Armstrong’s fall from grace

The world lost a great hero recently. He scaled new boundaries and did things nobody had previously thought possible.  In doing so he inspired millions and won over a loyal following through his historic feats. His name was Armstrong, and no, this one didn’t walk on the moon.

I’m talking of course of the cyclist Lance Armstrong , who, as is now common knowledge, is accused of having won a record 7 Tour De France titles while using the performance enhancing drug EPO.  On Friday the US Anti-Doping Authority produced a 1000 page dossier of evidence detailing how Armstrong was involved in what it called “the biggest doping conspiracy in sports history”. Unlike the famous Astronaut of the same name, Lance Armstrong may be still alive, but his reputation is stone dead.

As damning as the USADA report is, (and the ABC’s Four Corners aired further allegations last night) the arguably more damaging development occurred back in August when Armstrong decided against fighting the doping charges, stating on his website that the charges brought against in him by the USADA were nonsense and that its head, Travis Tygart, was biased against him. On top of this, Armstrong argued that the time and effort required to fight the charges would distract from his work with his various charities. Not only is the ‘they’re out to get me’,  excuse Armstrong used only slightly more convincing than that old chestnut, ‘the dog ate my homework’, it ran completely  at odds with the  character he showed as a cyclist and as human being, which made him not just a champion cyclist, but a global hero with an almost cult like following.

As the legend goes, Armstrong not only won a record seven consecutive Tour de France titles from 1999 to 2006, but did so having climbed off his deathbed, following a life threatening battle with testicular cancer. His heroic achievements inspired millions and helped broaden the Tour de France’ and cycling’s euro centric base into the U.S and across the world.  And why not, this was truly an extraordinary story. That a man could survive cancer and return to professional cycling at all, showed Armstrong to be a man of great courage. To then become arguably the greatest ever, winning the world’s toughest sporting event 7 years in succession elevated him to the pantheon of the sporting gods. However when it came to fighting allegations of cheating and protecting his reputation, this same legendary competitor chose to simply throw in the towel.

Sure cycling, and many other professional sports, are rife with drug cheats, and now Armstrong, no doubt,  join the plethora of other high achieving athletes whose performances have since proven to be a fraud. But to simply toss Armstrong in with this lot would be to misunderstand his impact and appeal as an athlete and role model.  Armstrong is not Ben Johnson or Marion Jones whose Olympic triumphs on the track have since been erased from the record books. Nor, is he Barry Bonds, Sammy Sosa or Mark McGwire, whose record breaking efforts in Major League Baseball are now shrouded in a steroid infused mystery. And he is a world away from the myriad Soviet; East German or Chinese athletes whose performances have been soiled by revelations of state sponsored doping regimes.

Where these athletes beguiled followers with brilliant performance draped in national or team colours, Armstrong added the cache of an inspiring story. Following Lance Armstrong was more than following a sporting hero, it was a lifestyle choice. If you followed Lance, you too could buy into the inspiration that brought this one man from the ravages of chemotherapy to repeatedly top the podium on the Champs Elysees. You too could defy insurmountable odds and do the previously unthinkable, whether it was conquering serious illness or fitting into lycra bike shorts.

Lance Armstrong was Tony Robbins on wheels.

You only had to observe social media following the recent revelations about Armstrong’s drug taking to get a sense of this. My Facebook feed was flooded with people, not necessarily cycling devotees, providing homilies of Armstrong’s influence on their lives. Some expressed disbelief that their hero could be a cheat. Some completely dismissed the charges out of hand, agreeing with Armstrong that he was the victim of a vindictive witch hunt, pointing out that he’d passed over 500 drug tests. Others seemed sadly resigned to the fact that the man who’d inspired them had also deceived them. All responses indicated the almost messianic fervour the man was held in by those who did support him and those who remain.

This brings us to the other aspect of the Armstrong case that separates him from legions of other drug cheats. The man inspired a cult like following, not just for his gut busting bursts up the French Alps or his survival from cancer. He did so for his efforts to help others to survive cancer also, most prominently through his Livestrong foundation. Since its inception in 1997 Livestrong claims to have raised $US 470 million for the ‘fight against cancer’, though exactly how it does this and who it really benefits have come under scrutiny. It is inextricably linked with Armstrong who is clad in the foundations black and yellow livery whenever seen on a bike and as result many of the weekend warriors that Armstrong has inspired to get on two wheels, can also be seen sporting the Livestrong brand. It’s been a mutually beneficial relationship. Livestrong has basked in the reflective glow of Armstrong’s seven Tour De France triumphs and reaped a massive windfall through donations. Armstrong has been able to show that he’s not your garden variety sporting superstar who indulged in fast cars and fast women away from competition. Livestrong allowed him to be cast as a sportsman with a social conscience and someone willing to use his success to help others. It has become an intrinsic part of the Armstrong story.

