Well, as we all know by now, seven-time Tour De France champion Lance Armstrong has suddenly and unexpectedly fallen from grace.
Or has he, really? It all depends on the angle from which you view the issue.
For my part, I choose to adopt a perspective that I fear will be overlooked and underappreciated as legions of commentators, critics and disappointed fans skewer the once-celebrated athlete and celebrity.
I should make clear right off the bat that this is in no way intended to be a defense of Armstrong’s alleged doping or of doping in sports in general. Moreover, I have only the accounts of news articles to go by for the former, which is not enough for me to make any kind of strong assertion about it.
No, the actual dope use itself is not my primary concern. My concern is that what I view as having always been the real and true triumph of Armstrong will be overshadowed and negated in the eyes of a public that’s too ravenous for celebrity scandal to be able to think clearly and discern that there are different issues at stake here.
Armstrong’s real victory, for me, is not his once-stellar record of victories over other athletes who, for all we know, might have also been doping, realistically speaking. I’m not enough of a fan of cycling or of sports in general to be so impressed by that. Hell, any kind of so-called big achievement on paper doesn’t impress me as much anymore. What does impress me is his victory over a much more malevolent opponent: cancer.
Winning the fight against cancer is, by itself, a miraculous feat. Nothing need be added to it nor does having championship titles stripped away overnight detract from it. I must admit that winning all those races did make Lance Armstrong’s cancer survival all the more inspiring. But eliminating that from the equation does not, on the other hand, negate the inspirational power of that survival.
There are people everywhere struggling with all manners of illnesses, disabilities and impediments. There’s no way that most of these people, practically speaking, are going to go out and win a Tour De France or even anything remotely on that scale. They need to know that they do not need to. They need to know that simply trying to get by and maintain some semblance of a life is victory enough. If they completely recover from their respective illnesses, so much the better. If they do not, there is no failure. They can take refuge in the belief that there is victory in defeat so long as the challenge was met with inner strength, courage and hope.
I write this from personal experience. Although I don’t have anything as acute or life-threatening as cancer, I am nevertheless currently struggling with moderately severe chronic illness that significantly affects my quality of life and level of activity.
The media’s creation of the Lance Armstrong mythos, and the public’s participation in it, was unhelpful in that it perpetuated the tacit belief that to be truly worthy of respect and admiration one must not only surmount daunting odds (surviving cancer) but then go on even further to achieve stratospheric accomplishments after that (repeatedly winning Tour De France). How ironic, then, that the same media and public are now crucifying its cancer-fighting superhero.
A recent article in the Huffington Post* reports that some donors are demanding their donations to Livestrong be returned. As if Armstrong’s survival of cancer was also a fraud. People, it may be possible to cheat in sports but it is not possible to cheat in cancer recovery. If Livestrong was founded to support cancer patients and that’s what it sincerely does for the most part, then it still deserves support regardless if its founder cheated in a bike race or not.
The truth is that even if Armstrong had never won a single cycling title after his defeat of cancer, it would have still been a triumph. And he still could have legitimately founded Livestrong on that basis alone. And if he had only done so much as just get on a bike it still would have been a motivational example to many for whom just getting out of bed can be a struggle. For whom even everyday tasks sometimes seem insurmountable obstacles.
It would be robbing many people of a much-needed and powerful source of inspiration by implying, implicitly or directly, that since Lance Armstrong’s post-cancer athletic triumphs are no longer valid that neither is his previous human triumph.
And so let us, then, decry cheating, dishonesty and deception in sports or indeed any human endeavor while still honoring earlier, separate triumphs that are no less great for having been accomplished by a complex human being who is capable of deeds both heroic and shameful.