The Ottumwa Courier

Opinion

January 16, 2013

A fall from grace

OTTUMWA — Like meteorites trailing off in the sky, our heroes keep falling, one by one. Do we have to have revelations that tear down all of our heroes?

At some point, I just want to cover my ears and say, “Enough! I don’t want to know any more — I liked the story before!”

Foot of the mountain

Lance Armstrong’s glorious journey of unmatched achievement as a road racing cyclist, inspiration and sheer determination began with adversity that left him flat on his back, fighting for his life. A diagnosis of testicular cancer in 1996 had left him wondering if he would even survive, much less ride again.

The cancer had spread to his brain and lungs. His cancer treatments included brain and testicular surgery and extensive chemotherapy. He was declared cancer-free in February 1997 and founded the Lance Armstrong Foundation, which later became the Livestrong Foundation, for cancer support. The Livestrong Foundation states that its mission is “to inspire and empower” cancer survivors and their families. An army of Livestrong yellow wristbands followed.

Ascent to the mountaintop

From 1999-2005, Armstrong won the Tour de France a record seven consecutive times. Armstrong lifted the world’s spirits — the sports world, the world battling cancer, people who had never watched a cycling event ever — by his example and his Livestrong organization raising galvanizing amounts of money, enhancing awareness, giving hope, optimism and faith.

 At the apex of his career, he was a god in public perception, a cancer-surviving god riding his bike up a mountain with wings on his heels, not just to unheard of human achievement, but the metaphorical mountain in the fight against cancer, humanity’s devil. Cancer affects everyone, and this iconic warrior was leading the charge, our fittest knight.

I remember Lance riding in RAGBRAI, the ride across Iowa, to raise the awareness of Livestrong’s mission. In Iowa City, I saw huge crowds staring in awe at the sight of him — perceived greatness, nobility — like you had never seen. You could almost reach out and touch him — this super-human at the peak of his fame and influence — was he real? This guy had beaten cancer and risen to unprecedented heights!

The fall

His fall from grace finished with a sad final descent through an Oprah Winfrey interview, which will air in its entirety on Thursday and Friday nights on her Oprah Winfrey Network (OWN). The leaked confession is already out. The glorious journey has come to an end for Armstrong, riding against overwhelming evidence, finally admitting after years of denials, that he cheated. Admitting that he was a doper, admitting to what we had all long suspected. Lance Armstrong has been living a lie.

For years Armstrong denied allegations of doping through his interviews, press conferences and in the courts. Lance was stripped of his seven Tour titles after an extensive United States Anti-Doping Agency investigation showed him as leading “the most sophisticated, professionalized and successful doping program that sport has ever seen.”

Armstrong is being sued for more than $1.5 million by a British newspaper over the settlement of a libel action, which followed published doping allegations against the cyclist, which looks to have been correct all along.

U.S. Anti-Doping CEO Travis Tygart said he received three death threats as he was conducting the Armstrong investigation (that’s not to imply anyone from Armstrong’s team was responsible). In a “60 Minutes Sports” interview, Tygart compared Armstrong and his team of coaches and doctors to a “Mafia.” That intimidation of riders to keep silent kept their secret for years. Armstrong must have used some “strong-arm” methods when it keeps getting reported he “destroyed lives.”

(I was disheartened when I read “Victims of Lance Armstrong’s strong-arm tactics feel relief and vindication in the wake of U.S. Anti-Doping Agency report” at http://www.nydailynews.com/sports/more-sports/zone-lance-armstrong-bully-downfall-article)

Now, where the truth is exactly, I don’t know.

The debate

The Mixed Skinny: I’ve heard the argument that for all the good he has done for cancer through his fundraising and his inspiring example to people in the battlefield with cancer, can’t you cut him some slack? Yes, we can in my opinion, but it does have its limits.

It appears Armstrong was a zealot willing to go to just about any lengths in his pursuit of the seven titles. He cost other riders opportunities to win titles, fame, fortune and a chance to give to their charities as well.

 Now saying that, when I look at the Tour de France, I see a race where a lot of riders/teams are cheating. It’s no secret it’s been a dirty race with lots of controversy, trying to clean up its image. Some are cheating better than others. The number of riders who have been caught is eye-opening. It’s the most drug-tested race there is, but it also has the most sophisticated dopers. I say this about a race I’ve enjoyed watching over the years, rooting for Armstrong.

So, in one sense, Armstrong doping is a little like the “Keeping up with the Joneses” saying. Everyone’s doing it, so to have a chance at winning, you have to join in, right? If a businessman has a loophole, he’s going to take advantage of it in an ultra-competitive environment. That’s my more-compassionate view of Armstrong on the situation.

My more cynical view is they had the best doctors, the best resources, had the best “beat-the-testing” system in place and won because they cheated more successfully than any of their competitors. It’s obviously wrong, and the debate “but he did so much good” doesn’t quite wash without leaving an uneasy feeling.

It’s like one of those ethical quiz books that tries to bend your brain on ethical choices with neither choice being perfect. If I robbed a bank and then gave it all to cancer research providing awareness, inspiration and much-needed funding, does that make it OK? Obviously not. There needs to be a better way. And there needed to be a better way in Armstrong’s case, too.

In other words, Armstrong inspired and raised money and awareness under false pretenses — and never could have raised as much without sophisticated cheating methods. The ends Armstrong provided, as valued and impressive as they are, shouldn’t justify the means. Otherwise, what kind of shady message does that send? Cheat all you want as long as you have a good charity? The argument doesn’t quite clear the mountain.

Understanding it

I actually can sympathize on some level with some of these “cheaters” once you get inside their heads. Surveys show the majority of Olympic athletes would give up a significant length of their lives if it would ensure a gold medal. They’ve trained and sacrificed their entire lives for it — they want to make that footprint on their existence. These elite athletes don’t think like the rest of us. They have a Spartan mentality to reach that pinnacle. When you throw in the fact that they are paranoid all of their competitors will get an unfair advantage, they push the limits.

These are driven competitors — they’re looking for any small advantage they can get.

It’s easy for the rest of us, who hit the snooze button and pull the covers up, to be judgmental about these Spartans.

It’s disappointing, another fallen hero

When we like the story, can we just once say, “Cut! That’s a wrap!” and leave the theater happy? Can we have one perfect inspiring fairy tale?

Can we have some inspiration in our lives without all of the negative follow-up? Without a career ending with a confession on Oprah? I guess we can’t.

When it’s all said and done, Armstrong did beat cancer. He did “inspire and empower” as the Livestrong Foundation’s mission stated. He did impact people. He did win the seven Tours, albeit, doping, just like many of his competitors. He had a good ride while it lasted. It’s a mixed bag indeed. The Livestrong Foundation lives on — others must pick up the pieces and carry its higher-cause mission forward. It’s more important than cycling.

But Lance isn’t alone in his fall from grace. In a future Part II, if space allows, I’ll examine other celebrities on top of the world, and try to make some sense of their dramatic falls from grace.

m.brindley@ottumwacourier.com

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