The sad endgame of Lance Armstrong


I wanted to believe.
As a bicyclist, I considered Lance Armstrong
one of my personal heroes. He was right up there with Stan Musial of the St. Louis Cardinals, whom I revered as a kid.
I knew that throughout his celebrated career as a professional bicycle racer, Armstrong was dogged by allegations of doping.
Sour grapes, I figured, particularly when the French were doing the finger pointing. A Frenchman, after all, hadn’t won the Tour de France, bicycling’s premier event, since Bernard Hinault won his fifth Tour in 1985.

Lance Armstrong indicating his record seventh victory in the Tour de France in 2005

It was just beyond comprehension for some, I thought, that Armstrong, who nearly died in 1996 of testicular cancer, could go on to win the 1999 Tour de France, arguable the world’s most grueling sporting event, without the help of a needle. And then he did it six more times, the last time in 2005.
Winning the Tour de France seven consecutive years ranked as a sporting feat as difficult to match as Joe DiMaggio’s 56-game hitting streak for the New York Yankees in that magical pre-war season of 1941 or swimmer Michael Phelps’ total of 22 medals — 18 of them gold — in the summer Olympics in 2008 in Beijing and this year in London.
Armstrong, I reasoned, was a wondrous freak of nature, blessed with a body and psyche designed for bicycle racing — a wiry build, a prodigious lung capacity, a resting heart rate of 32 to 34 beats per minute, a remarkably high tolerance for pain, a ruthless competitive spirit and an indomitable will.
His successful struggle with cancer and his recovery, recounted in his 2000 autobiographic book It’s Not About the Bike: My Journey Back to Life, allowed him to rebuild his ravaged body into an unbeatable racing machine.
During my time on the editorial board at the Fort Worth Star-Telegram, before retiring in 2008, I wrote a total of nine editorials around Tour de France time praising the feats of this remarkable Texas athlete and wishing him well in an international competition that had long been dominated by Europeans.
Every year, Armstrong’s quest to win the Tour de France became almost a fixture of the summer, like ballgames and barbecues, scorching heat and fireworks on the Fourth. And it was very pleasing to see American and Texas flags waved by crowds in the French countryside along the route of Le Tour.
It was an annual story that transcended sports and tugged at the emotions of us all. Even Americans who had only a passing interest in bicycle racing could root for a guy who came back from a devastating affliction to achieve dominance in one of the world’s toughest athletic endeavors. Every person who was ever stricken with cancer or had a loved one with the disease could fix on Armstrong as a symbol of hope.
My feelings about Armstrong became ambivalent a couple years ago when the U.S. Food and Drug Administration began looking into doping among professional cyclists in the wake of allegations by former Armstrong teammate Floyd Landis. Landis, who was stripped of his 2006 Tour de France victory after a positive drug test, accused Armstrong of doping and blood transfusions.
But Landis had already been proven to be a liar. Why believe what he had to say about Armstrong?
Then along came a story in the Jan. 24, 2011, issue of Sports Illustrated that convincingly outlined the case against Armstrong, fueling speculation that federal indictments could be handed down at any time. But in February of this year, federal prosecutors dropped their investigation without charges.
Armstrong’s “vindication” was short-lived. The U.S. Anti-Doping Agency took up the case and in June began legal proceedings against Armstrong. After bitter legal wrangling between the cyclist and the USADA, Armstrong threw in the towel on Thursday night, saying in a statement that he’s “finished with this nonsense,” but insisting that he’s innocent.
The USADA plans to impose a lifetime ban on Armstrong participating in any sports that abide by the code of the World Anti-Doping Agency and strip him of all his cycling victories from Aug. 1, 1998, including his seven Tour de France wins.
So this is the sad end of the career of Lance Armstrong.
Is he one of the most remarkable athletes who ever lived — one who first defeated testicular cancer that had spread to his brain and lungs and then went on to own perhaps the world’s most grueling sporting event for seven straight years? Or is he a fraud whose extraordinary powers were enhanced by some substance injected by a needle?
Some see his statement as an admission of guilt. Others argue that Armstrong was the subject of a witch hunt, that all professional cyclists use performance-enhancing drugs and that he was still the best among his peers. As one cycling friend put it on Facebook: Doping or not, Armstrong is still one badass dude on a bicycle.
As for me? I wonder if I was too naive in believing in Armstrong when I wrote those editorials for the Star-Telegram. I wonder if I should have exercised more skepticism, part of the unwritten creed of journalism.
I guess I wanted to believe. But I can’t anymore.

