Since he’s one of the executives on my Board of Heroes, I can’t really not make mention of the news in this week’s update.
Lance Armstrong (*cheers* or *jeers* depending on which camp you find yourself in). Intensely popular and unpopular all at once. I’ll put it right up here at the front: I AM A LANCE LOVER. Like I said before, he’s on my personal board of heroes, and his story is a source of huge inspiration to me. If you don’t know his background (Mum), you can read about him here, here, or maybe get a copy of his book (for when you’ve finished reading Chrissie Wellington’s book Mum).
We all know the news: the U.S Anti-Doping Agency is pursuing the ongoing investigation against Lance Armstrong and several team managers and doctors, with a fresh case opened, despite the federal U.S. Attorney’s Office dropping their investigation earlier this year.
The immediate impact of the new case is that Armstrong is now unable to take part in any Ironman events due the World Triathlon Corporation (WTC) rules that “dictate an athlete is ineligible to compete during an open investigation”. For those of you who haven’t been following his career resurgence as closely as I, Armstrong has this year taken up triathlons again (after originally starting out in triathlons as a teenager before becoming a professional cyclist). But not only has he started competing this year, aged 40, he has also taken Ironman 70.3 (half Ironman distance) by storm, finishing 2nd in Ironman 70.3 Panama in his debut, 7th in Texas, 3rd in St. Croix, and back to back wins in Florida and Hawaii. The triathlon world is now left with a huge unanswered question: could Lance Armstrong have qualified and gone on to win the World Championship at Ironman Kona?
Love him or hate him, most people that I’ve quizzed (three people), along with the internet (always right), seem to come to the same conclusion: he should be allowed to race until any charges against him are proven. Innocent until proven guilty and all that jazz. And reading through comments and tweets from professional triathletes, many of them seem genuinely disappointed that they are not going to have the chance to race against a sporting legend, who, up until a few days ago, looked as though his star was on the rise yet again.
But – and it’s a big but – there is a conundrum when it comes to Lance: what happens if the U.S.A.D.A. allegations prove him guilty?
Now, I’m not stupid. Lance Armstrong is one of my heroes. But I’m not blind to the circumstances either (in the words of my very wise friend Jo, “where there’s smoke, there’s fire”). The U.S.A.D.A. outlined their grounds for the investigation in an open letter to the accused parties here. It’s pretty comprehensive, but it’s nothing new if you’ve been following cycling for a while. Doping within the sport is rumoured to be widespread – commonplace even, according to some sources. So perhaps this is why Armstrong is such a conundrum.
If doping in cycling is so widespread, will tumbling Armstrong from his heroic pedestal make a difference to the ‘quest for clean sport’? Or will it in fact rob people of a figure of hope and belief, of survival against the worst odds, and of victory in the face of seemingly imminent defeat?
Because that’s what Lance Armstrong is, let’s be honest. He is bigger than any one sport – yes, his recent success in triathlon shows that he is, literally, bigger than any one sport – but he is a brand of humanity. Cancer is the biggest cause of premature death in the world, and it hits us all like a truck, whether personally or through our loved ones, at some point in our lives. Quite regularly, several times. In the face of a potentially devastating prognosis, Armstrong was lucky enough to survive. Not only did he survive, but he flourished. He flourished, and he conquered. And up until a few days ago, he was continuing to conquer.
This is the fairytale that we want. This is the fairytale that we need.
Every single one of us, when we inevitably face this ruthless human enemy (if we haven’t already), will get through cancer’s journey purely on hope. After all of the medicine, the drugs, the doctors, the nurses, the surgery and the hospitals, all that we have to help us believe that it will all be ok in the end, is hope.
Sometimes, often, it’s not ok in the end.
But if there wasn’t that slim chance, that one-in-a-million – a Lance Armstrong – I think the journey would be much harder to make.
Since surviving cancer, Lance Armstrong has become the hero of Survivorship. For the past 15 years, his foundation LIVESTRONG has raised over $400 million for the fight against cancer. He has leveraged his success and fame to wage war on cancer, inspiring millions around the world to do the same (remember those yellow wristbands? By 2010 over 80 million had been sold worldwide at the cost of $1, not only sparking the wristband-charity-supporting phenomena that we still see today thanks to Wieden+Kennedy and Nike’s creative input, but also raising funds, and at the same time as giving people a way to visually label themselves as saying a big f*ck off to cancer).
I suppose that what I’m saying is, through his story and the brand that he has become, Lance Armstrong represents more than just sport. And yes, yes, yes – he most certainly has his haters; he is described as arrogant, selfish, single-minded, ambitious and driven – but a lot of extremely successful athletes are (not all of them, obviously). To be honest, I don’t really care if he is the most awful person in the world to sit through dinner with – I’m unlikely to ever get the opportunity (although, if you’re reading this Mr. Armstrong, I would simply love to) – I still owe many of my personal achievements to the fact that his story inspired and motivated me to achieve. And I’m sure many of the lucky ones out there would dedicate their survival to his support, the support from his charity, or his inspirational story.
The point I’m trying to make is, I think, that the good he puts into the world way outweighs the bad. When the federal case was closed in February, they never gave an official reason. But rumour has it that they looked at his incredible track record in giving hope to people suffering through cancer and their families, and made the discreet decision to let it drop.
And to be quite frank, the way that he is the only rider being stalked by the U.S.A.D.A. despite a plethora of other riders reported to have been involved (feel free to correct me if I’m wrong, but they seem to have been offered ‘immunity’, as if it were some kind of Masterchef challenge, in return for speaking out against Armstrong: “we saw him do it” “Armstrong offered us drugs” etc), is not doing much to sway public support away from him. If anything, the U.S.A.D.A. are starting to look like some ridiculous pantomime villain in their pursuit of our hero, instead of the advocates of clean sport that they should be (which is what we all want). Their witch hunt of Armstrong has become bigger than the cause they are fighting for. And I genuinely believe that we need him as our hero.
Obviously, I believe that illegal performance enhancing substances in sport are bad.
But will making Armstrong a scapegoat for something reportedly this widespread, be worth the inevitable shattering of LIVESTRONG, should he be considered guilty?
It’s a conundrum. But I would love to hear your comments below….