Others view Livestrong in a less charitable light. Some including, former World Anti-Doping Authority head, Dick Pound, contend that  Livestrong has been used to camouflage Armstrong’s drug use and ward off the authorities. Shocking allegations, to be sure, but given the extraordinary nature of this saga, it seems almost mundane.

Comments

  1. Cheryl Critchley says:

    Great story. Sorry to by cynical but I get really annoyed with people ringing talkback radio saying the means justifies the end when it comes to Livestrong. There are so many other people out there doing great things for charity and cancer without basing their work what increasingly looks like a lie. And setting up such a charity is the perfect way to make yourself look like a hero and make people more reluctant to accept that you could actually have done something bad. That is what makes this whole story so sad and infuriating at the same time. For someone to build everyone up like that based on what is almost certainly a false premise is unforgivable. If Armstrong is guilty he should return all his prize money and those who gave to the charity in good faith would be justified in asking for it to be returned. This may mean a temporary loss of money to the fight against cancer, but good people out there would make it up. If nothing happens, how are we ever going to teach our children right from wrong? And if Armstrong is innocent, how good must he have been to beat all those other drug cheats not once, but SEVEN times?

  2. Dave Nadel says:

    I recently read Jim Stynes new book “My Journey.” It is clear that Jimmy regarded Lance Armstrong as an inspiration as a sportsman who overcame cancer and did selfless charity work. In his book Jim makes it clear that he got hope from conversations and letters from Armstrong. What a betrayal the true story of Armstrong and his charity involves.

    Jim Stynes is no longer in a position to be hurt by Armstrong’s betrayal, but there must be other cancer sufferers for whom the Armstrong revelations will be devastating. Jim Stynes remains one of footy’s genuine heros and inspirations. Lance Armstrong has become one of the major dissappointments of professional sport.

  3. Mark Doyle says:

    This drugs in sport issue with the Lance Armstrong U.S.A.D.A. report has become an illinformed, irrational and hysterical discussion that has liitle understanding and appreciation of the history, culture, morality and ethics of elite level professional sport; most of the illinformed, irrational and hysterical responses have been from media buffoons who arrogantly take ‘the moral high ground’ and nanny state do-gooders who work for organisations such as W.A.D.A., A.S.A.D.A. and U.S.A.D.A. who strive to impose their morality and ethics on society.
    My understanding of Lance Armstrong’s cycling career is that he ‘pushed the boundaries’ without breaking any rules. I also think that his battles with testicular cancer in the 1990’s are irrelevant with respect to his cycling career, but he probably gained a great deal of knowledge about his physiology, medical science and various drugs whilst recovering from cancer which assisted his return to professional road cycling. With respect to his recovery from testicular cancer, he said it was nothing more than good luck rather than medical science and drugs.
    As a cycling fan I was often curious about Armstrong’s offical racing program and wondered why he competed in very few races and spent most of the season from March to June training either alone or with his team; he generally only competed in either the Tour of Switzerland or the Dauphine race in Switzerland prior to the Tour de France (TDF). I suspect he used EPO, testosterone and his own blood transfusions during training and preparation for the TDF, but was under strict medical supervision from blokes such as the Italian doctor Dr. Michele Ferrari and care was taken that he did not exceed the W.A.D.A. limits of oxygen in his blood. In my opinion this was good management and he did not break any rules by testing positive in competition.
    People need to also understand the history of professional road cycling and the grand tour races in France, Spain and Italy which are the toughest endurance sports and very few blokes can survive without drug assistance; the most dangerous practice was in the early 20th century when cyclists were using a mixture of strycline and coffee.
    The other issue concerning drugs is the prohibition issue. The nanny state do-gooders always want prohibit drugs such as alcohol, recreational drugs and drugs in sport and there is inevitably a black market for these drugs: look at the history of the temperance society in the early 20th century, the Al Capone era in America in the late 1920’s and the contemporary recreational drug industry for both sport and entertainment.
    I also believe that during the period from 1995 to 2005, most of the European cycling teams were using EPO and infusing blood with oxygen and consequently Lance Armstrong did not have any advantage over other riders. I have also not seen any evidence that these practices have resulted in any detrimental health outcomes for riders; most of these riders probably only suffer physical injuries and arthritis from crashes to legs, shoulders etc.
    I also think it unfair that people criticise Armstrong for his Livestrong charity work – he did have a life threatening testicular cancer disease and would have a strong empathy for cancer sufferers. It is disappointing that blokes such as Dave Nadel who pretend to be historians (I wonder if he got his history degree out of a weeties packet) but have very little understanding and empathy for cancer sufferes and are patronising to people who have suffered cancer such as Lance Armstrong and Jim Stynes.

