More than a cyclist
There's more to Lance Armstrong's popularity than his performance on a bicycle.
IF JOE Paterno represents the greatest fall from grace in the history of sports, then many are saying that Lance Armstrong might now have won the silver.
Dave Zirin is the coauthor, with John Carlos, of The John Carlos Story, and author of Bad Sports: How Owners Are Ruining the Games We Love and A People's History of Sports in the United States, as well as two collections of his sports writings, Welcome to the Terrordome: The Pain, Politics and Promise of Sports and What's My Name, Fool? Sports and Resistance in the United States. He is a columnist for TheNation.com; his writings are also featured at his Edge of Sports Web site.
On August 23, Armstrong was stripped of all seven of his Tour de France cycling crowns and will be banned for life from any connection to the sport he made famous. Why? Because he withdrew his appeal against the contention by the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency (USADA) that he time and again rode steroids and performance enhancing drugs (PEDs) to victory.
Armstrong quit the fight against the USADA, but issued a statement without contrition, accusing them of an "unconstitutional witch-hunt." As Armstrong said in a statement:
There comes a point in every man's life when he has to say, "Enough is enough." For me, that time is now. I have been dealing with claims that I cheated and had an unfair advantage in winning my seven Tours since 1999. The toll this has taken on my family and my work for our foundation and on me leads me to where I am today--finished with this nonsense.
Today, I turn the page. I will no longer address this issue, regardless of the circumstances...I will commit myself to the work I began before ever winning a single Tour de France title: serving people and families affected by cancer, especially those in underserved communities.
With the swiftness of a pro cyclist going 75 miles per hour down a steep hill, the USADA acted immediately, treating Armstrong's surrender as a legal admission of guilt. Travis Tygart, the USADA's chief executive spoke as if a jury of Armstrong's peers had voted to convict, saying, "It is a sad day for all of us who love sport and athletes. It's a heartbreaking example of win at all costs overtaking the fair and safe option. There's no success in cheating to win."
Tygart maintained that Armstrong didn't give up the fight from exhaustion, but because he knew that the USADA had 10 former teammates ready to testify that he was doping. Armstrong it should be noted, made clear that no matter what any witnesses had to say, "There is zero physical evidence to support [their] outlandish and heinous claims," Armstrong said. "The only physical evidence here is the hundreds of [drug tests] I have passed with flying colors."
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I DON'T know about Armstrong's guilt or innocence, but anyone who writes off Armstrong after the USADA ruling and thinks that he's about to enter some sort of Paterno-Pete Rose-Barry Bonds pantheon of infamy, doesn't quite understand his appeal or why he connects so strongly with his army of fans. Of the 70 top 10 finishers in Armstrong's seven Tour De France victories, 41 have tested positive for PEDS. Armstrong is a hell of a lot more than just number 42.
The Texas native came to public consciousness not just for beating the Pyrenees, but for beating stage four cancer. In our increasingly toxic world, I don't think a family exists that hasn't been touched by cancer in some way. Lance Armstrong, and his ubiquitous Livestrong bracelets, are 21st century totems of survival, and the USADA isn't going to change that. Nothing ever could.
No adult male saw Mark McGwire or Sammy Sosa in 1998 and thought, "Someday I'm going to hit 70 home runs." No adult female saw Marion Jones and thought, "Someday I'll win gold at the Olympics." But legions of adults have watched Lance Armstrong and thought, "Someday, I'm going to beat this damn cancer."
That's a deeper connection than fandom or even the virtual world of fantasy sports could ever provide. If Lance Armstrong has been able to further the connection because he's white, photogenic and politically connected (and did I mention white?), then to his credit, he's leveraged those advantages to raise over $500 million for cancer research and access to treatment in poor and minority communities across the U.S.
Armstrong, a religious agnostic, was once asked how his belief in God helped him beat cancer. He answered, according to the great sportswriter Robert Lipsyte, "Everyone should believe in something, and I believe in surgery, chemotherapy, and my doctors."
That response in the end is why he won't go into hiding. He won't live in self-imposed exile. He won't slink to the margins of U.S. society, and he won't lose his fans. Call him a doper. Call him a cheater. Call him the dirtiest player in a sport that's as dirty as they come.
He'll call himself the guy who keeps fighting to make sure people have the surgery, chemo and doctors they need. For people like those in my own family, who have been through trials of unimaginable courage and earned the right to wear that Livestrong rubber bracelet, that will always matter more.
First published at TheNation.com.