Oh how I hate to spend time on this— and yet my brain keeps coming back to Lance. The endless media coverage and the news stories daily of his fall from grace have become exhausting. I have questioned over and over whether to contribute to the dialogue or not; but then I got caught up in a documentary on CNN last night, The World According to Lance Armstrong, and I found myself all pissy again. What makes me pissy about this story is not that Lance isn’t the great human being that everyone thought he was; that he lied and lied and lied. I stopped thinking he was a good human being when I read It’s Not About The Bike. His arrogance, his betrayal of his first wife—who had stood by him through his cancer and so much more, there were plenty of reasons to not think Lance Armstrong was a swell guy. What bugs me is the betrayal of everyone who believed in hard work and amazing athletic achievement.
Even if I don’t love to cycle, myself, I watched parts of the Tour every year that Lance rode it. I watched because he was magnificent, and I believe in magnificence. I don’t love basketball, but Michael Jordan gave me chills every time he levitated over the hoop and dropped that ball in. Chills. Mario Andretti made me whoop and holler as a kid, and Muhammad Ali still makes me believe in super heroes. It’s the Kelly Slaters (surfing), Bobby Orrs (hockey- whose autograph I once had and traded for, nothing), Picabo Streets (skiing), Venus and Serena Williams‘ (tennis a deux), Yvon Chouinard (climbing), Carl Yastrzemskis (baseball), the Alis, the Jordans and the Armstrongs that make my eyes well up and my skin get all goose bumpy. I am not much of an athlete myself, but just as I recognize the brilliance of Van Gogh (even if I can’t paint a starry sky like him), I have always admired the brilliance of athletes who excel in their sports. The truly great ones make you believe that if you were on skis, you could fly straight down a hill too. That you could catch the edge of a wave and drag your hand behind you, smiling. Great athletes are poetry and beauty, in the human form.
Lance has ruined that image far beyond cycling. He has blown the image to bits, spit on it, and then done an arrogant little shit dance on the smoldering heap. Stop: don’t let my words, exaggerated a tiny bit for the sake of prose, distract you from my point. I may not be losing sleep over this, but it really does hit me in a tender spot. There are not enough heros to cheer in this world. The fact that Lance Armstrong beat cancer and then went on to ride his bike up and over mountain after mountain, helped me believe that we all can get back on our bikes. I cheered him, year after year, not because I love cycling (or all those guys look so nice in those shorts) but because his determination and hard work felt worthy of cheers.
When he told us, over and over and over, that he was not doping I believed him. He said it with such conviction and without hesitation. He did not blink, or look away when asked. “I never used illegal substances, or performance enhancing drugs.” He said it so many times that I believed he had to be telling the truth, and that made me root for him more. I really believed that all those losers, the sour grapes, were just pissing on his success. It was the countless assertions of his innocence and passionate denials that made the fall that much more dizzying.
Wait, he still denies it; he may still be innocent; you say? Is there still anyone out there that believes in his innocence? I really figured that I am one of the last of the holdouts. Gullible to the end. If you’ve read any of the recent stories about this, if you’ve watched any of the documentaries, it’s nearly impossible to believe in Lance Armstrong anymore. I suppose that the true hold outs could argue that he still won all those Tours, up against so many other athletes who were also doping, but what a sad dose of reality. Each and every cyclist who participated in these illegal practices (and so many have been exposed in this investigation, that fans can only ask: “Who did not dope?”) shat on the dreams and beliefs of the thousands of kids who believe in real life super heroes. They shat on every one of us who got goose bumps in the face of magnificence, and that’s what bothers me most.
How can we ever watch the Tour again and believe that any of those athletes are truly powering up those killer hills: in the heat, in the rain, with scrapes and cuts, sleep deprived and spent—on their own determination and strength? To those of you who never watched the Tour, and don’t care about cycling, I would argue that this issue casts a specter on so many other sports and athletes. Given the heroes that have fallen in other sports for the same charges, it’s hard not to wonder if any athletic record really counts anymore. It’s hard not to clap, and then hold your breath and wait for the fall. If Lance, who else?
Is it any wonder that old folks like me cling to our Alis and our Andrettis and our Billy Jean Kings? Doping wasn’t the issue it is now, and the heroes of 20 and 30 years ago seem shinier and truer today, for the rust that younger athletes have brought to the world of sports. As much as I want to believe in the Michael Phelps’, the Usain Bolts’, and countless other younger athletes, it seems that doping is rampant in nearly every sport, and the few who have fallen big cast their shadow on all the athletes still standing.
I resent what Armstrong’s lies have done to the magic of athletics as a whole. Plenty of athletes have cheated on their spouses, done morally questionable things, but it’s Armstrong’s flagrant disregard for the integrity of the sport that really hits me where my gullible lived. In the same way Pete Rose‘s fall broke so many baseball hearts, I feel deceived and let down for the entire world of sports, that I love to admire and root for. It makes me cynical in a way that I have fought to avoid most of my life. Just as I love and cling to the technicolor world of Tinker Bell, I love believing in those heroes on the field/court/road/ slope/ mountain. However, now I my goose bumps are little less goosy. It makes me sad for all of the kids who believed in him, and are now growing up believing that super heroes cheat. When the giants fall, the aftershocks linger much longer and Armstrong was as big as big can get.
In the end, it was about the bike, Lance. That’s what you lost site of. It’s about the simple, most basic virtue of respecting your bike, and being true to it, and all those who support and believed in your efforts. There are no short cuts to greatness, and there shouldn’t be. The magnificence that has always stirred me was all about the journey, the effort and commitment that great athletes put out to make that lay up shot, that half pipe, that slalom and that surge to the finish look so achievable… if only we believe in it and work for it. How sad to have my beliefs shaken and diminished, by one yellow jersey.
**Did Lance Armstrong’s fall surprise you? Or, did you think he was guilty all along (really)? Do you still believe in his innocence? Or is all of this just silly to you and you wonder what all the fuss is about? Share your thoughts.
Of Note: I have used Wikipedia for several links here. It’s not that I believe they are always absolutely accurate, but they provide the easiest summaries. Wikipedia doesn’t pay me for their endorsements… but they should. Also of note: I am well aware that there are countless superb athletes, super hero athletes, in other countries. I live in the U.S., so that is where I focused. There are great athletes and great athletes who have fallen, in many other places.
Other stories you might want to check out: The World According to Lance Armstrong (CNN video/trailer); Lance Armstrong case is tip of the iceberg…; Lance Armstrong Olympic Medal…; Doping scandal costs Lance Armstrong sponsor, charity role…;