Champion Or Cheater … Or Both?

Andrew Sullivan —  Sep 6 2012 @ 12:18pm

The following thread discusses the legacy of cyclist Lance Armstrong in light of his decision to stop fighting the charges that he cheated throughout his career:

Fri Aug 24, 2012 – 3:01pm:


Lance Armstrong, though he maintains his innocence, has decided to cease contesting the doping charges filed against him by the US Anti-Doping Agency [NYT]:

Armstrong’s decision, according to the World Anti-Doping Code, means he will be stripped of his seven Tour titles, the bronze medal he won at the 2000 Olympics and all other titles, awards and money he won from August 1998 forward. It also means he will be barred for life from competing, coaching or having any official role with any Olympic sport or other sport that follows the World Anti-Doping Code. … Although it is possible that the International Cycling Union, the world’s governing body for cycling, will appeal his suspension to the Court of Arbitration for Sport because it had battled over jurisdiction over this case, Armstrong’s choice to accept his sanction tarnishes the athletic achievements of an athlete who inspired millions with his story of cancer survival.

Darren Rovell believes that the moral verdict on Armstrong is “more complex than any athlete we’ve ever had to judge”:

Sure, we came to know him as the guy who nobody could beat on a bicycle, but his legacy has to be the lives he improved, the lives he saved. We often use statistics to ask ourselves if a maligned athlete, particularly one who was found to have used performance-enhancing drugs, should deserve the praise we give them. But judging Lance Armstrong by any other statistic than that he has raised almost $500 million for the fight against cancer in the past 15 years just seems small. And even that doesn’t strike at the heart of what Armstrong did. While so many athletes love to show up at hospitals when the news cameras come along, Armstrong gave some pretty incredible one-on-one time to so many sick people. When he couldn’t do it in person, he recorded a video and sent it in an email, even if he heard that someone had hours to live.

(Photo: Lance Armstrong of the US prepares to take part in the 51 km Cancer Council Classic cycling race, part of the 2011 Tour Down Under, in Adelaide on January 16, 2011. By Mark Gunter/AFP/Getty Images)

Mon Aug 27, 2012 – 8:45am:

A reader writes:

In response to the claim that Lance’s contributions come from his work on cancer … well, not so much? Outside ran a pretty damning article about how Livestrong spends its money: 

The foundation gave out a total of $20 million in research grants between 1998 and 2005, the Livestrongyear it began phasing out its support of hard science. A note on the foundation’s website informs visitors that, as of 2010, it no longer even accepts research proposals. [In 2001], Livestrong had four staffers and a budget of about $7 million. Now it has a staff of 88, and it took in $48 million in 2010.

$20 million for research doesn’t seem like much. While I appreciate donating facetime to cancer survivors and victims, some research support would be nice.

Another writes:

Just a personal anecdote about Armstrong from someone who never met him but was inspired. In October of 1996, at the age of 28, I began my first round of chemotherapy for Hodgkins Lymphoma.

Cancer is a pretty lonely disease, and you kind of grasp at those with good news regarding surviving cancer and definitely notice those who have bad news. The same week I began my treatments, Armstrong’s case was in the NY Times and it caught my eye. After all, he was 28 and I was 25. I recall that his situation was much worse than mine was (my odds were 85% and his were 40%). He also said he would refuse to take drugs that would increase his odds of survival if they impacted his ability to race. At that point the insipration was not that he survived cancer … but that he was willing to die for the sport he loved.

Three years later my cancer relapsed. It was 1999 and Lance was in the midst of his first Tour de France victory. I can recall watching his final stage with my mom and just thinking that what he was doing is what anyone who has cancer wants: a chance to have life not only return to normalcy but to be better than it was before. It was beyond beautiful to watch him riding through Paris.

It wasn’t until early 2000 that I had my stem cell transplant. Armstrong was just beginning to become a legend. The bracelets were still to come. But I knew his story and I carried it with me through my treatments. And for that I am thankful.

Update from another:

I strongly disagreed with the Outside article when it came out and definitely disagree with the claim that it is “damning.” I understand that the author of the article was upset, but you should really understand what charities do before you donate to them. The National Cancer Institute’s budget is over $5 billion, Livestrong raised $42.3 million in 2010. Far from being “nice,” the amount of money the Lance Armstrong Foundation can give to cancer research is way past the rounding error in the national cancer research budget and the $20 million in research that LAF funded over seven years probably had no discernible effect. The LAF Board was completely justified in focusing on the things they do well – things that no one or almost no one else is doing – and they were completely clear about it.

Another is more specific:

Livestrong is not and has never claimed to be an organization that solely raises money for cancer research (an obviously important cause). It exists to improve the quality of life of people battling cancer – which, until there’s a cure, is equally crucial.

Mon Aug 27, 2012 – 4:00pm:

Buzz Bissinger mounts a vigorous defense of the cyclist:

I still believe in Lance Armstrong. I believe his decision had nothing to do with fear of being found guilty in a public setting before an arbitration panel, but the emotional and mental toll of years and years of fighting charges that have never been officially substantiated—despite stemming all the way back to 1999. “I am more at ease and at peace than I have been in 10 years,” he told me in an exclusive phone interview with Newsweek.