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10 Comments

Filed under Americana, Texana

10 responses to “The sad endgame of Lance Armstrong

  1. Doohickie

    I don’t follow bicycle racing. I’m mildly irked that he was the face of cycling in the U.S., even before any controversy. I, for one, am ready to move on past the era where “Lance” has become a generally derogatory term for cyclists.

  2. Erik Hansen

    I choose to believe that Lance Armstrong’s guilt is neirher proven nor disproven. I heard this AM on NPR that the USADA record is 58-2 in favor of finding athletes guilty of doping offences. I wouldn’t take my case (whatever it might be) to a forum with such a formidable record.
    I find it hard to belive that of all the dopers out there Lance was the only one able to beat the system. Not a single positve out of 500-600 tests according to CNN.com. If such a perfect “doping test beating” protocol existed, wouldn’t more athletes have taken advantage of it?
    I am not ready to give up on Lance Armstrong. But I’m not sure if it’s because I’m naïve or because he’s being unfairly persecuted.

  3. Jan

    Read ‘Racing through the dark’ by Robert Millar, and you know what’s going on in professional cycling. Robert is a professional cyclist, and was banned a few years ago because he used EPO.
    As a cyclist it is difficult to accept the thruth, but I think that’s what it is.
    I used to think that there were a few riders in the pack that did’nt use EPO etc., but now I realise that there are a few that did’nt use. And Armstrong sure was’nt one of them.
    Jan Landman,
    the Netherlands.

  4. mark

    Seven Tour de France victories, competing against other riders known to have doped, prove that it isn’t Lance’s ability on trial but his honesty. If he did dope, he could make a second fortune selling the undetectable “Live strong Cocktail” to every performance athlete in the world. He could provide expensive seminars on how to game the system. In short, if USADA is that convinced of his guilt they should hire him, because nobody has done it better.

  5. S. L.

    Controversies aside, what he accomplished is still incredible; surviving cancer, winning 7 tours in a row & building a foundation to aid those with cancer. I only hope that people can see beyond the media and continue to aid in the Livestrong organization.

  6. The fact that LA was able to endour so much with the cancer, training and the extraordinary feats in the mountains of France, makes me question the “witch hunt” theory. Would it not be the ulimate put down if he fought this issue and WON! My guess is he would not have been able to pull off another miracle and threw in the towel

  7. Kim

    Guilty or not, I’m still a Lance fan. He got a lot of Americans off of the couch and onto a bike.

  8. John Vandevelde

    I am a bike rider, a Lance fan, a trial lawyer and a cancer survivor. I have spent my professional life defending people being attacked. I understand better than most how few people have the resources and the strength to fight, even when the truth may be on their side. Moreover, the USADA and the international cycling body run what seems to be a kangaroo court system. Lance would have spent years and millions and likely would have lost no matter what the truth may be. So I understand why Lance essentially decided to ignore these stale allegations and get on with his life.
    At the same time, I am left terribly conflicted. For sure I can continue to admire Lance because even though he did not have to lift a finger to help others fight cancer, Lance has done more to fight that disease than any athlete or celebrity. And I can rationalize that Lance remains the greatest Le Tour rider ever and it doesn’t matter whether or not he used undetected drugs or other enhancements, because his competition was doing the same and he beat them year after year. But I can’t abide by the notion that he lied to all of us who were so in awe of what he accomplished.
    I want to know the truth and I know what I want that truth to be. I feel like the little kid saying to Shoeless Joe Jackson, “It ain’t so, is it Joe.”
    The problem is, I have already heard Lance’s answer–it is the opposite of Shoeless Joe’s sad admission, but it doesn’t convince me.
    –John

  9. We cycling fans have been let down so often, by so many dopers. I cheered LA on to each of his TdF victories. At the time I believed he rode clean: now I am not so sure. Reading Robert Millar’s, “Racing Through the Dark” was such an eye opener into just how endemic doping was over those years. But there is a difference between being found guilty under evidence and through due process and being pronounced guilty on the technicality that you refuse to refute accusations. I also fail to see how the USADA can strip him of his tour wins. Are they theirs to strip?

    I was happy to park LA in the long grass and apply the uniquely Scottish verdict of, “not proven”, therefore. Then we had the glories of this summer and Bradley Wiggins in the TdF and Olympics – and a real hope we were in an era of clean riders winning clean. Only to have to watch Contador win in Spain in a ride so reminiscent of Floyd Landis’s TdF winning day it hurt. It seems the willing suspension of disbelief continues to be a prerequisite for being a cycle fan.

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