully.
In 1999, when we first heard that some guy from Texas wad on the Tour de France after surviving cancer, very few Americans knew anything about bicycle racing, the Tour de France, or surviving cancer. Suddenly there was Lance’s amazing story, “American Cancer Survivor Wins Tour de France!”
Lance has never been accused of being a warm, fuzzy character; he was and is relentless, ruthless, and single-minded, without much regard for others. He has always been determined to get ahead, to build and maintain an advantage. If you got in Lance’s way, he would crush you. The only way to stay in his favor was to contribute to his mission of winning the Tour de France or building his Foundation. He constantly evaluated and sought to improve his equipment within the stringent rules of professional cycling. He spent hours in the wind tunnel, improving his bike and his body position to maximize his speed in the time trials. Lance weighed his food and tracked everything he ate. Lance revolutionized and improved how top-level cyclists train. He did things that had never been done before to maximize his performance.
The word that crept into my head as I thought about Lance’s rise and fall was, “Machiavellian.” In interest of making sure I used the word correctly, I did some quick research on the origins of the word.
From Wikipedia: Machiavelli believed that public and private morality had to be understood as two different things in order to rule well. As a result, a ruler must be concerned not only with reputation, but also positively willing to act immorally at the right times. As a political scientist, Machiavelli emphasizes the occasional need for the methodical exercise of brute force, deceit, and so on.
Sounds just a little bit like Lance, huh? Little surprise that such a Machiavellian character would cheat and lie to accomplish his single-minded goal. Before we seek to crucify Lance and seek to erase him forever from our collective memory, we need to take a deep breath and look at his legacy. I’ll summarize Lance’s legacy, by borrowing a phrase that was the title of one of his books: “It’s Not About the Bike”.
Lance cheated to win, and he became famous because he won. As he won again and again, Lance’s celebrity grew, so did his influence. Lance’s celebrity opened doors with the media, in Hollywood, and on Capitol Hill. He gave a face to “Cancer Survivorship”, and made “Survivorship” a fixture in our vocabulary. He reset expectations for what one could do after cancer. Legislators listened to this cancer survivor/champion/celebrity like they’d never listened to a cancer survivor before. Lance spoke, and key people listened. Laws and policies changed. Support groups formed and cancer survivors began to see themselves as something more than their diagnosis. Lance’s story fanned the fire of hope for cancer patients and families. He was able to create a successful charity because of his fame. People gave money to be part of the phenomenon that was Lance. The patient-focused material sent by the Livestrong Foundation to any cancer family that asked gave honest and understandable answers to bolster hope.
On a personal level, I was a Lance fan since 1999. Now, I’m hurt and disappointed that he rode dirty, because I wanted him to be clean. I won’t excuse him for riding dirty, even if his primary rivals were as dirty as he was. I’m bitterly disappointed that he lied so long and so vehemently, and that he tried to discredit and destroy all who tried to tell the truth. I’m disappointed in myself for believing him, and for defending him. I really wanted him to be the clean, Superman, cancer survivor from America, showing the world what a cancer survivor could do. I will no longer celebrate or honor Lance for his tarnished cycling victories; victories without which we would have never heard of the man from Plano, Texas.
In 2004, while Lance was doing battle on the roads of France, I was doing battle in a cancer ward in Seattle, a domestique’ for my wife in the battle of, and for her life. In June of that year, cancer had wrapped itself around Ann’s spinal cord, leaving her paralyzed from the waist down. In spite of our incredible team of oncologists, we had far more questions than answers. In the hospital, a friend visited us, and presented us a bag of 100 yellow rubber bands. He told me that we were supposed to wear them on our wrists and give them to others in support of cancer patients. Dumb idea I thought, wondering why anyone would wear a yellow rubber band. I wore one, initially to humor the friend. In under a week, I had given away the first hundred, and couldn’t keep up with the requests for this symbol of support. Over the next year, I would buy and give away hundreds more Livestrong bands. I wore the same yellow band for three years, beginning the day I reluctantly put it on, until the day my sons and I used our Livestrong bands as adornments on Ann’s burial wreath.
Lance Armstrong and Livestrong revolutionized the way we think about battling cancer. Lance challenged cancer patients, and those caring for them to ask questions and to actively participate in their recovery. Lance took the competitive spirit and focus of a professional athlete and applied it to his cancer. Lance showed us how to take the fight to the cancer. Lance’s cycling career may have been all about doping, but he wasn’t a dope.
I am intensely unhappy about what Lance did as a cheating bicycle racer, an emphatic liar, and a bully. I dislike his attitude, arrogance, and self-centered personality. Lance is not the sort of person I would choose to count among my friends. If not for the inconvenient details of what he did as a cancer survivor, and what he did through Livestrong and on behalf of cancer patients, I would find him utterly repugnant.
If I ever get the opportunity to meet Lance, I will take it. It will not be a long meeting. Cycling would not enter the conversation. I would probably shake his hand and say no more than, “Thank you for giving cancer patient’s hope. Thank you for Livestrong.”
January 18, 2013