Michael Specter, a former fan who wrote “my lengthy and adulatory Profile of Armstrong,” feels betrayed:

He said he was tired of the fight. Tired? Really? Armstrong made it clear on several occasions he would fight to the death. (My favorite Lance quote about pain, clearly applicable to the accusations, is, “Pain is temporary. It may last a minute, or an hour, or a day, or a year, but eventually it will subside and something else will take its place. If I quit, however, it lasts forever.”) Yes, quitting lasts forever. And he did not even have the decency to admit his guilt.

A silver lining to Armstrong’s decision to quit the fight, via Buzz:

[B]etween Friday and the day before, the number of donors was up tenfold, the amount given up twenty-five-fold, and the amount of merchandise sold up two-and-a-half-fold.

Tue Aug 28, 2012 – 7:35am:

More thoughts from readers on the Armstrong controversy:

I was in Paris in 2000 and 2004 and was on the Champs Elysees both times to watch the peloton come home on the final stage and see Lance win the Tour. (Hearing the Star Spangled Banner waft up the Champs was one of the cooler moments in my life.) I thoroughly enjoyed watching Lance all those years, particularly the crazy-filled 2003 Tour. I firmly believe Lance doped through all of those Tours. I also firmly believe that most of the people he beat were doping. And I just don’t care.

That was the culture of cycling (and to some extent still is). But after all these years what still stands out is that Lance Armstrong was a bad-ass cyclist. For me, that’s enough. I get why he continues to deny, but in my opinion that just shows the perils of building a too-good-to-be-true persona.

Another writes:

I’ve no idea if Lance Armstrong cheated, but it’s very obvious that there is an out-of-control witch hunt culture at work when it comes to doping and drugs amongst athletes.

Whether it’s snowboarders getting kicked out of the Olympics for smoking pot or baseball players getting dragged before Congress and charged with purjury, this is what happens when a myth of purity meets men with too much power.

We’ll look back at the battle over PEDs in sports some day and laugh, since pretty much every aspect of human performance will soon be modified by our expotentially growing understanding of biochemistry. We already use our increased scientific knowledge of the body to make old records tumble. Whether you improve on the past through a strictly manipulated diet, scientifically programmed exercise routines, shoes designed by physics PhDs, or through ingesting a tablet, it will become a line so blurred as to be meaningless.

Right now we are in a moment of bio-chemical counter-enlightenment; the backlash that comes when new knowledge pours onto the scene. Armstrong might be the Giodano Bruno of biochemistry, or he might be a totally innocent man caught in an hysterical culture. Whether or not he swallowed a pill, he’s still getting sent to the stake, and we’ll still shake our heads some day.

Continued conversation at our Facebook page.

Thu Sep 6, 2012 – 6:17pm:

Definitely a cheater, according to the new book by one of Armstrong’s teammates, Tyler Hamilton, who collaborated with nine other teammates. Christopher Keyes is convinced:

The Secret Race isn’t just a game changer for the Lance Armstrong myth. It’s the game ender. No one can read this book with an open mind and still credibly believe that Armstrong didn’t dope. It’s impossible.

And it’s not just an expose of Armstrong but of an entire era of cycling:

[He] was not just another cyclist caught in the middle of an established drug culture—he was a pioneer pushing into uncharted territory.

In this sense, the book destroys another myth: that everyone was doing it, so Armstrong was, in a weird way, just competing on a level playing field. There was no level playing field. With his connections to Michele Ferrari, the best dishonest doctor in the business, Armstrong was always “two years ahead of what everybody else was doing,” Hamilton writes. Even on the Postal squad there was a pecking order. Armstrong got the superior treatments.

Henry Blodget is compelled by Hamilton’s story:

In 2000, Hamilton says, he and Armstrong and a third U.S. Postal rider named Kevin Livingston flew to Spain to have blood drawn before the race. This blood was later delivered to the riders’ hotel rooms during the Tour and infused back into them before the crucial (and grueling) 11th Stage. In this case, Hamilton says, Armstrong was next to him when he got the transfusion. As to the risk of getting caught–and all those drug tests that Armstrong cites to prove his innocence–Hamilton has this to say:

“The tests are easy to beat. We’re way, way ahead of the tests. They’ve got their doctors and we’ve got ours, and ours are better. Better paid, for sure.”

Along with Floyd Landis, another former Armstrong teammate, Hamilton was later busted for doping, stripped of victories, and given a suspension. So the dwindling number of people who still believe that Armstrong raced cleaned will likely dismiss Hamilton’s book with the same obstinate explanation with which all evidence against Armstrong has been dismissed–as a vendetta launched by a proven liar. But given the amount of evidence that has been produced against Armstrong in recent years, it’s no surprise that the US Anti-Doping Agency decided to go after him aggressively.