The higher you fly the more painful the fall and nobody has soared higher or crashed harder than Lance Armstrong, the no-longer All-American boy.
Certainly we’re not shocked anymore when we hear that another famous athlete has been caught cheating and using banned performance enhancers. But this was different and so much harder to believe, at least until the carefully documented list of Armstrong’s transgressions was released to the public. Even though he competed in a sport that has been dominated by drug-using cheaters, even though eyebrows should have been raised at his dramatic, almost miraculous, recovery from cancer – not just beating the disease, but coming right back to win another Tour de France – people believed in him and trusted him.
Why? Who knows? Maybe it was the way he defended himself so vociferously, but that doesn’t always carry a lot of weight. Barry Bonds and Roger Clemens and Mark McGwire also pleaded innocent and did so with passion, they also looked their accusers in the eye and denied everything, but we didn’t believe them then and we don’t believe them now.
Armstrong was different. When he solemnly said he was innocent, when he accused his accusers of being on a witch hunt, we believed him. Maybe those other guys did cheat – as well as another American, cyclist Floyd Landis, who was stripped of his 2006 Tour de France championship — but not Lance Armstrong. He was bigger than his sport and, really, sports in general. He turned an event that most Americans don’t care about or pay attention to, the Tour de France, and made it almost seem important. He was selected as Sports Illustrated’s Sportsman of the Year even though he didn’t compete in what is considered a mainstream sport in this country.
He wasn’t just a star – he was a superstar. And in a culture where that word is thrown around too much, it fit Lance Armstrong like a glove.
And now this — how the mighty have fallen. Sadly, there are people who enjoy his downfall simply because they like seeing a rich and famous celebrity get dragged down in the mud with the rest of us.
But for most people, it’s more than that. It wasn’t that Armstrong cheated and got caught. It was the way he defiantly denied everything. And that makes you wonder if Armstrong had sleepless nights about this – not necessarily because he knew he cheated, but because he knew there was a chance he could get caught. Unlike Clemens, who only had to refute the testimony of his former trainer, Armstrong was hit with a barrage of broadsides from former teammates who, under pressure, told investigators all sorts of nasty things about our boy Lance. Maybe Armstrong could have shrugged off one or two of his accusers, but not 11 of them. Their testimony was consistent and it was damning and there were no longer any question as to his guilt.
Of course, the real shame is that despite his cheating and conniving and lying, Lance Armstrong did a lot of good. He raised millions of dollars for cancer research and raised awareness of the disease because he was one of the most admired athletes on the planet. And the fact that he beat it also showed other cancer victims that they, too, could beat it.
But that means nothing now. All the good things he did, all made possible by his accomplishments and his fame, are pushed to the background. Fundraising for a noble cause will suffer. Innocent people have been hurt. And that includes the cycling enthusiasts who followed Armstrong’s career – some dating back to the 1990s when he was a rising star competing in the Tour duPont – and took pride in his championships and admired his successful fight against cancer and supported him through the early doping accusations.
Lance Armstrong let them all down. And the real problem isn’t that he sinned — are you ready to cast the first stone? The real problem is that he still hasn’t repented, he still hasn’t come out and said, “Yeah, I did it and I’m sorry that I hurt so many people who believed in me.”
Of course, even if Armstrong said that, you would have to wonder if he was sorry because he sinned or just because he got caught. Who can believe anything he says anymore? More to the point – why should we care anymore?
Contact Kevin Noonan at firstname.lastname@example.org