  4. Dave Nadel says:

    I would hardly think that my comments about Stynes were patronising, Mark. I suspect that I do have some empathy for cancer sufferers, having first had tumours removed from my bladder in 1992. However the point about Armstrong and testicular cancer is that an excess of testosterone has been suggested as a contributing factor for testicular cancer and testosterone was one of the drugs that Armstrong took. Testicular cancer (like my bladder cancer) is only life threatening if it is not treated early enough. I have two friends who contracted testicular cancer in the 70s and 80s respectively and are both hale and hearty thirty years later.

    I do know my history Mark and I am aware that cycling has been riddled with performance enhancing drugs since the 19th century when riders used a mixture of cocaine and caffeine (which were also part of the original ingredients in Coca Cola) – Eddy Merckx, the most successful Tour de France rider before Armstrong famously said “You don’t win the Tour de France by eating sandwiches and drinking mineral water”

    Apart from questions of fairness the point is that people die from abuse of performance enhancing drugs. Danish cyclist Knut Jensen died during 1960 Olympics from heat stroke and cardiac arrest caused by amphetamine use. Tommy Simpson, who died during the 1967 Tour de France, was revealed by a post mortem to have amphetamine and methylamphetamine in his blood. Close to twenty cyclists died from complications caused by EPO (Erythropoietin) between 1987 and 1990 – more than the total number of athletes killed by steroids in fifty years.

    Apart from the fact that legalising performance enhancing drugs turns the competition from one between athletes to one between chemists, performance enhancing drugs are life threatening. If the cycling tours are so tough that they cannot be competed in without drugs then maybe they need to be reformatted. Formula One racing slowed the cars down when they became too dangerous and the sport lost nothing from the changes.

  5. Mark,
    Clearly you are an expert in everything. Get on Crio’s Racing and tip us some winners!
    PS: Glad to see the “media buffoons” get another run. It’s one of your trademarks.

  6. Pamela Sherpa says:

    Mark and Dave , you’ve both highlighted some very interesting points in this drugs debate. Above all, I find the Lance Armstrong story a fascinating human interest story. I agree with you Mark about people taking the moral high ground . The biggest scandal to me is the ease with which athletes were able and are able to take drugs and remain “a step of ahead ‘ of testers. If the drug testing bodies are so inept and inneficient why is money being wasted funding them? Why have athletes been able to so easily cheat? Because they can.
    The biggest irony in all this is that drugs are viewed as life saving substances for cancer patients but become prohibited poison when used to enhance sporting performance.

  7. Andrew Fithall says:

    Very good article. Thank-you. One quote from it: “Armstrong argued that the time and effort required to fight the charges would distract from his work with his various charities.” Now that he has resigned his chairmanship from Livestrong, he has the time to fight the charges. But he won’t. And with all the sponsors now dropping him (Nike; Trek), he may need that time to go and find a job.

    And MD – Dave Nadel didn’t get his history “degree” (we know it is higher than that Dave) from a Weeties packet – he got it from the internet. You need to move with the times.

  8. Peter Flynn says:

    Lance, you’ve perjured yourself.

    You’re going to jail.

    Yes there’s the moral high ground.

    And then there’s the law.

  9. When i was run over in 2002, my uncle Peter brought me in a copy of Lance Armstrongs autobiography, which helped motivate me during my 10 week period in rehabilitation, as i recovered from my injuries. In now way could you ever criticise his recovery from testicular cancer, to achiave the level of being an elite sportsman. The next step, winning 7 Tour De Frances, is forever tainted.

    Glen!

  10. Here’s the part of the above link I was hoping would be more prominent:

    On his Daily Show segment Back in Black, the comedian broke the situation down for all starting with Armstrong’s refusal to fight the charges due to “time, attention and energy,” also citing “they suck the life out of you.”

    “That sucks the life out of you?” Black shouted.

    “You win a 2,000 mile bike race seven years in a row, and going to court once a month is too much work? I don’t care that Lance Armstrong was doping. I care that he won’t admit it,” Black charged.

    “I mean look what doping did for him. This is a guy who had cancer in his lungs, his brain, his testicles, he went through chemo, and lost one of his balls for Christ’s sake and he’s getting double the oxygen out of every breath.

    The question shouldn’t be, ‘Was he doping?’ The question should be, ‘Why aren’t all of us doping?’”

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